MANILA, Philippines — In 1975, boxing great Muhammad Ali famously promised that his third and final prize fight with Joe Frazier would be a “Thrilla in Manila”. On Sunday, while a tropical storm was pummeling the Philippines on the last day of his Asian swing, Pope Francis delivered another one.
Despite the heavy rain and the strong winds, the Vatican estimated that 6 to 7 million people attended Francis’ closing Mass of a three-day visit to the Philippines, making it the largest crowd in history to witness a single papal event.
Francis shattered the all-time record for turnout which, of course, was also set in the Philippines in 1995. On that occasion, Pope John Paul II is believed to have drawn a crowd somewhere between 4 and 5 million.
Certainly Francis did everything in his power to connect with the flock in the country, calling the Filipinos a “beloved people” and even using a converted jeepney, the typical mode of transport for poor Filipinos, as his Pope-mobile.
Many of the faithful spent the night walking to the Mass, navigating through the streets of the fifth largest city in the world with a staggering 22 million inhabitants.
During his homily, Pope Francis asked the Filipinos to pay special attention to guiding and encouraging the young, helping them to build a society worthy of their heritage, but also “not allowing them to be robbed of hope” and condemned to a life on the streets.
“Specifically,” said Francis, “we need to see each child as a gift to be welcomed, cherished, and protected.”
He also called on Filipinos to protect the family “against insidious attacks and programs,” which, according to the pontiff, are “contrary to all that we hold true and sacred, all that is most beautiful and noble in our culture.”
Those words are particularly significant in the Philippines for two reasons.
Two years ago, the country adopted a “Reproductive Health” law that guarantees universal access to contraception despite strong Catholic opposition. Also, the Philippines is the only country other than the Vatican City State in which divorce is not legal.
Breaking the previous record for a papal event, which occurred during the World Youth Day in Manila in 1995, is something the Filipinos have been working on since the trip was announced in 2014.
Media outlets, priests, and even leaders of other religions called for residents to attend the Mass at the Quirino Grandstand in Manila’s Rizal Park as a demonstration of this country’s active faith. The result was a sea of humanity in colorful rain ponchos spread out across the 60 hectares (148 acres) of parkland and boulevards surrounding it.
The Philippines is considered the foremost Catholic country in Asia, with 80 percent of its 100 million people professing the faith.
Among those encouraging high turnout was Manila’s Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, who canceled all afternoon Sunday Masses in the city. The decision allowed for more than 2,500 priests to concelebrate with Pope Francis.
Tagle, close friends with the pope, was one of two prelates who thanked Francis for his visit before the Mass ended.
“Tomorrow, you will go,” said Tagle. “Every Filipino wants to go with you, not to Rome, but to the peripheries, to the shanties, to prison cells, to hospitals. We will go to these worlds to bring them the light of Christ.”
Much of Pope Francis’ homily was about the Santo Niño (Holy Infant), patron of the Philippines, whom the pontiff described as a reminder of the fact that “we’re all children of God.”
“It’s a sin for us to forget that we’re all children of God,” added Francis, in his only improvised remarks during the celebration.
Devotion to the Santo Niño is enormously strong here. Many who gathered for the Mass carried images of the Santo Niño in colorful garb, hoping they would be blessed by the pope. While the pontiff was celebrating his own mega-Mass, on the island of Cebú, some 351 miles from Manila, more than 3.5 million Filipinos where honoring their national patron.
It was on Cebú where an image of the Child Jesus brought by the explorer Ferdinand Magellan was found. More than 450 years old, the image is the oldest Christian icon in the country.
The Mass, which wraps up the pontiff’s Jan. 12-19 trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, came a day after Pope Francis ventured to the island of Leyte to offer support to survivors of a 2013 super-typhoon. However, the outing had to be cut short by almost four hours because of a tropical storm currently hitting the country.
At the end of Sunday’s celebration, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the local Bishops’ Conference, thanked Francis for his visit and for his “typhoon-proof” love.
“You’re our Father. You’re our brother. You’re our friend. You’re our inspiration. You’re our sunshine!” said Villegas. “And you’re our raincoat when it rains!”