MANILA, Philippines — Pope Francis called Friday for authorities to reject the corruption that has plagued this Asian nation for decades and urged them to instead work to end its "scandalous" poverty as he brought his message of social justice to Filipinos who cheered him wildly at every turn.
The enthusiastic reception on Francis' first full day in Asia's largest Catholic nation came despite an unprecedented level of security that prevented the pope from diving into the crowds as he typically likes to do. Rather, Francis waved from the car window or popemobile as his motorcade drove through boulevards lined with well-wishers held behind police barricades.
Corruption has wracked the Philippines since the 20-year rule of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who along with his shoe-loving wife and cronies were suspected of stealing between $5 billion and $10 billion before being ousted from power in 1986.
The problem has festered amid a culture of impunity among powerful politicians and their allies, weak law enforcement and a notoriously slow justice system. But Benigno Aquino III won the presidency by a wide margin in 2010 on promises to rid the nation of corruption and poverty. Since then, Congress has begun investigating high-level politicians for corruption and three senators have been detained.
In a speech to Aquino and other officials in the presidential palace, Francis said that more than ever, political leaders must be "outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good." He said they must hear the cries of the poor and address the "glaring and indeed scandalous social inequalities" in society.
He challenged Filipinos "at all levels of society, to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor, and to make concerted efforts to ensure the inclusion of every man and woman and child in the life of the community."
As if to prove his point, Francis met with dozens of street children after Mass and spent 20 minutes with them listening to them sing for him and exchange gifts, including a mosaic one of the children made with recycled colored paper, the Vatican said. The children are cared for by a foundation run by a French priest.
In his speech, Aquino said clergy themselves were part of the problem. While the Catholic Church played a fundamental role in supporting opposition to Marcos, some priests "suddenly became silent" when abuses continued under Marcos' successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, he said. Arroyo is currently detained on corruption and election sabotage charges.
Aquino has waged a campaign against poverty, an issue close to the pope's heart, but has also clashed with local 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.
Francis took the local church to task himself during a Mass for the clergy in Manila's cathedral, urging priests to reject materialism and embrace lives of poverty themselves as Jesus did.
"Only by becoming poor ourselves, by stripping away our complacency, will we be able to identify with the least of our brothers and sisters," he said. "We are called to be ambassadors of Christ."
One congressional investigation revealed that some bishops had personally requested support from Arroyo, including one who asked for an SUV as a birthday gift purportedly to allow him to visit his flock.
Francis' message will likely resonate in a country where, according to government statistics, nearly a quarter of the Philippines' 100 million people live on just over $1 a day.
"For him, the poorer you are, the more he will reach out to you," said Christopher Ladios, a 40-year-old traffic enforcer at an intersection near the presidential palace where Francis passed by. "Corruption is the No. 1 news in the Philippines these days, so it was a good message. For small workers like us, it would mean we can get what is due us and it will not be stolen."
Later Friday, Francis was to meet with Filipino families. On Saturday he travels to the central Philippines to comfort survivors of the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,300 dead and missing and leveled entire villages.
The government has declared national holidays during the pope's visit, which runs through Monday, and the crowds responded by turning out in droves to welcome him. Authorities estimated that between 700,000 to 1 million people had turned out along his motorcade route in from the airport Thursday night.
"It is the wish of every Filipino to see him, and if possible, to interact with him, talk to him," said Alberto Garcia, 59-year-old electrician, who was among a crowd of about 100 people who gathered in front of a giant screen mounted on a truck at a public square to watch Friday's Mass. "Because that is impossible, just by being here we can take part in his mission to visit and bring grace to this country."
Francis was clearly energized by the raucous welcome, stopping several times Friday to kiss children brought up to him once he entered the presidential palace grounds. His motorcade didn't stop along the route, though, for him to get out to and greet the crowd as he likes to do.
Cell phone reception was jammed, a huge police presence guarded him and streets leading to Francis' motorcade route were blocked as the pope travelled around town in his open-sided popemobile and a simple four-door Volkswagen.
It remains to be seen if he will chafe at the intense security provided by authorities, who appeared to leave nothing to chance. They have good reason to go overboard after Pope Paul VI was slightly wounded in an assassination attempt during his visit in 1970 and St. John Paul II was the target of militants whose plot was uncovered days before his 1995 arrival.
About 50,000 policemen and troops were deployed to secure the pope in a country where relatively small numbers of al-Qaida-inspired militants remain a threat in the south despite more than a decade of U.S.-backed military offensives.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerojano contributed. Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield