MANILA, Philippines — Pope Francis flew home Monday after a weeklong trip to Asia, where he called for unity in Sri Lanka after a civil war then asked Filipinos to be “missionaries of the faith” in the world’s most populous continent after a record crowd turned up in his final Mass in the Philippine capital.
President Benigno Aquino III, Catholic church leaders and about 400 street children yelling “Pope Francis we love you,” saw him off at a Manila air base, where the pontiff, carrying a black travel bag, boarded a plane for Rome. Standing at the top of the stairs, the pope waved, slightly bowed his head and then walked into the plane.
Hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Filipinos lined Manila’s streets to get a final glimpse of the 78-year-old Francis, who smiled and waved aboard an open-sided, white popemobile. As he passed, many shrieked, jumped in joy, called his name and wept in joy.
“He’s my No. 1 world leader,” said Rita Fernandez, a 63-year-old mother of four, who stood on a street near the Apostolic Nunciature in Manila where Francis stayed during his four-day visit.
“He rides on a bus. He flew to Tacloban to visit the typhoon survivors despite the storm and he stops to talk to the poor. He’s a living saint,” said Fernandez, who held a cellphone with a camera and wore a yellow shirt showing a smiling Francis.
Unable to squeeze himself to the front of the thick crowd, a man brought a tall ladder, where he climbed and unfurled a poster with the pope’s smiling image and carried a handwritten farewell message: “Dear Pope Francis, We love you! We pray for you. Pls pray for us all.”
Such passion and devotion visibly energized the leader of a 1.2-billion strong Roman Catholic church confronted by secularism, clergy sex abuse scandals and other daunting problems.
Francis dedicated his four-day trip to the Philippines to the poor, marginalized and victims of injustice. He denounced the corruption that has robbed them of a dignified life, visited with street children and traveled to the eastern city of Tacloban to offer prayers for survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, the deadly 2013 storm that devastated one of the Philippines’ poorest regions.
A crowd estimated at a record 6 million people by officials poured into Manila’s rain-soaked streets and its biggest park Sunday as Francis ended his Asian pilgrimage with an appeal for Filipinos to protect their young from sin and vice so they can become missionaries of the faith.
“Filipinos are called to be outstanding missionaries of the faith in Asia,” he said.
The crowd estimate, which could not be independently verified, 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 surpassed the 5 million who turned out for St. John Paul II’s final Mass in the same park in 1995.
Francis dedicated the final homily of his Asia trip 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 is one of the few places where Catholic numbers are growing — and on the Philippines as the largest Catholic nation in the region.
“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 said.
Francis made a triumphant entry into Rizal Park on a popemobile designed like the jeepney, the modified U.S. Army World War II jeep that is the iconic transport of the Filipino everyman. He wore the same cheap, plastic yellow rain poncho handed out to the masses during his visit to Tacloban a day earlier.
The crowd in Manila — a sea of humanity in colorful rain ponchos spread out across the 60 hectares (148 acres) of parkland and boulevards surrounding it — 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 lives in poverty.
In Sri Lanka, the first leg of his Asian trip, Francis pressed his call for national reconciliation by canonizing the country’s first saint, the Rev. Joseph Vaz, and visiting the war-ravaged north to pray at a shrine revered by both Sinhalese and Tamil faithful.
Vaz was a 17th century Indian missionary who revived the faith in Sri Lanka during a time of anti-Catholic persecution by Dutch colonists, who were Protestant Calvinists.
Francis said that the Sri Lankan church today only wants to continue Vaz’s legacy of service to all, asking only for the freedom to preach in return. “Religious freedom is a fundamental human right,” he said.
Underscoring that point, Francis gave Sri Lanka’s bishops a replica of a 17th century decree from the then-king of Kandy allowing Catholic conversions of Buddhists — a somewhat provocative message given the recent upswing in violence by Buddhist extremists who want Sri Lankan exclusively Buddhist.
Associated Press writers Teresa Cerojano, Oliver Teves and Ken Moritsugu contributed to this report.