MANILA, Philippines – Pope Francis flew out of this Catholic bastion in Asia on Monday after a weeklong trip that included a visit to Sri Lanka and drew what Filipino officials says was a record crowd of 6 million faithful in a Manila park where he celebrated Mass.
President Benigno Aquino III, church leaders and 400 street children yelling "Pope Francis we love you," saw him off at a Manila air base, where the pontiff, carrying a black travel bag, boarded a Philippine Airlines plane for a flight to Rome. Standing at the top of the stairs, the pope waved to the crowd, slightly bowed his head, then walked into the plane.
Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos lined Manila's streets, with police keeping a close watch, to have their final glimpse of Francis, who smiled and waved aboard an open-sided, white popemobile.
"He's my No. 1 world leader," said Rita Fernandez, a 63-year-old mother of four, who stood on a street near the Apostolic Nunciature in Manila where Francis stayed during his four-day visit.
"He rides on a bus. He flew to Tacloban to visit the typhoon survivors despite the storm and he stops to talk to the poor. He's a living saint," said Fernandez, who held a cellphone with a camera and wore a yellow shirt showing a smiling Francis.
A crowd estimated at a record 6 million people by officials poured into Manila's rain-soaked streets and its biggest park Sunday as Pope Francis ended his Asian pilgrimage with an appeal for Filipinos to protect their young from sin and vice so they can become missionaries of the faith.
The crowd estimate, which could not be independently verified, included people who attended the pope's final Mass in Rizal Park and surrounding areas, and lined his motorcade route, said the chairman of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, Francis Tolentino.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the Vatican had received the figure officially from local authorities and that it was a record, surpassing the 5 million who turned out for St. John Paul II's final Mass in the same park in 1995.
Francis dedicated the final homily of his Asia trip to children, given that the Mass fell on an important feast day honoring the infant Jesus. His focus was a reflection of the importance that the Vatican places on Asia as the future of the church since it's one of the few places where Catholic numbers are growing — and on the Philippines as the largest Catholic nation in the region.
"We need to see each child as a gift to be welcomed, cherished and protected," Francis said. "And we need to care for our young people, not allowing them to be robbed of hope and condemned to a life on the streets."
Francis made a triumphant entry into Rizal Park, riding on a popemobile based on the design of a jeepney, the modified U.S. Army World War II jeep that is a common means of public transport here. He wore the same cheap, plastic yellow rain poncho handed out to the masses during his visit to the typhoon-hit eastern city of Tacloban a day earlier.
The crowd — a sea of humanity in colorful rain ponchos spread out across the 60 hectares (148 acres) of parkland and boulevards surrounding it — erupted in shrieks of joy when he drove by, a reflection of the incredible resonance Francis' message about caring for society's most marginal has had in a country where about a quarter of its 100 million people lives in poverty.
Francis dedicated his four-day trip to the Philippines to the poor and marginal. He denounced the corruption that has robbed them of a dignified life, visited with street children and traveled to Tacloban to offer prayers for survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, the deadly 2013 storm that devastated one of the Philippines' poorest regions.
Earlier Sunday, Francis drew a huge crowd to Manila's Catholic university, where he came close to tears himself hearing two rescued street children speak of their lives growing up poor and abandoned.
The pope ditched his prepared remarks and spoke off the cuff in his native Spanish to respond to 12-year-old Glyzelle Palomar, who wept as she asked Francis why children suffer so much. Palomar, a former street child rescued by a church-run foundation, told him of children who are abandoned or neglected by their parents and end up on the streets using drugs or in prostitution.
"Why is God allowing something like this to happen, even to innocent children?" Palomar asked 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," he said.
"Those on the margins cry. Those who have fallen by the wayside cry. Those who are discarded cry," the pope said. "But those who are living a life that is more or less without need, we don't know how to cry."
And he added: "There are some realities that you can only see through eyes that have been cleansed by tears."