Pope Francis gets warm Philippine welcome in Manila

(Photo: REUTERS / Paul Barker)Catholic nuns from Sacred Heart Jesus Parish wait for the motorcade of Pope Francis to pass along a main street in Manila January 15, 2015. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Manila on Thursday, cheering Pope Francis as he began his first visit to Asia's largest Catholic nation amid one of the biggest security operations in Philippine history.

MANILA - Hundreds of dancing children greeted Pope Francis at Manila's airport and tens of thousands of well-wishers lined the streets to welcome the pontiff to the center of Asian Catholicism.

Francis' flight touched down a little past 5:30 p.m. local time on January 15 as top government officials led by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III were present to greet the Pope.

aged arrival honors for the pontiff, who had just come from a three-day apostolic journey in Colombo.

The excitement reach crescendo level as the Sri Lankan Airways plane carrying Francis from his three-day trip to the south Asia island national taxied to the reception line.

Music blared from the tarmac as the children swayed their hips and waved their arms, cheering "Bienvenido, Papa Francis."

Local television networks, which broadcast the arrival live, had a camera focused on one of the plane's windows where Francis was seen peaking outside.

The pontiff smiled a few times while protocol officials ironed out last-minute details for the arrival honors.

The Pope, who initially looked fatigued from the hours-long trip, flashed a smile as soon as he stepped off the plane, waving at the crowd as he made his way to the ground, where he was received by Aquino.

Onlookers said the smile seemed to have a million watts as it electrified the crowd at the tarmac, and the thousands who were watching the live TV coverage from widescreens at public parks across the Philippines.

Church pealed as it heralded the start of the four-day papal visit.

Some 83 percent of the 108 million people in the Philippines are Roman Catholics making it the biggest Catholic nation in Asia and one the biggest in the world.

In a press conference, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Francis was impressed by the warm reception he received.

He said while the Pope had been exhausted from the packed itinerary in Colombo, he fed on the energy that Filipinos showed during his motorcade.

"[The Pope] felt encouraged and inspired with the energy, even if he is tired," Lombardi said, explaining that aside from the long days in Colombo, Francis had to contend with the searing heat.

Francis is the third pope to come to the Philippines, which had been a Spanish colony in the Middle Ages.

The colonizers spread the faith in the territory.

Blessed Paul VI visited the Philippines in the late 1960s, while Saint John Paul II held his apostolic visits twice - in 1981 and in 1995.

As early as 7:00 a.m. local time, spectators started to trickle along the roads where the papal convoy was expected to pass.

Hawkers also had a field day selling Pope Francis memorabilia such as shirts, buttons and handkerchiefs, among other things.

"The numbers were impressive," Lombardi continued.

But he pointed out that while he could not give an official estimate of the crowd outside, he surmised that it could be in the "millions" since Manila is a "megapolis" with a population which some estimates put at 21 million.

He noted that Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle mentioned to him that the Pope had likewise been impressed by the display of affection as they rode to the Apostolic Nuntiature in Manila, where Francis will during his visit.

Tagle, who rode with Francis at the custom-made Popemobile, told the Vatican spokesman that the "Holy Spirit touched the hearts of the people" who lined the streets.

Francis did not have a scheduled public event Thursday, but the following day his schedule is packed,

Aquino will fete the Pope with a welcome reception at the presidential palace where Francis will speak before the Cabinet, the diplomatic corps and other government officials in the morning.

Francis will then drive to the Manila Cathedral to celebrate Mass with bishops, the clergy and the religious.

In the afternoon, Francis will hold a meeting with families at the Mall of Asia Arena in nearby Pasay City.

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