PHILADELPHIA -- It was a setting steeped in history: a pope known for his devotion to the poor and downtrodden standing at Independence Hall, the birthplace of American democracy, and telling immigrants to be proud of their heritage.
The strains of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" greeted Pope Francis Saturday afternoon as he came to the place where the Founding Fathers debated and adopted the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
The mall packed with thousands went crazy as the pontiff arrived in his popemobile. People cheered and screamed. Many swarmed across the grass to try to get a better vantage point for a glimpse of Francis in his white cassock.
Immigrants hung over barricades, stretching to get closer to the pope, and holding the flags of their homelands. They carried signs, too: "Libertad [Liberty]," "Todos somos hijos de familias [We are all children of immigrants]," and "Bendice las familias immigrantes [Bless the immigrant families]."
The pope, smiling, appeared to bask in the atmosphere. Then he stepped to the simple dark-walnut lectern used by President Abraham Lincoln 152 years ago in delivering the Gettysburg Address and gave impassioned guidance to the immigrants among his listeners: "Don't ever be ashamed of your traditions."
He repeated that counsel.
For some in the crowd of 40,000, the command was a welcome one.
"I think it was a positive message," Maria Maldonado, 44, a native of Puerto Rico who lives in Philadelphia, said after the speech. "I'm glad he came to America. We needed it."
Her daughter, Gyanessa, 19, called the pope's speech "awesome."
Francis, who has noted his own heritage as the son of immigrants, said to the throng: "Many of you have immigrated to this country at great personal costs, 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 this nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions."
Advising them not to forget "the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something that may enrich the life of this American land," he continued, "I repeat, do not be ashamed of that which is a part of your lifeblood."
Prominent in Francis' address was the importance of religious freedom, a central theme in his visit to the United States and one he mentioned in earlier stops in New York City and Washington, D.C.
Religious freedom "is a fundamental right which shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors whose religious views differ from our own," he said. "Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our own consciences dictate. But on the other hand, religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families."
He made more than one reference in his speech to attempts to curb religious freedom, and how people of faith must band together as advocates for peace and human rights.
"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 or vote in the public square, 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, for tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others," the pope said.
While praising the American ideals of liberty, equality and justice, Francis said that those values must be constantly reaffirmed and defended.
"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 the successive waves of new Americans," he said. "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."
With Darran Simon