MANILA, Philippines – Hundreds of thousands of people filled Manila's main park and surrounding areas for Pope Francis' final events in the Philippines on Sunday, braving a steady rain to hear the pontiff's message of hope and consolation for the Southeast Asian country's most downtrodden and destitute.
Organizers expect as many as 6 million people at his final afternoon Mass, surpassing the 5 million record set by St. John Paul II at the same Rizal Park in 1995. With a few hours to go, about 45,000 people had already filled the main quadrants in front of the altar and more were streaming in at a regular clip, and another 15,000 waited for Francis outside the Vatican embassy, police said.
Francis drew an estimated 200,000 people earlier Sunday when he addressed young people at Manila's Catholic university, coming close to tears himself when he heard two rescued street children speak of their lives growing up poor and abandoned.
Francis has dedicated his four-day trip to the Philippines to the poor. He has denounced the corruption that has robbed them of a dignified life, visited with street children and travelled to eastern Tacloban to offer prayers for the survivors of the deadly 2013 Typhoon Haiyan that devastated one of the Philippines' poorest regions.
Francis ditched his prepared remarks again at Sunday's university appearance, speaking off the cuff to respond to four young people who spoke of their lives. The most poignant testimony came from little Glyzelle Palomar, age 12, who wept as she asked Francis why children suffer so much. She spoke of children who are abandoned by their parents and end up using drugs or in prostitution, but couldn't get through her remarks.
"Why is God allowing something like this to happen, even to innocent children?" Palomar said through tears. "And why are there so few who are helping us?"
A visibly moved Francis said he had no answer. "Only when we are able to cry are we able to come close to responding to your question," Francis said.
"Those on the margins cry. Those who have fallen by the wayside cry. Those who are discarded cry," he said. "But those who are living a life that is more or less without need, we don't know how to cry."
A steady rain from the same tropical storm that forced Francis to cut short his visit to Tacloban on Saturday fell on the crowd, but it didn't seem to dampen spirits of Filipinos who streamed into the capital for Francis' final day.
"I am not satisfied just seeing him on TV," said Rosalinda Kho, a devout Catholic who arrived before dawn outside Rizal Park with her daughter, Rosana, to score a place for the Mass. "This is a once in a lifetime chance to see him in the flesh, even from afar."
By the time the gates opened, the roads leading to the park were mostly closed. Many people camped out on tarpaulins on the ground where they had spent the night, surrounded by bags of food. Some pilgrims carried images of the infant Jesus: Francis' Mass falls on a major Catholic feast day here, the Santo Nino.
Bracing for huge crowds, the government put out a public service announcement warning the elderly, pregnant women and children against coming to the event. They urged the crowd to carry their things in transparent plastic bags since they'd be easier to inspect. An appeal to use raincoats rather than umbrellas went unheeded.
Earlier, officials had suggested Mass-goers consider using adult diapers since access to public toilets would be limited. As it is, traffic cops were given diapers since they couldn't leave their posts, though authorities backed off an initial order to use them.
Rommel Monton, a 28-year-old call center agent, said he was particularly struck by Francis' willingness to practice what he preaches, particularly as it concerns the poor.
"He doesn't want to be treated as someone special. Look at his vehicles, they are not bullet-proof: He wanted them to be open so that he can feel he is close to the people," he said. "How will you be able to protect your followers if you are not with them, if you are afraid to show yourself, to stand behind them or stand before them?"
Associated Press writer Oliver Teves contributed to this report.
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