Pope Francis heads to Philadelphia for Catholic family event

Members of a choir file into the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, before a Mass with Pope Francis. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — After speeches to Congress and the United Nations aimed at spurring world leaders toward bold action on immigration and the environment, Pope Francis headed to Philadelphia on Saturday for a visit expected to focus more heavily on ordinary Catholics and their families.

The pope took off from New York’s Kennedy Airport for the City of Brotherly Love, where he will take part in a weekend of activities, including a Vatican-organized rally that will culminate in an outdoor Mass for 1 million people.

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 that closed off many streets and kept crowds behind police barricades.

“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.”

In Philadelphia, Francis will be the star attraction at the World Meeting of Families, a conference for more than 18,000 people from around the world.

An Argentine on the first U.S. visit of his life, the 78-year-old Francis will be given a stage steeped in American history. He will speak at Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and will do so from the lectern Abraham Lincoln used to deliver the Gettysburg Address.

As he has done 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.

On Saturday night, on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the cultural heart of the city, he will be serenaded by Aretha Franklin and other performers at a festival celebrating families, and will return there Sunday for the Mass, his last major event before leaving that night for Rome.

“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 spent time volunteering to bag food for Africa, among other activities at the family conference.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia organized the conference, hoping for a badly needed infusion of papal joy and 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 three grand jury investigations. The last grand jury accused the diocese in 2011, before Archbishop Charles Chaput came to Philadelphia, 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.

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 will be Chaput, an outspoken opponent of abortion and gay marriage who takes a harder line on church teaching in the archdiocese.

Chaput has said a local Catholic school run by nuns showed “character and common sense” by firing a teacher in June who married another woman. He recently wrote in the archdiocese newspaper that abortion is “a uniquely wicked act” that cannot be seen as one sin among many.

Three days ago, in an address to U.S. bishops laying out his vision for American Catholicism, Francis said attention should be paid to the “innocent victim of abortion” but listed the issue as one among many “essential” to the church’s mission, including caring for the elderly and the environment.

Chaput has rejected the idea that he is in conflict with the social justice-minded pope, calling it a narrative invented by the media and pointing to the millions of dollars the archdiocese spends each year to help the poor and sick. The pope will be staying at the seminary where Chaput lives.

The pope is expected to talk about religious freedom at Independence Hall and is expected to bring his message of compassion, hope and strengthening the family to his appearances in the city.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics plan to hold separate events, including one for gay parents and their children, in a push for more acceptance in the church. Francis has famously said, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about a supposedly gay priest, but has also affirmed church teaching on marriage.

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.'”

____

Zoll reported from New York. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Nicole Winfield in New York and Kathy Matheson and Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia.

 

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

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