Pope Francis issued his strongest defence yet of church teaching opposing contraception at a rally in Asia’s largest Catholic nation by urging families to be “sanctuaries of respect for life”.
The Pope also denounced the corruption that has plagued the Philippines for decades and urged officials to work to end its “scandalous” poverty and social inequalities, during his first full day in Manila, where he received a rock star’s welcome.
Security was tighter than it has ever been for this pontiff, who relishes mixing with the crowds. Cellphone service around the city was jammed for a second day on the orders of the National Telecommunications Commission and roadblocks along the Pope’s motorcade route caused gridlock for miles.
Police vans followed his motorcade while officers formed human chains in front of barricades to hold back the tens of thousands of cheering Filipinos who packed streets for hours for a glimpse of his Volkswagen. Police said another 86,000 gathered outside one of Manila’s biggest sports arenas, which has a capacity of 20,000, where Francis held his first encounter with the Filipino masses – a meeting with families.
He upheld church teaching opposing contraception and endeared himself to the crowd with off-the-cuff jokes and even a well-intentioned attempt at sign language.
The Pope has largely shied from emphasising church teaching on controversial issues, saying the previous two pontiffs made the teaching well known and that he wants to focus on making the church a place of welcome, not rules. His comments were clearly a nod to the local church, which recently lost a significant fight when president Benigno Aquino III pushed through a law that allows the government to provide artificial birth control to the poor. “Be sanctuaries of respect for life, proclaiming the sacredness of every human life from conception to natural death,” the Pope exhorted the crowd.
“What a gift this would be to society if every Christian family lived fully its noble vocation.”
He then deviated from his prepared remarks to praise Pope Paul VI for having “courageously” resisted calls for an opening in church teaching on sexuality in the 1960s.
Pope Paul penned the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) which enshrined the papacy’s opposition to artificial birth control.
Pope Francis noted that Pope Paul was aware some families would find it difficult to uphold the teaching and “he asked confessors to be particularly compassionate and understanding for particular cases”.
He said Pope Paul was prescient in resisting the trends of the times. “He looked beyond. He looked to the peoples of the Earth and saw the destruction of the family because of the lack of children,” Pope Francis said.
“Paul VI was courageous. He was a good pastor. He warned his sheep about the wolves that were approaching, and from the heavens he blesses us today.”
Today the Pope heads to Tacloban to celebrate Mass and have lunch with survivors of Typhoon Haiyan before returning to Manila.
Tomorrow he is due to meet representatives of various religions and young people, before celebrating Mass for up to six million in Rizal Park
National holidays have been declared in the capital for the Pope’s visit.
Security is very tight, with tens of thousands of soldiers and police deployed, in the wake of failed attempts to kill two previous pontiffs in the Philippines.