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Jan 17, 2015 11:53 PM

Philippine crowd building for papal Mass

The Associated Press

MANILA, Philippines (AP) Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos filled Manila's main park for Pope Francis' final Mass on Sunday, braving a steady rain to hear the pontiff's message of hope for the Southeast Asian country's most downtrodden and destitute.

Organizers expect as many as 6 million people at the afternoon Mass, surpassing the 5 million record set by St. John Paul II at the same Rizal Park in 1995.

Francis drew a huge crowd earlier Sunday when he addressed young people at Manila's Catholic university, coming close to tears himself when he heard two young children speak of their lives growing up poor and on the streets.

Francis has dedicated his four-day trip to the Philippines to the poor. He has denounced the corruption that has robbed them of a dignified life, visited with street children and travelled to eastern Tacloban to offer prayers for the survivors of the deadly 2013 Typhoon Haiyan that devastated one of the Philippines' poorest regions.

Francis ditched his prepared remarks again, speaking off the cuff to respond to four young people who spoke of their lives. The most poignant testimony came from little Glyzelle Palomar, age 12, who wept as she asked Francis why children, in particular, suffer so much. She spoke of children who are abandoned by their parents and end up in prostitution, but couldn't get through her remarks.

"Why is God allowing something like this to happen, even to innocent children?" Palomar said 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," Francis said.

"Those on the margins cry. Those who have fallen by the wayside cry. Those who are discarded cry," he said. "But those who are living a life that is more or less without need, we don't know how to cry."

A steady rain from the same tropical storm that forced Francis to cut short his visit to Tacloban on Saturday fell on the crowd, but it didn't seem to dampen spirits of Filipinos who streamed into the capital for Francis' final day.

"I am not satisfied just seeing him on TV," said Rosalinda Kho, a devout Catholic who arrived before dawn outside Rizal Park with her daughter, Rosana, to score a place for the Mass. "This is a once in a lifetime chance to see him in the flesh, even from afar."

By the time the gates opened, the roads leading to the park were mostly closed. Many people camped out on tarpaulins on the ground where they had spent the night, surrounded by bags of food. Some pilgrims carried images of the infant Jesus: Francis' Mass falls on a major Catholic feast day here, the Santo Nino.

Bracing for huge crowds, the government put out a public service announcement warning the elderly, pregnant women and children against coming to the event. They urged the crowd to carry their things in transparent plastic bags since they'd be easier to inspect. An appeal to use raincoats rather than umbrellas went unheeded.

Earlier, officials had suggested Mass-goers consider using adult diapers since access to public toilets would be limited. As it is, traffic cops were given diapers since they couldn't leave their posts, though authorities backed off an initial order to use them.

Seventeen-year-old student J.R. Calacday was out early Sunday, waiting for a friend to arrive before plunging into the crowds at the park.

"I just want to see the pope. He is someone we can believe because he speaks the truth," he said.


Associated Press writer Oliver Teves contributed to this report.


Follow Nicole Winfield on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nwinfield


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