PHILADELPHIA, PA -- Standing at the birthplace of the United States, Pope Francis extended a warm and affectionate welcome to recent immigrants and extolled America's founding ideals of liberty and equality Saturday, while warning that religious freedom is under threat around the globe.
Francis arrived in the City of Brotherly Love on the final leg of his six-day U.S. trip, and in a moment rich with historical symbolism, he spoke outside Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, and used the lectern from which Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.
"It was here that the freedoms which define this country were first proclaimed," Francis told the crowd of about 40,000 after the pope known for his simple tastes arrived to the stirring strains of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man."
"We remember the great struggles which led to the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement, and the gradual effort to eliminate every kind of racism and prejudice directed at successive waves of new Americans," he said to applause. "This shows that when a country is determined to remain true to its founding principles, based on respect for human dignity, it is strengthened and renewed."
At the same time, the pope warned that religious freedom is in danger.
"In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality," he said, "it is imperative that the followers of various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others."
It may not have been the hard-hitting discussion of religious freedom some conservative American bishops may have wanted to hear. Frances did not mention gay marriage, abortion or government-mandated birth control coverage by name, speaking of threats to religious liberty in broader, more global terms.
Instead, he used the occasion to embrace other causes close to his heart.
Speaking in his native Spanish, Francis encouraged immigrants in the crowd to celebrate their heritage and traditions, and he assured them they are of value to America.
"By contributing your gifts you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within," the first pope from Latin America said.
Later Saturday evening, tens of thousands gathered on the broad Benjamin Franklin Parkway for a music-and-prayer festival featuring Aretha Franklin, Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, actor Mark Wahlberg and comedian Jim Gaffigan.
Francis came to Philadelphia to close out the World Meeting of Families, a Vatican-sponsored conference and festival for more than 18,000 people from around the world. He found a city practically under lockdown, with blocked-off streets and checkpoints manned by police, National Guardsmen and border agents.
There had been fears that visitors might be scared away by all the security, and, in fact, train ridership was lower than expected, some streets were eerily quiet, and a vendor of pope sunglasses cut his price from $15 to $10 for lack of business.
It remains to be seen if the expected 1 million people turn out for Francis' final Mass in the U.S., on the Parkway on Sunday.
Earlier in the day, the pontiff arrived from New York at the Philadelphia airport, where a Catholic high school band launched into the theme song from the Philadelphia-set movie "Rocky." Among those greeting him was Richard Bowes, a former Philadelphia police officer wounded in the line of duty. Francis also kissed the forehead of a 10-year-old boy severely disabled with cerebral palsy.
Then Francis celebrated a Mass for about 1,600 people at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, saying in his homily that the future of the Catholic Church in the U.S. requires a much more active role for lay Catholics, especially women.
"It means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make to the life of our communities," he said.
Francis has repeatedly said women should have a greater role in church leadership, though he has rejected the idea of ordaining women. By calling for more involvement of women and the laity, he seemed intent on healing one of the major rifts in American Catholicism that have alienated many from the church.
Later in the day, he traveled to red-brick Independence Hall in his open-sided Jeep, rolling slowly past adoring crowds and kissing babies handed to him by members of his security detail.
During the first two legs of his U.S. visit, in Washington and New York, he addressed Congress and the United Nations, urging action on such global issues as climate change and economic inequality. The Philadelphia visit is expected to be more personal, more focused on ordinary Catholics and their families.
"He has a magnetic personality that not only appeals to Catholics, but to the universal masses. He's not scripted. He's relatable," said Filipina Opena, 46, a Catholic from LaMirada, California.
Tony Coletta, a 62-year-old Philadelphia-area surgeon and health care company CEO who helped raise money for the papal visit, said: "I believe that he's going to bring the Catholic Church back in America in a way that nobody's ever seen before. His message resonates. It's much more of an all-encompassing one. And the small things that he does, spending time with the poor, it's more than just symbolic."
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia organized the conference, hoping for a badly needed infusion of enthusiasm amid shrinking membership, financial troubles and one of the worst clergy sex-abuse scandals to hit a U.S. diocese.
The archdiocese has been the target of repeated investigations. In 2011, before Archbishop Charles Chaput came to Philadelphia, a grand jury accused the diocese of keeping on assignment more than three dozen priests facing serious abuse accusations.
A monsignor who oversaw priest assignments was found guilty of child endangerment, becoming the first American church official convicted of a crime for failing to stop abusers.
The pope is widely expected to talk privately with abuse victims this weekend.
The visit is also shaping up as one of the most interesting ecclesial pairings of the pope's trip. His host is Chaput, an outspoken opponent of abortion and gay marriage who takes an especially hard line.
Francis has strongly upheld church teaching on such issues but has struck a more compassionate note, saying, "Who am I to judge?" when asked about a supposedly gay priest.
Pope visits Philadelphia, extols America's founding ideals
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