'6 to 7 million' attend Pope Francis Mass in Manila
MANILA, Philippines (4th UPDATE) – Pope Francis celebrated mass with "6 to 7 million" singing and cheering Catholics in the Philippine capital on Sunday, January 18, in one of the world's biggest outpourings of papal devotion.
Vatican Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said in a press briefing Sunday night, January 18, "There was an estimated 6 to 7 million people who attended the pope's Mass. If this is true, this is the largest event in the history of the popes."
"We experienced in the Philippines a great devotion," Lombardi added.
Rain fell steadily in Manila in the hours before the mass but Filipinos are famous for practicing a passionate brand of Catholicism and they turned out in a joyous mood that defied the gloomy skies.
Six million turned out to see the pope at the park and along motorcade routes, Metro Manila Development Authority chairman, Francis Tolentino told Agence France-Presse, adding this was based on calculations done with the police.
This surpassed the previous world record for a papal gathering of five million during a mass by John Paul II at the same venue in 1995.
The 78-year-old pontiff thrilled crowds on his way to the Quirino Grandstand in Luneta in Manila for Mass. He travelled along a motorcade route in a "popemobile" styled after the Philippines' iconic minibuses known as jeepneys.
The pontiff, dressed in a plastic yellow disposable poncho, waved and smiled to cheering crowds that were 20-deep. The popemobile stopped repeatedly so he could lean over barriers and kiss babies.
He than arrived to a sea of devoted followers for a mass that lasted nearly two hours.
The Philippines is the Catholic Church's bastion in Asia, with 80% of the former Spanish colony followers of the faith, and he is a revered figure. (READ: Pope to Filipinos: Be missionaries of the faith)
Philippine authorities undertook one of their biggest-ever security operations to protect the pope, with nearly 40,000 soldiers and police deployed for Sunday's event.
"This is a sea of faith we are dealing with," Philippine National Police OIC Director General Leonardo Espina said on Sunday before the mass, the pope's last major event before flying back to Rome on Monday.
The pope's tour, which also took him to Sri Lanka, is his second trip to Asia in five months, in a nod to the region's growing importance to the Catholic Church as it faces declining support in Europe and the United States.
It is also the fourth papal visit to the Philippines, and the rapturous reception given to him throughout his stay cemented the nation's status as the Church's Asian role model.
"We are devotees of the pope," Bernie Nacario, 53, told Agence France-Presse as he stood amid a mass of people with his wife and two young children near Rizal Park ahead of the mass. (READ: Pope Francis warns vs 'destruction' of family)
"The pope is an instrument of the Lord and if you are able to communicate with him, it is just like talking to God himself."
As groups of friends sang nearby and others burst into spontaneous cheers, Nacario said he was a long-time arthritis sufferer but today his pain had disappeared.
"It is as if the Lord has cured my ailment." – with Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com