In Philadelphia, Pope Francis offers words of strength and hope to nation’s immigrants

A crowd fills the Independence Mall in Philadelphia as Pope Francis speaks.

A crowd fills the Independence Mall in Philadelphia as Pope Francis speaks.

(Alex Brandon / Associated Press )

Speaking on the steps of Independence Hall, birthplace of the American nation, Pope Francis reached out warmly to the country’s Latinos, telling immigrants to stay strong and to “never be ashamed” of their cultural heritage.

The son of an Italian immigrant to Argentina, the first pontiff born in the New World recalled this country’s immigration heritage while surrounded by symbols of America. He stood next to a statue of George Washington and behind the lectern Abraham Lincoln used to deliver the Gettysburg Address.

Speaking in Spanish, Francis on Saturday greeted Latinos with “particular affection” and told immigrants they had an obligation to contribute to the country and not be discouraged by hardship.


“I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions,” the pope said. “I repeat, do not be ashamed of what is part of you, your lifeblood.”

The crowd, heavy with Latinos and immigrant rights activists, greeted Francis as one of their own, scrambling to catch a glimpse of the “popemobile” and breaking into a chant: “Francisco! Francisco!”

The pope’s pro-immigrant message has been a constant during his tour. The night before, during a Mass at Madison Square Garden in New York, he used a chair built by day laborers. He called for compassion toward immigrants during his address to Congress, remarks that could be heard as a rejoinder to some of the anti-immigrant messages that have become louder in the country’s politics.

“He talks not like a pope, but like someone from my town, like a normal person,” said Gerardo Flores, 51, of Philadelphia, who crossed the border from his native Mexico in 1995 with what he called “a visa from God.”

Flores said his son got in trouble and has since been deported. Flores, carrying a sign reading “no more separation of families,” is active in a movement that aims to keep Philadelphia a “sanctuary city,” where officials do not automatically turn over to federal authorities people who are in the country illegally.

“His words are going to change the ideas of the politicians,” he said.


In a speech that mentioned the Declaration of Independence and Philadelphia’s founding Quakers, Francis also spoke for religious freedom as an avenue for “peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”

The 78-year-old Francis continued a breakneck pace after his arrival in Philadelphia, celebrating a packed Mass at the local cathedral, visiting a seminary and concluding with an appearance at a festival featuring Aretha Franklin and other entertainers.

At the Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, he called on women to play a greater role in strengthening the church in America, singling out St. Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia-born heiress who became a nun. Francis told the story of how Drexel had asked Pope Leo XIII for help for U.S. missions and the pope replied, What are you going to do?

Francis repeated that question in Spanish, “y tu” — and what about you? — again and again as he spoke about the church’s role in a changing society.

Sheila DeLuca, 69, who made the trip from Green Bay, Wis., with five other women, said a larger role is not good enough: She says it is long past time for the church to allow women in the priesthood. Even though Francis has shown no indication of wavering on the issue, she remains hopeful.

“I think he’s being careful about that piece. He’s picking his battles,” she said.

With his trip coming to a close Sunday, there is still no word whether Francis will meet with victims of sexual abuse by priests. The issue has been searing in Philadelphia, where two grand jury investigations revealed years of abuse and coverups by church officials.

When popes have met with abuse victims in the past, they were never announced in advance, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, head of the Holy See press office, told reporters here Saturday. The meetings cannot be “a media sensation,” Lombardi said.

Philadelphia’s shut-down streets were full of families wearing green Francis T-shirts, seminarians, and groups of smiling white-robed sisters who stood in long lines at security checkpoints, watched by hundreds of uniformed Homeland Security and National Guard troops in camouflage. They crowded against the metal barricades lining the Ben Franklin Parkway, cheering as the pope passed and waving flags — Vatican, Argentine, Mexican and American.

“It was absolutely thrilling,” said Millie Cammisa, 54, a librarian from Philadelphia who described herself as a conservative Republican. She said Francis was causing her to focus more on the environment and other issues

“We are so set in our ways, in what we think.... Then somebody comes into your midst and eases you into a new way of thinking,” she said.

Claudia Kenyon of Waterford, Conn., a naturalized citizen from St. Martin in the Caribbean, hopes Congress hears the pope’s message about helping immigrants. “Their hearts are so set against it. But with God, all things are possible,” she said.

A 51-year-old retired middle school teacher, she plans to take in a Syrian refugee family.

Other pilgrims had different concerns. Fred Voss and Jay McFadden — they grew up together in Philadelphia and have been friends 72 years — were both wearing new T-shirts that combined Francis’ name with the logo of their beloved Philadelphia Eagles, who began the season with high expectations but dropped their first two games.

Voss doesn’t think that even the pope’s intervention could help: “They’ve already gone to hell,” he said. “How can you help someone that’s already been condemned?”

It was Francis’ personality that drew many on a pilgrimage to Philly. “He feels more like a priest than a judge,” said Brian Russell, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Florida who drove up from Jacksonville with his father. “He’s kind of a mystic, actually.”

During the morning Mass, Maria Elena Bowman, 53, of Conshohocken, Pa., watched the pope on a screen set up on 15th Street near City Hall, and was overtaken by the moment.

“Look,” she said, lifting her sleeve. “I have the goose bumps everywhere!”



Times staff writer Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.