Good Evening
Good Evening

Pope Francis delivers message of religious tolerance in Philadelphia

Pope Francis speaks in front of Independence Hall,

Pope Francis speaks in front of Independence Hall, from the lectern used by President Abraham Lincoln during the Gettysburg Address, alongside a statue of President George Washington, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in Philadelphia. Credit: AP / Alex Brandon

PHILADELPHIA -- In the heart of a city founded as a beacon of tolerance, Pope Francis on Saturday called religious freedom essential to human dignity and underscored the importance of the traditional family as a "living symbol" of God's plan.

The first Latin American pope also addressed America's immigrant community, saying its traditions enrich this country, as he continued to infuse his messages with the themes of peace and social justice that have defined his papacy.

The pope arrived at Independence Hall in the afternoon after riding his open-air popemobile past thousands of cheering people, pausing numerous times to kiss babies offered up by beaming parents.

Standing outside the historic brick building before rapturous followers, he nodded to the city's Quaker roots by addressing one of the founders' keystone issues -- religious freedom.

Francis broadened his call from his own Catholic community to embrace those of other faiths, asking them to "join their voices" against modern tyrants who would 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."

The Argentine son of Italian immigrants went on to greet immigrants in America with "particular affection," urging them not to become discouraged by challenges in their adopted country.

"I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions," he said. "By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within."

Micheline Thera, 57, a Haitian immigrant who works at a hospital in Philadelphia, said she arrived at Independence Hall more than 11 hours early to see Francis.

"This pope brings for us hope. He's bringing a chance for us in America," she said. "We feel proud, we feel happy."

The pontiff arrived here yesterday morning after bidding an emotional farewell to New York, the city that had embraced him so freely. Before his helicopter took him to Kennedy Airport, he asked the pilot to circle the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island -- twin symbols of immigration and freedom.

After his chartered American Airlines jet landed in Philadelphia, Francis climbed into his modest black Fiat, bound for the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

But Francis, spotting a boy in a wheelchair behind the tarmac barricades, had the driver stop. He walked over to the 10-year-old with cerebral palsy, placed his hands on the boy's head, uttered a blessing and kissed his forehead.

In his homily during a Mass at the cathedral, Francis saluted priests, nuns and other Catholics for reaching out to the "peripheries" of society to help the downtrodden, and called for women and young people to play a major role in bolstering the church.

He left followers with the repeated question "y tu?" -- "And you?" -- asking the faithful how they plan to respond "to the Lord's call to build up his body, the church."

Toward the end of the Mass, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput officially welcomed Francis to the City of Brotherly Love. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which covers five counties, boasts nearly 1.5 million Catholics.

"This is a city that would change its name to 'Francisville' today if we could do that without inconveniencing the rest of North America," Chaput said. "So we welcome you with all our hearts, and a huge amount of enthusiasm and joy."

Francis would later invoke Philadelphia's moniker, thanking those "of whatever religion, who have sought to serve the God of peace by building cities of brotherly love."

The pontiff ended the day with another motorcade and a prayer vigil as part of the World Meeting of Families -- a gathering of Catholics from around the world -- where he lauded the traditional family.

"God did not want to come into the world other than through a family," he said, referring to Jesus' birth to Mary.

"That is why the family is the living symbol of the loving plan of which the Father once dreamed," he said. "To want to form a family is to resolve to be a part of God's dream, to choose to dream with him, to want to build with him, to join him in this saga of building a world where no one will feel alone, unwanted or homeless."

As in many of his addresses, Francis turned to a plea for social justice -- pointing to the pernicious companions of poverty, such as inadequate health care, as threats to the family.

"We cannot call any society healthy when it does not leave real room for family life," he said. "We cannot think that a society has a future when it fails to pass laws capable of protecting families and ensuring their basic needs, especially those of families just starting out."

Joey Walker, 13, of Morgantown, Pennsylvania, turned down a school dance and paintball for a chance to see the pope at the festival.

"It was life-changing," said Walker, who attends a Catholic school. "It's really cool to be able to say you saw the most holy man in the world and be in his holy presence."

Francis will spend the last day of his nine-day journey through Cuba and the United States at several events here Sunday, culminating in an afternoon Mass at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway that is expected to attract more than a million people. He leaves for Rome Sunday.

News Photos and Videos