Manila, Jan 19: Pope Francis will fly back to Rome today after a dramatic week in Asia that saw him draw record crowds and hammer home his pro-poor message to millions.
The pontiff visited Sri Lanka and the Philippines on his second trip to Asia in five months, as he seeks to promote the Catholic Church in one of its most important growth regions. Yesterday saw one of the highlights of his journey, with six million people turning out in the Philippine capital Manila as he celebrated mass - a world record for a papal gathering.
The Philippines is famed as the Catholic Church's bastion in Asia, with 80 per cent of the former Spanish colony's 100 million people following the faith. But even the pope was stunned at the size of the crowd, which surpassed the previous world record of five million during a mass by John Paul II at the same venue in 1995.
"I cannot fathom the faith of the simple people," Francis said, according to the Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, who acted as the pontiff's chaperone during his five days in the Philippines. Tens of thousands more people were expected to gather along the pope's motorcade route today morning as he travelled to Manila's airport, but the mass was the last official event of his trip.
Throughout his stay in the Philippines - where a quarter of the population lives on 60 cents a day or less - the pope railed against the forces that entrench poverty. In a speech at the presidential palace, the pope lectured the nation's elite, calling on political leaders to show integrity and do something to end the nation's "scandalous social inequalities".
He again implored people to do more to eradicate poverty, after an emotional encounter in Manila with a 12-year-old girl who asked why God would allow children to become prostitutes. He said superficial compassion for the poor shown by many in the world, which resulted in just giving alms, was not enough.
"If Christ had that kind of compassion, he would have just walked by, greeted three people, given them something and moved on," he said. The pope said the main reason for visiting the Philippines was to meet survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm ever recorded on land which claimed more than 7,350 lives in November 2013. He flew on Saturday morning from Manila to Leyte island, ground zero for the typhoon, and celebrated a deeply emotional mass with 200,000 survivors. "Some of you have lost part of your families. All I can do is keep silent. And I walk with you all with my silent heart," he said.