AP and AFP

MANILA — A record 6 million people poured into Manila’s rain-soaked streets and its biggest park Sunday as Pope Francis ended his Asian pilgrimage with an appeal for Filipinos to protect their young from sin and vice so they can instead become missionaries of the faith.

The crowd estimate included people who attended the pope’s final Mass in Rizal Park and surrounding areas, and lined his motorcade route, said the chairman of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, Francis Tolentino.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the Vatican had received the figure officially from local authorities and that it was a record, surpassing the 5 million who turned out for St. John Paul II’s final Mass in the same park in 1995. Even the pope was stunned at the size of the crowd which he looked out on from the stage. ��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.

Dedicated to Children Francis dedicated the final homily of his weeklong Asia trip, which began in Sri Lanka, to children, given that the Mass fell on an important feast day honoring the infant Jesus. His focus was a reflection of the importance that the Vatican places on Asia as the future of the church since it’s one of the few places where Catholic numbers are growing �X and on the Philippines as the largest Catholic nation in the region.

��We need to see each child as a gift to be welcomed, cherished and protected,�� Francis said in his homily. ��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.��

Francis made a triumphant entry into Rizal Park, riding on a popemobile based on the design of 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 during his visit to the typhoon-hit eastern city of Tacloban a day earlier.

‘It was a blessing that we saw him’ The crowd �X a sea of humanity in colorful rain ponchos spread out across the 60 hectares (148 acres) of parkland and boulevards surrounding it �X erupted in shrieks of joy when he drove by, a reflection of the incredible resonance Francis’ message about caring for society’s most marginal has had in a country where about a quarter of its 100 million people live in poverty.

��It was a blessing that we saw him. Even if we were soaked by the rain, we feel fine,�� said Emmie Toreras, 38, who was wearing a garbage bag to guard against the rain. She said she had slept in the park since Friday to score a view of the pope.

��He loves the poor and people like us,�� said Toreras, whose husband, a rags vendor, stayed home to work.

‘Gift of God’ Perla Ponce, 76, a retired nurse who traveled hundreds of kilometers from her home in the southern Philippines, said she felt ��euphoric�� to have seen the pope and been a part of the mass. ��You can’t describe the feeling. It’s just like you have met Jesus Christ himself,�� a rain-soaked but beaming Ponce told AFP. Volunteer rescue worker Kristine Bancure had been on duty as a medic through the day but also got a glimpse of the pope. ��It’s an overwhelming feeling. I felt the hair on my skin standing up,�� she said. In his homily, the pope praised Filipinos for their reverence. ��The Philippines is the foremost Catholic country in Asia. This is itself a special gift of God, a blessing,�� the pontiff told the vast crowd. ��But it is also a vocation. Filipinos are called to be outstanding missionaries of the faith in Asia.��