PHILADELPHIA -- Pope Francis closed out his historic nine-day mission to Cuba and the United States with an extraordinary Mass in the streets of downtown Philadelphia Sunday before an estimated crowd of nearly 1 million worshippers -- a gathering that the pontiff called "a miracle."
With throngs of followers flooding Benjamin Franklin Parkway -- some climbing up trees and lamp posts for better vantage points -- the pope made a final appeal to his followers to carry their faith, love and compassion back to their homes long after he returned to the Vatican.
"We Christians, the Lord's disciples, ask the families of the world to help us," Francis said, looking across the sea of celebrants before him. "This is itself prophetic, a kind of miracle in today's world. How beautiful it would be if everywhere, even beyond our borders, we could appreciate and encourage this prophecy and this miracle."
It was the main event of the pope's momentous American visit, and of the World Meeting of Families -- an international Catholic conference held every three years.
Crowds began flocking to Philadelphia's Center City during early morning hours for the 4 p.m. Mass, braving unprecedented security measures for a view of the giant altar and the pontiff himself.
"I think it's a testament to the fact this pope has been very welcoming and more contemporary perhaps than previous popes," said Philadelphia resident Joseph Bowen, 33, who arrived six hours early with his wife, Melissa.
The pope made his way to the makeshift church in a large motorcade that stopped repeatedly so that he could kiss babies brought to him by security personnel.
As he arrived, choral music soared. Among the voices in the 500-member papal choir were Michael and Patricia Lundy, formerly of Valley Stream and now from Wilmington, Delaware. "It's been a long road to get here today but we're excited," Michael Lundy said. Patricia Lundy added, "Everyone in the choir is blessed."
The crowd, as large as it was, was quiet and respectful from the moment the Mass commenced, listening intently to the pope's words.
"Love is shown by little things," the pontiff, dressed in a green garment with gold trimming, said in a homily stressing family values. He explained that happiness and holiness often come in small gestures in the home: "Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day's work.
"They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion," Francis said, according to the official English translation of his remarks, made in Spanish.
"That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith."
Those who could not get tickets to attend the Mass watched on giant video screens. They were silent as the Liturgy of the Eucharist began and the pope held up the blessed wafer.
Priests, identifiable by the white and yellow umbrellas they carried, fanned out onto the parkway to deliver the Eucharist. From behind metal barricades, people waved to get their attention so they could receive Communion. They moved forward and stretched their hands and made room for the person behind them.
Dennis DiDomenico, 63, said receiving Communion at the Mass was "something that I'll remember forever."
DiDomenico, of nearby Drexel Hill, who came with his wife, Karen, said: "We were here at a Mass that the pope celebrated. I don't know if I'll ever have that chance in my life ever again. Just to hear his voice . . . was inspiring."
Communion was followed with a silent prayer, as overcast skies began to darken.
At the end of the Mass, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, on behalf of the legions of Catholics assembled, thanked the pope for "bringing your spirit to our city and to the world."
"None of us will forget these days for the rest of our lives," Chaput said.
Lifelong Catholic John Goldschmidt, 57, who came with his family, said the Mass was unlike any other he attended.
"To just feel the community; that there are this many people, and millions more who would want to be here, is as moving of a spiritual experience that I've ever had," said Goldschmidt, of Wayne, Pennsylvania.
Filing out of the staging area at the conclusion of the Mass, Jaime Cordova, a 21-year-old Villanova University student from San Juan, said the experience of seeing the pope among nearly a million people was, at times, "a little overwhelming."
"But now I have a sense of peace," he said.