PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Pope Francis arrived in the City of Brotherly Love on Saturday for the final leg of his U.S. visit – a festive weekend devoted to celebrating Catholic families – and immediately called for the church to place greater value on women.
The pontiff’s plane touched down at the Philadelphia airport after takeoff from New York, bringing him to a city of blocked-off streets, sidewalks lined with portable potties, and checkpoints manned by police, National Guardsmen and border agents.
After speeches to Congress and the United Nations earlier this week aimed at spurring world leaders toward bold action on immigration and the environment, he is expected to focus more heavily on ordinary Catholics during his two days in Philadelphia.
Francis rode by motorcade to the downtown Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul and celebrated a Mass for about 1,600 people. In his homily, he said the future of the Catholic Church in the U.S. requires a much more active role for lay Catholics, especially women.
“It means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make to the life of our communities,” he said.
Francis has repeatedly said women should have a greater role in church leadership, though he has rejected the idea of ordaining women.
His praise of nuns marked his second such public expression of gratitude in the U.S. after the Vatican under his leadership ended a crackdown on the main umbrella group of American sisters. Nuns in the cathedral appreciated the gesture.
“We have felt very strong support from him,” said Sister Catherine Darcy of Merion, Pennsylvania, one of about 50 members of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas at the Mass. “We feel he recognizes the contribution that religious (women) make to the church throughout the world.”
At the airport, a Catholic high school band played the theme song from the Philadelphia-set movie “Rocky” upon Francis’ arrival, and among those greeting him was Richard Bowes, a former Philadelphia police officer wounded in the line of duty. Francis also kissed the forehead of a 10-year-old boy severely disabled with cerebral palsy.
Also on the itinerary for Saturday: a late-afternoon speech on religious freedom and immigration at Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The 78-year-old Argentine was scheduled to speak from the lectern Abraham Lincoln used to deliver the Gettysburg Address.
Francis will be the star attraction at the World Meeting of Families, a conference for more than 18,000 people from around the world. The weekend lineup also included a Saturday night vigil and an outdoor Mass Sunday evening for 1 million people on the broad Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It will be the last major event of the pope’s U.S. visit.
On the first two legs of his six-day U.S. journey, in Washington and New York, Francis was greeted by throngs of cheering, weeping well-wishers hoping for a glance or a touch from the wildly popular spiritual leader, despite unprecedented security.
The Philadelphia visit, which was the original reason for his visit to the U.S., all but paralyzed Center City, with stretches of Broad and Market streets and other routes closed to all but pedestrians and lined with metal crowd-control barricades, massive concrete blocks and tall fences.
That didn’t seem to deter his fans.
“He has a magnetic personality that not only appeals to Catholics, but to the universal masses. He’s not scripted. He’s relatable. His heart, in itself, you can see that reflected through his message,” said Filipina Opena, 46, a Catholic from LaMirada, California, as tour groups and families walked among Philadelphia’s historic sites ahead of the pope’s visit. “People feel he’s sincere and he’s genuine.”
As he did in New York and Washington, the pontiff will give his attention to both the elite and the disadvantaged, this time visiting inmates in Philadelphia’s largest jail.
“It’s probably not politicians who will remember his message but the kids,” said Liza Stephens, 48, of Sacramento, California, who was in Philadelphia with her two daughters, ages 10 and 12. The three volunteered their time bagging food for Africa, among other activities at the family conference.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia organized the conference, hoping for a badly needed infusion of enthusiasm amid shrinking membership, financial troubles and one of the worst clergy sex-abuse scandals to hit a U.S. diocese.
The archdiocese has been the target of repeated investigations. In 2011, before Archbishop Charles Chaput came to Philadelphia, a grand jury accused the diocese of keeping on assignment more than three dozen priests facing serious abuse accusations.
A monsignor who oversaw priest assignments was found guilty of child endangerment, becoming the first American church official convicted of a crime for failing to stop abusers.
Cardinal Justin Rigali, who retired as Philadelphia archbishop in 2011 amid the scandal, helped celebrate Saturday’s Mass with Francis.
The pope is widely expected to talk privately with abuse victims this weekend.
The visit is also shaping up as one of the most interesting ecclesial pairings of the pope’s trip. His host is Chaput, an outspoken opponent of abortion and gay marriage who takes an especially hard line.
Francis has strongly upheld church teaching on such issues but has struck a more compassionate note, saying, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about a supposedly gay priest.
Under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, many U.S. bishops worked to shore up their authority, upsetting parishioners who had high expectations for more of a say in Catholic life after the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council
By paying tribute to the laity in his homily Saturday, Francis seemed intent on healing one of the major rifts in American Catholicism that has alienated many from the church.
Mary McGuiness, a religion professor at La Salle University, a Catholic school in Philadelphia, said she doesn’t anticipate a flood of local Catholics returning to Sunday Mass because of the pope’s visit. She said the archdiocese has been through too much with abuse scandals and parish closings.
She said the intense attention to his speeches here could inspire people to “begin to think more about what Catholicism really means.”
“I hope that will happen,” she said. “But I hear a lot of people say, `I like this pope, but I’m not going back.'”
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Rachel Zoll in New York and Kathy Matheson and Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia.
This story has been corrected to show that the pope kissed a boy, not a man, in a wheelchair.