Pope Francis’ five-day trip to the Philippines had the country in an uproar of excitement weeks before he arrived.
So far, he hasn’t disappointed, staying true to his message of humility and hope as he traveled from the capital of Manila Saturday to the city of Tacloban in Leyte province, where typhoon Haiwan wreaked havoc in 2013, and back.
The pontiff is now preparing for his last major public event before leaving the country – a mass in front of an estimated 6 million people at an outdoor venue in the capital Sunday.
He's comfortable in a poncho
A late-season tropical storm forced the Pope to shorten a much-anticipated Jan. 17 trip to Leyte province, site of some of the worst damage dished out by typhoon Haiyan in 2013. But that didn’t stop him from donning a yellow poncho and saying an outdoor Mass in Tacloban City for hundreds of thousands who turned out despite the weather.
While some may say the image of the pope in a cheap poncho is disrespectful, others saw it as another sign of his humility.
“I’d like to tell you something close to my heart,” Francis said during his homily. “When I saw from Rome the catastrophe, I felt that I had to be here and on those very days I decided to come here.”
“I am here to be with you. A little bit late, I have to say, but I am here,” he said.
So many of you have lost everything. I don’t know what to say to you. But the Lord does know what to say to you. 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. Many of you have asked the Lord, why Lord? And to each of you, to your heart, Christ responds from His heart upon the cross.
The pope also took time to visit the nearby town of Palo and listen to the stories of about 30 Haiyan survivors, whose experiences left the pope speechless, according to Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, who accompanied the pontiff.
"I thought he was going to repeat what he said during his homily, but … he himself was reduced to silence," Mr. Tagle said.
Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, displaced more than 900,000 families and killed more than 6,000 people nationwide, the Philippine government says.
He addressed corruption
During his speech at the Malacañang presidential palace in Manila, Pope Francis called for an end to corruption and poverty.
"Everyone, at all levels of society, must reject every form of corruption as it takes resources from the poor," he said, even as hundreds took to the streets to rally against the government’s inaction. "Our great biblical tradition ... bids us to break the bonds of injustice and oppression which give rise to glaring, and scandalous, social inequalities."
The Philippine government has been wracked with corruption scandals over the past few years, and the country is ranked 85th out of 175 nations in Transparency International’s global corruption perception index.
Expectations have been high that the Pope would address the issue of integrity. “Hopefully, it [the papal visit] boosts the moral standards of Filipinos, that they would start standing up for what is right. Hopefully, the corrupt Catholic officials would be moved by the pope,” Rob Guevarra, a Christian youth pastor and campus missionary, told local news organization The Philippine Star.
He defended the church’s stance on contraception
The Pope also made clear where he stands on an issue that’s especially touchy in the Southeast Asian nation: birth control.
“Be sanctuaries of respect for life, proclaiming the sacredness of every human life from conception to natural death,” Francis told a crowd of 86,000 gathered outside one of Manila's biggest sports arenas. “What a gift this would be to society if every Christian family lived fully its noble vocation.”
The Pope effectively backed up the Filipino Catholic Church in one of its longest and most ardently fought battles with the government: The country’s reproductive health bill, which by law requires government health centers to issue free condoms and birth control pills and mandates sex education be taught in public schools.
Philippine president Benigno Aquino III, who was threatened with excommunication, signed the bill into law in 2012, 13 years after it was first filed in Congress. The Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines has opposed it ever since.
He made unscheduled stops
The Pope’s itinerary has been available online for days, but that didn’t mean he wasn't spontaneous: After saying Mass at the Manila Cathedral on Jan. 16, he made an unscheduled stop at a nearby children’s shelter, NBC News reports.
"The children were hoping to catch a glimpse of him and were so excited they didn't sleep all night," a French volunteer at the shelter told the network. "Then half an hour before the mass ended Vatican security came to tell us the Pope would come. We told the children, and they looked stunned.”
The Pope spent about half an hour with more than 300 kids from the Blessed Charles de Foucauld Home for Girls and other affiliated shelters in the city, according to Northwest Catholic News.
He's got a social media savvy team
The Philippines is home to some of the most active social media users in the world. Whether or not the Pope was aware of that, Filipinos received the messages written in Tagalog on his official Twitter account with gusto: Each of the three posts were shared tens of thousands of times.
"The com-passion of God, his suffering-with-us, gives meaning and worth to our struggles and our sufferings."
"The family is the greatest treasure of any country. Let us all work to protect and strengthen this, the cornerstone of society."
"The Philippines bears witness to the youthfulness and vitality of the Church."
Nor is he above using a little modern lingo. When Tricia Farnacio, a 16-year-old diagnosed with kidney disorder that keeps her wheelchair-bound, asked the Pope for a photo, “he said, 'Selfie!'" Ms. Farnacio told local network GMA News.