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Pope Francis in Philly: Strengthening Family Ties

Pope Francis in Philly: Strengthening Family Ties

After his US tour, Pope Francis described the reaction that his visit generated in Washington as friendly, yet diplomatically formal. The reaction in New York City he described as exuberant.

Philadelphia, by contrast, put everything on hold for the pope for his two-day weekend visit September 26 and 27.

The pope came to Philadelphia as the culmination of the World Meeting of Families, a Vatican-sponsored event that is rotated to various world cities. Original plans for an open-air, massive public Mass, with a comeone, come-all invitation to the world, were expected to attract two million visitors. Residents were warned to take the weekend away. Philadelphia readied for an extravaganza that for its sheer weight would surely paralyze the city.

Yet security concerns modified that expectation. Events became ticketed. Visitors were warned they would have to walk miles to reach destinations.

Fears, however, proved to be overblown. The official count for the Sunday Mass on the city’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which stretches from City Hall two miles to the city’s art museum—made more famous by the movie Rocky—was 850,000 visitors. Still, the way people were packed in, it was hard to imagine the city could have contained much more. In fact, thousands were turned away as security checkpoints became overwhelmed.

True to his humble reputation, the pontiff ended the Mass with a simple injunction: “I ask your prayers for me, don’t forget.”

Pilgrims Come from Afar

Visitors came from all over. An educator from Indiana drove 12 hours and slept under a tree to be sure to get a spot. One man from Washington state claimed to have hitchhiked across the country. A family from the pope’s native Argentina spent 20 days driving 13,000 miles to reach Philadelphia. They were rewarded with a private papal audience.

The locals were also out in force. Philadelphians were anxious to meet a pope who projected a new vision, tied to the basic Gospel message.

“His presence brings us closer to Jesus,” said Donna Conway of Philadelphia, describing why she showed up for the papal public events.

Her friend, Carol Waskiewicz, also of Philadelphia, said Francis’ humility was a big drawing card. “There’s nothing preachy about it,” she said of the pope’s speaking style. “He doesn’t preach simply that you’ve got to go to church. He preaches the Gospel.”

John McDevitt of Parlin, New Jersey, a Knights of Columbus volunteer for the papal Mass, noted, “Every word he says rings true.” He said he admired Francis’ brave efforts to converse in English, a process which markedly improved as the trip continued, but was initially a cause for anxiety among planners who wondered how the Argentinian would connect with English-speaking Americans. “What hits me is when he asks people to pray for him,” said McDevitt.

‘What about You?’

It wasn’t just the expressions of humility that punctuated the Philadelphia portion of this American pilgrimage. Pope Francis had some serious issues to attend to, and that he did.

During a homily at Mass on Saturday morning at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, the pope praised American sisters and challenged all Catholics to follow the example of St. Katharine Drexel, the Philadelphia heiress who ministered to the poor of all races in the 19th century and into the 20th.

“Every man and woman, by virtue of Baptism, has received a mission,” said Francis.

The mission of St. Katharine Drexel began after she met Pope Leo XIII who asked her, during an audience in Rome, to answer the question, “What about you?” Answering that question inspired her work as a missionary in the new American nation.

Speaking in Spanish, the pope continued a litany of “y tu?” (“and you?”), citing the need to challenge Catholic youth, in particular, to live the Gospel by embracing the poor and serving those on the peripheries of society, a regular theme of the pope.

Invoking America’s History

Center City became a Catholic festival, complete with sales of pope dolls and other memorabilia. Traffic in the city came to a complete halt as the pope’s motorcade moved toward his first large-scale event, a speech at historic Independence Hall, the birthplace of the nation, to address the themes of religious liberty and immigration.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia set the stage for the pope, telling the 40,000 gathered that the Church is often criticized by a wide swath of the culture. When it speaks on the right to life, he said, it is “attacked for being too harsh.” When it speaks on behalf of immigrant rights, “it is attacked for being too soft.”

Other speakers focused on issues associated with this pope, including a plea by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter for respect for gays, and others endorsing Francis’ views on the need to address climate change.

The pope’s address emphasized the welcoming face of the Church to the wider world, mixing in bits of American heritage with his message of inclusion and the need for religious liberty.

He embraced the American principle of religious freedom, citing its roots in the life of William Penn, the Quaker founder of Philadelphia. Speaking from the lectern used at Gettysburg by Abraham Lincoln, one of four American heroes the pope cited in his address to the US Congress, Francis acknowledged the labor movement, the long struggle to fight the ills of racism, and other efforts to honor the belief that all people are created equal.

The pope called for a healthy pluralism that respects religious differences and encourages the voice of faith in the public square. Exercising religious freedom is not an insular activity; it should transform society, he said. “It is imperative that the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance, and respect for the dignity and rights of others,” he said.

The Independence Hall event coupled its focus on religious freedom with a celebration of immigration, as the pope blessed the Encuentro cross, a symbol of a national assembly of Latino Catholics. Encuentro, Spanish for “encounter,” is a key theme of his papacy.

Francis, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, raised his voice and looked out from his prepared text as he told the large crowd that “everyone is called to be distinctive” and that immigrants should be encouraged to offer their gifts to the wider American culture, a concept that once was considered a given in American life, but is now developing into a contentious 2016 presidential campaign issue.

