Philadelphia – 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.