MANILA (5th Update) -- Pope Francis has arrived in the Philippines, Asia's most populous Catholic nation, where ecstatic crowds awaited the first papal visit in 20 years.

The leader of the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics waved to the crowd as he disembarked Thursday afternoon from Sri Lankan Airbus 340, which brought him from Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, where he had a three-day visit.

President Benigno Aquino III, senior government officials and church leaders, met Pope Francis as he deplaned at Villamor Air Base in Pasay City, for the second leg of his weeklong Asian trip.

Seconds after Pope Francis appeared at the top of the Sri Lankan jet's steps, as the crowd noise swelled, a gust of wind abruptly kicked up and blew away his papal skullcap.

The pontiff grabbed at his hat — a futile effort, since it was already long airborne — then smiled and descended the steps into the Philippines, heading toward the TV camera, hatless.

A welcome ceremony was immediately conducted at the airport's tarmac as church bells tolled across the country to welcome the Pope.

Young Filipinos in matching white T-shirts gave him a rousing, thumping hip-hop welcome that drew the flight attendants from the plane out onto the stairwell to watch.

On the tarmac, a boy and a girl from a house for street children handed flowers to the pope, who embraced them.

"I told him bienvenido (welcome in Spanish)," 9-year-old Lanie Ortillo said, adding the pontiff smiled and replied, "Yes, bienvenido."

From the air force base, Pope Francis rode the popemobile and started his 11-kilometer journey to the Apostolic Nunciature, the de facto Vatican embassy, where he will stay amid cheering crowds.

Tens of thousands of people called his name and snapped pictures from behind concrete barriers topped by iron fencing and guarded by policemen along the entire stretch in a trip beamed live on TV nationwide. Francis constantly shifted from left to right, smiling and waving.

He arrived at the gates of the Apostolic Nunciature in Quirino Avenue at 6:56 p.m.

Hours before the Pope arrives in Manila, 60-year-old Precy Asistio was staking out a place Thursday morning near the Apostolic Nunciature, where he will be staying, to try to see him when he arrives this evening.

"We're waiting for Pope Francis so we can be blessed somehow. Even with just a wave, that's OK for us."

The Pope is in the Philippines, the largest Roman Catholic country in Asia and third largest in the world, for a five-day apostolic visit.

Several activities are lined up for Pope Francis in Manila, including masses at Manila Cathedral and Rizal Park, a meeting of families and youth, and a meeting with President Aquino in Malacañang.

Social activists in Manila held ecumenical prayers for the poor, urging Pope Francis to be a champion of downtrodden Filipinos.

They set up a makeshift altar in front of a statue of working-man national hero Andres Bonifacio. A large banner in the background read: "Welcome Pope Francis! Hear the cry of the poor and oppressed. Stand with us for justice and peace."

Roman Catholic priest the Rev. Ben Alforque said poor Filipinos include landless peasants, underpaid workers, homeless children, indigenous tribes and political prisoners.

"The church of the poor is in the heart of Pope Francis," he said.

Members of a youth group later unveiled a large banner from a bridge with the image of Pope Francis shoulder to shoulder with a farm laborer, a worker, a youth, student and a member of an indigenous community.

Einstein Recedes, spokesman for the Student Christian Movement of the Philippines, said the image shows the pope in solidarity with the poor and "doesn't gloss over the plight of the Filipino people."

Pope Francis will be in Tacloban in Leyte on Saturday to comfort the victims of the devastating November 2013 Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), which left more than 7,300 people dead or missing.

The government has declared national holidays during the Pope's visit, which runs through Monday. (ABC/With AP/Sunnex)