Standing near Independence Hall, where America’s founding documents were signed, Pope Francis on Saturday called religious freedom a “fundamental right” and laid out a broad and tolerant vision of what it should be, but he also warned about its perversion “as a pretext for hatred and brutality.”
On the final leg of his first trip to the United States, Francis arrived in Philadelphia and went straight to the city’s Roman Catholic basilica, exhorting ordinary Catholics to bolster their role in sustaining the church. After a Mass before 2,400 people and a long midday rest, he traveled to Independence Mall and broadened his canvas: addressing the place of faith in a nation.
Religious freedom means the right to worship God, “as our consciences dictate,” Francis said. And, he went on, the principle goes beyond temples and the private sphere: Religion also serves society, especially as a bulwark “in the face of every claim to absolute power.”
The speech was an elaboration on comments from his first remarks on American soil, when on arrival Wednesday he told President Barack Obama that religious liberty “remains one of America’s most precious possessions” and should be vigilantly protected.
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But while some conservatives in politics and the church had expected his comments to bolster their opposition to the Obama administration’s health care mandate for contraception and other such issues on religious grounds, Francis did not press the issue Saturday. His comments seemed tilted toward creating an idea of religious liberty with broad applications — freedom to worship, but also to play a role in caring for others.
Religious traditions, he said, “call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good and compassion for those in need.”
He continued, “At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.”
Francis listed the ways the exercise of religion suffered and how it could be twisted, without any specific references.
“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 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, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others,” Francis said.
In the audience on Independence Mall were mainly Latinos and other immigrants. And at one point, Francis gave a note of appreciation to Quakers and their “ideal of a community united by brotherly love.”
Then, the Argentine pope, the first from Latin America, greeted Hispanic people in the audience with affection. He noted the human cost of immigration and said, “Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face.”
In a country where speaking languages other than English can be controversial, he called on them to “never be ashamed of your traditions.”
His call for the United States to embrace immigrants has been a running theme. Here, he gave them a direct morale boost.
Francis so far has made stops in Washington and New York, which included addresses to Congress and the United Nations, intimate moments with schoolchildren in Harlem and families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks at ground zero and large public encounters in touchstone locales like Central Park, Fifth Avenue and Madison Square Garden.
The pope is ending his first trip to the United States with a weekend in Philadelphia, where huge crowds — the kind where he becomes a dot on the altar before a sea of humanity — were expected, first at a concert and celebration Saturday night on Benjamin Franklin Parkway and a Mass on Sunday.
In the morning, speaking at a Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, he cited Pope Leo XIII’s words to the Philadelphia-born Katharine Drexel — later recognized as a saint — during an 1887 audience: “What about you? What are you going to do?”
Francis said the question should be addressed today to young people and by implication to women, noting it was important that Leo asked the question of a laywoman.
“We know that the future of the church calls for a much more active engagement on the part of the laity,” Francis said.
The issue has particular relevance in a country where one-fifth of parishes have no priest in residence and parishioners are often called on to take up the burden, and where the proportion of people who identify as Catholics has declined to a fifth from about a quarter over the last 20 years.
Though he encouraged help from people in the pews, Francis gently warned that there were limits.
“This does not mean relinquishing the spiritual authority with which we have been entrusted,” he said. “Rather, it means discerning and employing wisely the manifold gifts which the Spirit pours out upon the church.”
One of Francis’ biggest applause lines during his homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Friday came when he expressed his love and appreciation for nuns. He added to the thought Saturday, remarking on the “immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make to the life of our communities.”
Francis spoke to bishops, priests and nuns from Pennsylvania at the cathedral, the 151-year-old seat of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, where he arrived by motorcade after flying in from New York.
Afterward, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput gave a formal welcome with a jocular line: “This is a city that would change its name to Francisville today.”
Inside, worshippers included Tony Coletta, chief executive of a health care company, who called the pope’s visit “a lifetime opportunity both for the city of Philadelphia and for us.”
“It’s as close to God as we will ever get on the Earth,” Coletta said in the soaring marble-clad nave shortly before the Mass started.
Francis timed his trip to Philadelphia to coincide with the World Meeting of Families, a Vatican-sponsored jamboree. It was founded in 1994 by Pope John Paul II and takes place every three years. This is the first time it has been in the United States, and organizers said some 18,000 people attended the week’s events.
Within a week of his return to Rome, the bishops of the church will convene a major meeting, or synod, on the family at the Vatican, and Francis asked his clergy to pray for the deliberations. A major tension lies in how to balance tradition and doctrine with calls for a wider role for women in the church and flexibility on issues such as Communion and other sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics.
Philadelphia has been preparing for Francis for months. A central part of the city was in a security stranglehold, and many streets were eerily devoid of activity. Law enforcement agencies set up 19 checkpoints to create a secure zone around the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and seven more at Independence Mall, near the Delaware River. Passers-by had to go through a magnetometer and get their bags inspected.
Still, many residents in this city of 1.6 million showed the same forbearance that New Yorkers displayed during the pope’s time there earlier in the week.
“We need this,” said Irene Perry, 59 and a Catholic, who was sitting Friday on her stoop watching people pass through security near the parkway. “We need help. We have homeless, and people without jobs, and I think it’s a beautiful thing that Pope Francis is coming, and he’s going to bless all of us. We need peace in the world.”