PHILADELPHIA (CN) – A cloudy autumn sky didn’t stop nearly a million people from crowding several downtown Philadelphia city blocks Sunday to see Pope Francis make the last public appearance of his historic first visit to the United States.
Capping off a six-day, three-city tour, Francis visited Philadelphia to headline the World Meeting of Families, a three-day event that the Holy See holds every three years, usually in conjunction with a papal visit. This year’s was the first such festival held in the United States.
Pope Francis arrived at Philadelphia International Airport on Saturday morning to an awestruck but jubilant crowd of onlookers. His jam-packed weekend itinerary included two public events – a Saturday parade and speech at Independence Hall, site of the birth of the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and an open-air mass Sunday at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
With reports counting spectators from more than 100 different backgrounds at the mass, dozens of flags lining the parkway underscored the diverse crowd and likewise echoed the pontiff’s message.
Halfway into his third year at the Vatican, Francis’ papacy has been characterized in large part by his calls for unity and tolerance. Supportive messages for marginalized groups, including refugees from the Middle East and gays and lesbians, mark a dramatic shift for the church, long awaited by many.
In emphasizing America’s ability to rise through struggle, the pope cited the country’s freedom-fighting successes like abolition and desegregation.
“When a country is determined to remain true to its founding principles, based on respect for human dignity, it is strengthened and renewed,” Francis told the crowd in Philadelphia.
The pope’s position on such hot-button issues has prompted some backlash, however.
Whereas Pope Benedict XVI decried homosexuality as “a strong tendency toward an intrinsic moral evil” and an “objective disorder” in a 2005 Vatican document, the new Argentine pontiff took a wholly different stance within months of his appointment.
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis asked in 2013.
Some of the very same spiritual leaders who welcomed the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to Philadelphia previously appeared stung by his progressive views. Archdiocesan Archbishop Charles Chaput said in October 2013 that the Pope’s public statements on homosexuality produced “confusion,” a feeling which he said was “of the devil.” The Philadelphia Archdiocese did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
At a time when the Republican primaries leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election are invigorating family-values conservatives, Pope Francis has not shied away from the equally divisive topic of immigration.
At Independence Hall, the church’s first Jesuit pope specifically addressed the “members of America’s large Hispanic population … and representatives of recent immigrants to the United States.” He encouraged them to hold on to their native culture and beliefs and use them “to enrich the life of this American land.”
“I greet you all with particular affection!,” Pope Francis said. “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. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to you new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions.”
All of Pope Francis’ stops in Philadelphia reflected the values that have been the hallmark of his tenure. Continuing his emphasis on compassion toward those victimized and marginalized, the pope met privately with local victims of sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy, telling reporters later that “God weeps” for their pain.
“The crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of children must no longer be held in secret,” he said, addressing an issue that has been a frequent subject of litigation in the Philadelphia courts. “I pledge the zealous vigilance of the Church to protect children and the promise of accountability for all.”
Pope Francis kicked off his final day in the city by visiting with prisoners and their families. In a touching moment televised on local news, one inmate stood up as the pope descended the podium after his speech and hugged him – a breach of protocol, according to a prison official interviewed on NBC after the event, but the gesture set off a chain reaction, as the Holy Father walked down the line of prisoners and embraced every last one as he left the room.
“Confinement is not the same thing as exclusion,” Pope Francis reminded the inmates.
The Sunday mass held immediately thereafter accommodated about 80,000 ticketed attendees, according to a Secret Service statement to the Associated Press. The highly sought-after tickets were distributed through local parishes and an online lottery, which was said to have sold out in under 30 seconds.
Hundreds of thousands of additional people packed the surrounding areas, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Holy Father as he paraded up and down the Parkway before and after the mass. The parade route was lined with big-screen TVs, but onlookers craned their necks and outstretched their camera phones, hoping to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis in the flesh. A long list of items prohibited by the city within the “Pope Zone” did not include binoculars or cameras, but attendees were barred from bringing “selfie sticks.”
Philadelphia left no stone unturned in ensuring security. Camouflaged fatigues and armored trucks took the place of taxicabs, commuters and bicycles as early as Friday, as National Guardsmen patrolled almost every downtown street corner in the calm before the storm.
Francis’ actual arrival in the city brought life as locals knew it to a virtual standstill. Streets were completely closed to vehicles throughout the entire downtown area, known as the “Francis Festival Zone.” Surrounding highways were shut down, and the Ben Franklin Bridge, the main thoroughfare between Philadelphia and New Jersey, was open to foot traffic only.
Secret Service oversaw security efforts with help from the Transportation Security Administration and the FBI, but officials were tightlipped about chain-of-command details.
“Not gonna happen,” a Homeland Security police officer patrolling a security checkpoint pleasantly but curtly responded when asked about event security.
Other than some slight jockeying for positioning along the parade routes, the weekend went off without a hitch, and attendees displayed a peace and togetherness that would make the guest of honor proud.
“Would that all of us could be open to the miracles of love,” Pope Francis said in his final Mass Sunday evening, before bidding residents and visitors to the City of Brotherly Love a fond farewell.
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