A record-breaking crowd of as many as 7 million people turned out in the Philippines on Sunday to see Pope Francis, who called for the masses to protect their children from sin and lead them onto the path of faith.
The pope, cheered for miles along the roads to Rizal Park, entered in a “popemobile” based on 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,” the Associated Press said.
He dedicated his final homily of his week-long Asia trip to children, given that the Mass fell on an important feast day honoring the infant Jesus.
“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.”
Earlier Sunday, the pope 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.
Reuters reported the exchange this way:
“Why do children suffer?” the Pope said, speaking in his native Spanish. “I invite each one of you to ask yourselves, ‘Have I learned how to weep … when I see a hungry child, a child on the street who uses drugs, a homeless child, an abandoned child, an abused child, a child that society uses as a slave’?” he said.
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.
“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.
“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.