Filipinos await first papal visit in 20 years

MANILA - Pope Francis begins a trip to Asia on Monday that will take him to the country with the most Roman Catholics on the world's most populous continent.

The Argentine-born Francis will make the first papal visit to the Philippines in two decades, following in the footsteps of beloved predecessor John Paul II. Millions of the faithful are expected to gather here when he celebrates Mass at Rizal Park.

After a visit to the predominantly Buddhist nation of Sri Lanka, Francis will spend five days in the Philippines. While here, he will meet with President Benigno Aquino and survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, which took a direct hit from the 2013 storm known locally as Typhoon Yolanda. More than 6,000 died in the disaster.

Francis' visit to the Philippines will culminate in an outdoor Mass on Jan. 18, when Catholics from across the island nation are expected to congregate at Rizal Park for a chance to see the pontiff. Some 4 million of the faithful attended the Mass celebrated by John Paul II at the same park in 1995. Local media predict double the turnout this time. Area hotels are already fully booked.

With an estimated 80 million Catholics out of a population that topped 100 million last year, the Philippines represents an important bastion of the Roman Catholic Church, which has some 1.2 billion believers worldwide.

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