Pope Francis kicked off his five-day visit to the Philippines Friday by calling on its president and politicians to root out widespread corruption in the country, to support struggling families and to "hear the voice of the poor."
"As many voices in your nation have pointed out, it is now, more than ever, necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good," Francis told president Benigno Aquino III during a speech at the country's presidential palace.
Reminding the president that the bishops in the Catholic-majority country have designated 2015 as the "Year of the Poor," the pontiff said the country needed to reform social structures "which perpetuate poverty and the exclusion of the poor."
"I hope that this prophetic summons will challenge everyone, at all levels of society, to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor," he said.
Francis is visiting the Philippines Thursday through Monday morning in the second leg of a two-part Asian voyage that first saw him visit Sri Lanka earlier in the week. He was speaking Friday during a visit with Aquino and the country's diplomatic corps.
A nation of some 100 million people, the Philippines has frequently been ranked one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Winning a landslide election in 2010, Aquino vowed to root out the problem but critics have said he has not done enough.
Aquino also obliquely addressed the issue of corruption in his own remarks with the pope Friday. "If it is a sin to steal, who is the greatest sinner?" the president asked, referring to a person who steals out of need or hunger and "the politician with an insatiable greed ... who stole from the public coffers."
But the president also pointedly criticized the Philippine Catholic church, saying some of its members "suddenly became silent" in what he called the "abuses" of his predecessor as leader of the country, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Leading the Philippines from 2001-10, Arroyo has been criminally charged with electoral fraud and misuse of government funds. Aquino said during his talk that he raised the issue "to speak the truth, for the truth shall set us all free."
The Philippines is Asia's largest Catholic nation, with 81 percent of its population estimated to belong to the religion. People here have been eagerly anticipating Francis' visit.
A welcome ceremony at the airport for the pope's arrival Thursday evening attracted a crowd of hundreds of thousands, with people lining the streets of Manila to try and catch a glimpse of Francis' open-air popemobile.
Two issues Francis is expected to address several times during the visit are the impacts of poverty and climate change. More than one-quarter of country's population is estimated to live below the poverty line and recent weather events -- particularly 2013's Typhoon Haiyan -- have dramatically impacted life, killing thousands and causing billions of dollars in damage.
Speaking on the papal flight to Manila Thursday, Francis said: "The central message of this trip will be the poor."
During a Mass with bishops, priests and religious of the country Friday afternoon, Francis re-emphasized that message. Speaking in an ad-libbed moment during his homily, which was given in English, the pope said: "The poor are the center of the Gospel, are at [the] heart of the Gospel."
"If we take away the poor from the Gospel, we cannot understand the whole message of Jesus Christ," Francis said.
The pope also addressed social issues during the homily, calling on priests to "proclaim the beauty and truth of the Christian message to a society which is tempted by confusing presentations of sexuality, marriage and the family."
"As you know, these realities are increasingly under attack from powerful forces which threaten to disfigure God’s plan for creation and betray the very values which have inspired and shaped all that is best in your culture," he said.
Francis had spoken earlier about family life in his talk to the diplomatic corps, saying it is in families that "children are trained in sound values, high ideals and genuine concern for others."
"But like all God's gifts, the family can also be disfigured and destroyed," the pope continued. "It needs our support."
"We know how difficult it is for our democracies today to preserve and defend such basic human values as respect for the inviolable dignity of each human person, respect for the rights of conscience and religious freedom, and respect for the inalienable right to life, beginning with that of the unborn and extending to that of the elderly and infirm," Francis said.
"For this reason, families and local communities must be encouraged and assisted in their efforts to transmit to our young the values and the vision which can help bring about a culture of integrity – one which honors goodness, truthfulness, fidelity and solidarity as the firm foundation and the moral glue which holds society together," he continued.
Coverage of Francis' visit to the Philippines has dominated newspapers and television news broadcasts in the country.
Two of the Philippines' largest newspapers -- the Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star -- devoted their entire front pages Friday to covering the papal visit, with both dailies printing large photos of the pope above the fold and offering several reports on different aspects of the visit.
News networks have followed nearly every minute of the pope's time in the country, even noting with a timer how long the pope spends on each of his trips in the popemobile.
Security for the papal visit has been extraordinarily tight. About 50,000 police and soldiers have been on patrol and authorities have been using jamming technology to prevent use of cellular networks in areas near where the pope is traveling.
Later Friday, the pope will hold a meeting in Manila with Philippine families where he will hear testimonies of their struggles before offering his own remarks.
On Saturday, he will fly to Tacloban, an area southeast of Manila that was severely impacted by the 2103 typhoon. On Sunday, the pontiff will celebrate a public Mass in Manila's Rizal Park, an event the Vatican has called a "mega Mass" and is expected to draw crowds in the millions.
[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]