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Pope Francis speaks of joys, struggles of family life at World Meeting of Families

Pope Francis makes his way to the Festival

Pope Francis makes his way to the Festival of Families along Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. Credit: Pool / AP / The New York Times / Eric Thayer

Riveted Catholics listened and laughed as an animated Pope Francis described the joys and struggles of family life before a crowd of thousands filling a main boulevard of Philadelphia on Saturday night.

Francis praised the family as "a factory of hope" and "the most beautiful thing" God created, in remarks at the World Meeting of Families, a global gathering of Catholics who packed Benjamin Franklin Parkway, some of them waiting all day for the pontiff's 7 p.m. arrival.

"It's wonderful. It's beautiful. It's what we need right now," said Jerianne Klein, 48, a bookkeeper from Orangeville, New York, who said she liked the pope's message. "There's so much bickering and polarization, it's nice to bring it together."

Celso Félix and Carla Marroquín, Guatemalan immigrants from Chester, Pennsylvania, took turns cuddling their 11-month-old daughter Aranza all the way until the end of the event -- waiting 12 hours for the pope's blessing.

"I'll always remember this day," Marroquín said in Spanish. "I have no words to express how it feels to receive God's blessing."

Speaking in Spanish from an outdoor stage in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the pope described the family as an essential part of society. He urged Catholics to care for children, whom he praised as "the strength that moves us forward," and grandparents, whom he called "the living memory of the family."

His remarks took a lighter turn when they touched on the challenges of marriage and child rearing.

"Some of you might say of course, 'You speak like that because you're not married,' " the pontiff said to laughs. "Families have difficulties. Families quarrel, and sometimes plates can fly. And children bring headaches. I won't speak about mothers-in-law. But in families, there is always light."

Francis, eight days into a nine-day tour of Cuba and the United States, presided over an event that blended American pop culture with Catholic tradition.

After arriving and leading the crowd in prayer, the pontiff sat in a throne and smiled at performances by singers Aretha Franklin and Andrea Bocelli, the band The Fray, the Pennsylvania Ballet and others.

Actor Mark Wahlberg hosted the festival, which featured testimonies from five Catholic families about the realities of starting and raising a family in the modern world.

Australian couple Kelly Walsh and Camillus O'Kane, who are engaged to be married in November, spoke frankly about their concerns over high rates of divorce, efforts "to change the legal definition of marriage" and the difficulty of providing for a family. Francis smiled and clasped hands with the couple after they spoke.

Mario and Rosa Scicchitano, a couple from the pope's native Argentina, spoke about how faith guided them through a military coup, a difficult move to Montreal, the loss of a son in 2013 -- and 60 years of marriage. "Many days and sleepless nights have been spent praying to God for guidance," Mario Scicchitano said in Spanish.

The World Meeting of Families, billed as one of the world's largest Catholic gatherings, has taken place every three years since 1994. St. Pope John Paul II conceived of the festival in 1992. This is the first time it is being held in the United States.

Scott Banghart of Mattewam, Michigan, and his daughter Katerina, 19, had a prime spot at the festival to view Francis' arrival in the popemobile.

"To be that close, to be a part of history, it's hard to describe."

Banghart, who's Catholic, said he thought he had prepared himself to see the pope. Instead he discovered feelings of "joy and hope, bubbling up."

He said he hoped Francis could "make change in the world."

Sister Clare Matthiass of the Community of Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal in East Harlem, was among those with a coveted ticket near the festival's stage.

"It's truly exciting for all of us to gather and be together in anticipation of the pope. It's a celebration," Matthiass said. "It really is a festival of families."

Bay Shore resident Veronica Reyes helped organize a bus caravan of mostly Hispanic Long Islanders going to Philadelphia that grew to more than 1,000 people. They had gathered toward the back of the parkway and were hoping to see the pope pass by on his way to the stage.

"We are all full of emotion just being here," Reyes, 42, said in Spanish before the pope's arrival. "This is our first Hispanic pope and he brings a message to all the world and we hope his words bring peace."

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