“You should never be ashamed of your traditions,” he told everyone. They were words that resonated for Latino Catholics.

Confronting Failures

The next day, in a series of events, Francis took on another contentious issue: the sexabuse crisis in the Catholic Church, which scarred the Archdiocese of Philadelphia perhaps more than any other—it’s debatable.

While in Washington, the pope had congratulated the US bishops for acting with decisiveness on the issue and implementing reforms. But the remarks created a bitter pushback among survivor groups. They said that the pope was ignoring their continued anguish, while offering encouraging words to those they say were responsible.

Here in Philadelphia, in a private meeting, away from the glare of media lights, the pope met with abuse survivors, three men and two women. A public statement issued immediately after it ended left the clear impression that Francis was sending a message to bishops that the failures of the past could never be repeated and that old wrongs still needed to be addressed.

“We will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead,” the pope said. “The sins and crimes of sexual abuse must no longer be held in secret and in shame.”

A Broad Reach

In other events, the pope’s whirlwind tour included a visit to seminarians and, as part of a trio of actions symbolizing outreach to those on the peripheries in each of the cities he visited, he spoke with prisoners at Curran- Fromhold Correctional Facility in the city. There he spoke from a chair that had been constructed by inmates in his honor. He also found time to make an unscheduled visit to Saint Joseph’s University, an institution founded by his Jesuit community.

Still, while the pope tackled the heavy issues, perhaps the long-lasting memory of the Philadelphia visit will be his blunt, earthy language, his humility, and unscripted moments of tenderness.

The 78-year-old seemed a bit weary and walked with a limp on Saturday, which a Vatican spokesman attributed to a case of sciatica, for which he had difficulty receiving therapy during this trip.

Yet Francis seemed reenergized as he attended the massive finale to the Festival of Families held on the parkway on Saturday evening. It was a both high and popular culture extravaganza, including country music, the strutting “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin, the Colombian pop star Juana, and Jim Gaffigan, a Catholic comedian.

The event was hosted by actor Mark Wahlberg, who readily acknowledged that his résumé of movie roles and personal issues were not the usual route for leading such an occasion.

But the hit of the evening was 14-year-old Bobby Hill, a member of Keystone State Boychoir, asked to sing on-thespot with an a cappella operatic piece which stunned the crowd. Hill generated cheers everywhere he walked that weekend, becoming an instant celebrity.

Embracing Families

On Sunday, Francis continued his Philly tour, mixing weighty philosophical concepts and complicated themes of globalization and family life via earthy metaphors.

In a talk to seminarians, he noted that “Christians are not immune to the changes of their times.” The Church’s view of family life, and that of the wider society, are not the same.

Yet he cautioned against a fortress mentality that argues that all change is negative and that people are not as faithful as they used to be.

Taking a wide concept like economic globalization and its impact on family life, he suggested the analogy of the neighborhood store versus the large supermarket.

“There is a personal bond between the shopkeeper and his customers,” even if the local store may have limited quantity and quality of goods. By contrast, in today’s globalized economy, “the world has become one of the great shopping centers. . . . Today consumerism determines what is important.” Catholicism must compete more effectively, was his point.

Mixing his belief in traditional family structures with a harsh critique of capitalism, he said that contemporary society engenders a fear of commitment, a reluctance to share marriage.

The pope said families are faced with “a culture that discards everything” in which the elite are content to offer crumbs from their table to the poor and those left out of the global economy.

He described a “radical loneliness” among the young, who attempt to assuage their anxiety via social media. There is, he said, a widespread “loneliness with fear of commitment.”

The vision of a pious, restrained family existence was not the one shared by this Latino pope, of Italian heritage. Family life can be contentious and can include the throwing of plates and arguments with in-laws, he quipped, but no one should go to sleep without healing the wounds of the family, he said.

Francis repeated this theme in his Sunday Mass homily: “Holiness is always tied to little gestures,” he said, and Jesus “invites us not to hold back these little miracles.” These gestures are “the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers, and by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection, and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early for work.”

In the end, small gestures of kindness overwhelmed fears about the Philadelphia trip. There were thorny security issues as parts of the city were transformed by airport-terminal- like security lines, leaving thousands unable to reach the sites after waiting in long lines.

Yet those who made it—and it would be hard to envision the parkway being more crowded at the height of the Sunday Mass—heard the gospel of inclusion that has made Francis such a transformative figure.

Answered Prayers

Speaking to the Gospel reading of the day from Mark, in which Jesus’ disciples complain about those working in Jesus’ name without formal permission, Francis said the Church should avoid the “temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, bypassing bureaucracy, official and inner circles.”

A healthy Church is not focused on structures and buildings, but rather on preaching and living the Gospel by reaching out to the poor and marginalized, the pope emphasized.

“God wants all of his children to take part in the feast of the Gospel,” he proclaimed.

Those who came, as they exited the Benjamin Franklin Parkway into the Philadelphia night, frequently said they were transformed. While he asked for prayers in his difficult transformative work of evangelizing, Pope Francis clearly had answered many Philadelphians’ prayers.