Pope Francis on Thursday began his five-day visit in the Philippines, where many of the country's 80 million Catholics were expected to turn up for a procession in his honor. But some couldn't wait for the festivities to begin and reached out to the pontiff on Twitter with hashtags. Pope-mania swept the Philippines' Twittersphere as Filipinos sent messages welcoming the Holy Father or sending him their prayers.

"It feels like I am talking to him directly, even if I know it's run by an administrator," said bank officer Angelique Mina-Rualo, who credits surviving cancer to her Catholic faith, to Agence France-Presse on tweeting to the pope's @Pontifex account. "Talking straight to the pope is like talking straight to God."

Upon the pope’s arrival, hashtags like #BlessedByThePope, #PapalVisitPH, and #PopoTYSM, a play on the Filipino translation of the visit's "mercy and compassion" theme, began trending early Thursday. The phrase “Welcome to the Philippines Pope Francis” stayed firmly at the top of Twitter's trending list and showed no signs of budging.

The Philippines' Catholic Church created a free smartphone application, available on both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android systems, that allowed users to send prayer requests to the pope, share photos and listen to music. The app had been downloaded thousands of times as of Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, a “pope selfie” movement spread as fans posted pictures of themselves with cardboard cutouts and posters featuring Francis, and labeled the images with hashtags like #PopeSelfie or #BFF2015, meaning “Best Friends Forever 2015.” Local church groups, governments, and some student groups in many parts of the Philippines set up these photo opportunities to give people a chance to feel closer to him. "We are bringing the youth closer to the pope at almost zero cost," Jeano Rustico, a college student who set up selfie booths in Manila schools as part of his marketing communications course project to promote the papal visit, told AFP.


Francis, 78, has a strong Twitter presence. His official @Pontifex account has 5.05 million followers and his accounts in nine different languages have a combined 17.74 million followers. His Spanish @Pontifex_es alone has 7.71 million. This puts him second only to United States President Barack Obama, with 53.1 million followers, but his messages have the greatest reach. The pope’s posts are retweeted an average 10,000 times, nearly 10 times more than Obama, according to Twitter statistics monitor Twiplomancy.

On the pope's Asia tour, which started in Sri Lanka earlier this week, he has been spreading a message of harmony and tolerance as the tour's theme. Francis told reporters on his trip from Sri Lanka to the Philippines that freedom of expression was a “fundamental human right,” like freedom of religion, but that it should be exercised “without giving offense,” according to the Catholic News Service.  “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith,” he said, referring to the Charlie Hebdo shooting last week in Paris.