Ecstatic crowds greeted Pope Francis as he arrived Thursday in the Philippines, Asia’s most populous Catholic nation, for the first papal visit in 20 years.
Church bells tolled across the country and hundreds of children danced and waved small Philippine and Vatican flags as the pontiff emerged from the plane and was welcomed by well-wishers led by President Benigno Aquino III. A sudden gust of wind blew off his papal cap seconds after he appeared, and Francis grabbed futilely for it and then smiled and descended the stairs from the plane.
Young Filipinos in matching white T-shirts gave him a rousing, thumping hip-hop welcome that drew the flight attendants from the plane out onto the stairwell to watch.
On the tarmac, a boy and a girl from a house for street children handed flowers to the pope, who embraced them.
Francis then boarded his white, open-topped popemobile and his motorcade began rolling along the 11-kilometer (6.8-mile) route to the Apostolic Nunciature in Manila, where he will stay.
Tens of thousands of people called his name and snapped pictures from behind concrete barriers topped by iron fencing and guarded by policemen along the entire stretch in a trip beamed live on TV nationwide. Francis constantly shifted from left to right, smiling and waving.
The government has declared national holidays during the pope’s visit, which runs through Monday. He will be in the capital, Manila, and fly Saturday to eastern Leyte province, where he plans to meet survivors of Typhoon Haiyan that left thousands of people dead in 2013.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila, said he hopes the visit by Francis, the first Latin American head of the 1.2 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church, would be festive and spiritually uplifting and nurture compassion at a time when the country is still recovering from recent deadly disasters, including Haiyan.
Francis will meet on Friday with Aquino, who has waged a campaign against poverty, an issue close to the pope’s heart, but has clashed with Catholic leaders over a reproductive health bill that promoted use of artificial birth control. Congress, which is dominated by Aquino’s allies, passed the bill in 2012.
Meetings with Filipino families, Catholic Church leaders and the youth were also slated.