With the cost of airfare out of her budget, Jonna Baldres’ dream to fly to the Philippines to see Pope Francis in the flesh was grounded. But Baldres, of Queens, New York, hasn’t entirely lost out on the excitement engulfing Asia’s Catholic heartland.
As the pontiff continues his five-day tour of the Philippines, which culminates Sunday when as many as 6 million people are expected at a public Mass in Manila, Baldres is feverishly checking friends' and family’s online posts for updates. “Because I’m not there, I’m missing out on something I wanted to be a part of,” Baldres, who immigrated to the U.S. seven years ago, told NBC News.
Also on Sunday, the schedule includes a papal pit stop at Baldres' alma mater, the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. “I have to go on Facebook or watch clips on YouTube," she said. "It’s as close as I can get.”
Baldres isn’t the only Filipino American who has been tethered to Twitter and Facebook since the pope landed Thursday evening after a rare trip to Sri Lanka. With Francis’ engaging and open demeanor — coupled with his social media acumen— following him from afar has been an enjoyable experience, his devotees add.
Baldres said she was especially struck by the pope's message on Friday calling on the Philippine government to crack down on corruption and lift others out of "scandalous" poverty. As president of the Philippine Forum-New York, which advocates on behalf of migrants, Baldres and her colleagues posted a picture on Facebook on Thursday imploring Francis to take up their issue.
"We’re asking the pope to stand with us," Baldres said.
BeeJae Visitacion, of suburban San Jose, California, said he, too, has taken to the pope's more progressive message centering on social change rather than by-the-book church doctrine.
"On a personal level, Pope Francis is very interesting. It’s kind of a breath of fresh air," said Visitacion, 29. "That's coming from someone who had walked away from the faith a little bit."
But now, he works for the Diocese of San Jose as a communications specialist and runs its social media accounts. "As a Filipino growing up in the United States, there’s incentive to follow along," Visitacion added. "You get to see the admiration that people have for the pope. It's a big deal when he comes to visit."
As part of the pontiff's first visit to the Philippines, which remains about 81 percent Roman Catholic, Francis on Friday made a surprise stop at a shelter for Manila street children. He was photographed with dozens of youth jockeying for his attention. "I have never met such a kind pope," 10-year-old Alvin Atis told NBC News. "I am so happy."
The jubilant reception doesn't surprise Cecile Mantecon, who also works for the Diocese of San Jose and got to see some of the pre-pope preparations when she was in Manila for New Year's. After just missing out on the festivities in person, she's staying on Twitter and Facebook to get her fix on the action.
"I have family tweeting pictures from office buildings, they're excited over every moment," Mantecon said. "I would love to have been there, too."
NBC News' Claudio Lavanga in Manila contributed to this report.