World-record crowd of 7 million attend mass in Manila, capping dramatic visit by Pope Francis

A handout photo provided by the Philippine Air Force Public Information Office (PAF-PIO) shows aerial shot of devotees during a downpour of rain waiting for the arrival of Pope Francis to celebrate a mass at the Rizal park in Manila, Philippines, on
A handout photo provided by the Philippine Air Force Public Information Office (PAF-PIO) shows aerial shot of devotees during a downpour of rain waiting for the arrival of Pope Francis to celebrate a mass at the Rizal park in Manila, Philippines, on Jan 18, 2015. Pope Francis celebrated an open-air mass for millions of rain-soaked worshippers on Sunday, capping his dramatic five-day visit in Asia's most Catholic nation with a pointed reaffirmation of the church's conservative policies on family values. -- PHOTO: EPA
Pope Francis (top left) greets worshippers as he arrives to celebrate a mass at Rizal park in Manila on Jan 18, 2015. Pope Francis celebrated an open-air mass for millions of rain-soaked worshippers on Sunday, capping his dramatic five-day visit in A
Pope Francis (top left) greets worshippers as he arrives to celebrate a mass at Rizal park in Manila on Jan 18, 2015. Pope Francis celebrated an open-air mass for millions of rain-soaked worshippers on Sunday, capping his dramatic five-day visit in Asia's most Catholic nation with a pointed reaffirmation of the church's conservative policies on family values. -- PHOTO: AFP
Pope Francis greets people and blesses their religious icons as he arrives to celebrate a mass at a park in Manila on January 18, 2015. Pope Francis celebrated an open-air mass for millions of rain-soaked worshippers on Sunday, capping his drama
Pope Francis greets people and blesses their religious icons as he arrives to celebrate a mass at a park in Manila on January 18, 2015. Pope Francis celebrated an open-air mass for millions of rain-soaked worshippers on Sunday, capping his dramatic five-day visit in Asia's most Catholic nation with a pointed reaffirmation of the church's conservative policies on family values. -- PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - Pope Francis celebrated an open-air mass for as many as seven million rain-soaked worshippers at a sprawling public park here on Sunday, capping his dramatic five-day visit in Asia's most Catholic nation with a pointed reaffirmation of the church's conservative policies on family values.Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the office of the president told the Vatican that between six and seven million attended the Mass in Manila’s Rizal Park and surrounding areas, Reuters reported.

“We are not able to count all these people, obviously, or to verify this, but in any case, we have seen so many people that we believe that it is possible,” Lombardi told a briefing, according to Reuters. “If this is true, and we think it is, this is the largest event in the history of the popes,” he said, noting that Pope John Paul drew some five million to the same area in 1995.  

In his homily, Pope Francis warned Catholics against falling for the "ephemeral pleasures, superficial pastimes" of modern life, including an all-consuming addiction to gadgets. "Sadly, in our day, the family all too often needs to be protected against insidious attacks and programmes contrary to all that we hold true and sacred, all that is most beautiful and noble in our culture," the pope said.

The 78-year-old Pontiff was more specific than in a previous homily about family values.

"We squander our God-given gifts by tinkering with gadgets; we squander our money on gambling and drink; we turn in on ourselves. We forget to remain focused on the things that really matter," he said.

A storm that has been battering the Philippines this past week did not stop millions from amassing since midnight around an altar at a seaside grandstand.

Despite the steady downpour and bone-chilling cold air, they walked as far as 5km, waiting patiently as they kept themselves dry with ponchos and umbrellas, and warm by huddling.

Some 27,000 policemen were on hand to control the crowd.

Tempers frayed when long queues developed because there were not enough entry points towards the park.

At a youth rally earlier in the day, Pope Francis mourned a church volunteer killed during his visit to typhoon-devastated Tacloban city.

The 78-year-old Pontiff led a moment of silence for Ms Kristel Mae Padasas, 27, who was killed on Jan 17 when a steel scaffolding collapsed on her, as a storm battered Tacloban.

Honouring her memory, Pope Francis let the huge gathering of worshippers at the 403-year-old University of Sto Tomas (UST) know that Ms Padasas was an only daughter, and that her mother has been working in Hong Kong.

The Pope was forced on Saturday to cut short a mercy mission to survivors of super typhoon Haiyan as a storm bore down on Tacloban.

Haiyan left over 7,000 dead and millions homeless when it tore through central Philippines in November 2013.

Pope Francis delivered a truncated, but emotional, mass for over 200,000 at the airport in Tacloban, but he was forced to scrap plans to spend the entire day in the city and neighbouring Palo town, amid gusts and heavy rain.

He returned to Manila hours ahead of schedule.

In an emotional moment during Pope Francis' mass at UST, a 12-year-old girl, Glyzelle Iris Palomar, broke down and wept profusely before she could finish a narrative of her hard life as a street child that she said had exposed her to prostitution and drugs.

"Many children are abandoned by their parents. Many children get involved in drugs and prostitution," Glyzelle told the Pope as she stood on stage alongside a 14-year-old boy, Jun Chura, who was also an abandoned child.

"Why does God allow these things to happen to us? The children are not guilty of anything," she said.

Glyzelle and Jun used to live in the streets before they were taken in by a church-run foster home for street children, many of whom were once child prostitutes.

Pope Francis, visibly moved and nearly in tears, consoled the two with rosaries and a grandfatherly embrace.

The Pope later discarded most of his prepared speech that he was due to give in English, reverting back to his native Spanish to deliver an impromptu and heartfelt response.

"She is the only one who has put a question for which there is no answer and she wasn't even able to express it in words but in tears," the Pope told a crowd that organisers said reached 30,000.

"The nucleus of your question... almost doesn't have a reply."

The Pope also waded into the global debate on climate change for a second time in his trip.

"As stewards of God's creation, we are called to make the earth a beautiful garden for the human family. When we destroy our forests, ravage our soil and pollute our seas, we betray that noble calling," he said in a text prepared for his homily that, although he did not read to the crowd, is considered official.

There was also a ribbing of men who are "machista".

Pope Francis said men should listen to women's ideas more and not be chauvinists.

"Women have much to tell us in today's society. (We) don't allow room for women, but women are capable of seeing things with a different angle from us, with a different eye," he said.

rdancel@sph.com.sg