Pope Francis on Saturday called for the defense of religious freedom and urged Catholics, especially women, to help fortify the Church, as hundreds of thousands celebrated his visit to Philadelphia.
The head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics also made another impassioned plea for new immigrants from Latin America to be accepted in the United States, and encouraged them not to be discouraged as they build a new life.
The 78-year-old Argentine pontiff landed in the City of Brotherly Love after a short flight from New York, where he spent a whirlwind 36 hours that included an emotional visit to Ground Zero and mass at Madison Square Garden.
Francis is wrapping up a historic visit to Cuba and the United States this weekend in Philadelphia, with a packed schedule including two appearances at the Festival of Families, an international Catholic gathering.
The city is under a security lockdown, with traffic banned downtown for the entire weekend and thousands of National Guardsmen in the streets to corral throngs of faithful hoping to see the pontiff.
At Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were debated and signed, Francis told a crowd of tens of thousands that religious freedom must be protected -- and be used for the greater good.
“It is a fundamental right which shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors whose religious views differ from our own,” the pope said.
“In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom... or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”
A debate over the place of religious freedom in American society came to a head this month when a Kentucky county clerk was jailed after refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, saying it violated her religious beliefs.
The first Latin American pope also touched on another hot-button issue in US politics: how immigrants fit into American society, and how far the US should open its borders to them.
Francis reminded the large contingent of Hispanics in the crowd: “You bring many gifts to your new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions,” while also urging them to be “responsible citizens.”
“Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life. Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face,” he said, speaking in Spanish.
Upon arrival in Philadelphia, Francis headed to the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, where people slept in the street overnight in the hopes of seeing him.
In his sermon, the pope singled out the role women have played in the Church, telling the story of an American heiress, St Katharine Drexel, who answered her calling to found an order of nuns when asked by another pope: “What about you?”
“It is significant that those words of the elderly Pope were also addressed to a lay woman,” Francis said.
“We know that the future of the Church in a rapidly changing society will call, and even now calls, for a much more active engagement on the part of the laity,” he said, noting the “immense contribution” of women to Catholic communities.
Keeping parishioners involved is an important issue in America’s Catholic Church: the number of new priests only covers one-third of the need, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
Later Saturday, Francis was to address huge crowds at the Festival of Families, a Catholic event that takes place every three years.
“I wanted to be part of this family celebration,” said 42-year-old Luis Ortiz, who slept outside with his 11 children near the cathedral.
The pope has received a rapturous reception in America -- he was welcomed personally by President Barack Obama when he arrived on Tuesday and by giant crowds lining the streets of both Washington and the Big Apple.
Hundreds of lawmakers in the US Congress offered him repeated standing ovations, but he also reveled in visits with the homeless in Washington and schoolchildren in New York’s East Harlem neighborhood.
His reform-minded approach to social issues, humility and focus on the most vulnerable has struck a chord across the country’s racial and socioeconomic divide.
At Madison Square Garden, he called on about 20,000 worshippers not to forget “the faces of all those people who don’t appear to belong, or are second-class citizens.”
On Sunday in Philadelphia, Francis will meet with American bishops, visit a prison and lead a farewell mass on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the city’s grandest avenue, before leaving the United States.