Pope Francis completed his pilgrimage to the United States with a Sunday Mass on Philadelphia’s iconic Benjamin Franklin Parkway, sounding a clarion call for love and unity hours after telling sex abuse victims that God cried for them.
A huge crowd of the faithful and the curious came for the Mass from all over the country and as far away as Vietnam, Angola, Burkina Faso and the pope’s native Argentina. The service was conducted at an altar in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Worshipers took communion and knelt on the asphalt, some weeping, with their eyes closed and their hands on their hearts.
In his homily, the pope who has become beloved for his common touch said the power of God could be found in “little miracles” of domestic life.
“Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work,” he said.
Closing the Mass, he thanked people for their love. “I ask you to pray for me — don’t forget,” he said, eliciting shouts of “Viva papa!”
The pope also made a farewell speech at the airport, where well-wishers included Vice President Joe Biden.
“This land has been blessed with tremendous gifts and opportunities,” Francis said. The love of Jesus is shown in serving “the poor, the sick, the homeless and the immigrant, your defense of life at every stage, and your concern for family life,” he said.
“God bless America.”
Earlier in the day, Francis held a private, unscheduled meeting with five victims of sexual abuse — three women and two men — at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. Speaking with them one by one, he listened to their experiences and prayed with them, the Vatican press office said.
All of the victims had been abused as children by “priests, parents, teachers,” the Vatican said. The pope reaffirmed his commitment to help victims, punish the guilty and prevent new incidents of abuse, the Vatican said.
Afterward, Francis said the victims were owed a debt of “gratitude for their value as they have had to suffer terrible abuse.”
“God weeps for the sexual abuse of children,” the pontiff said.
Earlier on his trip, Francis had drawn criticism for commending bishops’ response to the sexual abuse crisis in the American church.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a priest abuse survivor who has sponsored legislation to extend the statute of limitations for filing child sex abuse claims, called the pope’s statements and the meeting encouraging.
“It’s a good start. Now if we can put those words into actions,” said Rozzi, who was among those upset by the pope’s statement to bishops last week.
But another advocate for victims said it was strange that the group included those abused by people other than priests. “This is a pretty easy place to find clergy sex abuse victims,” said John Salveson, president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse. “There are hundreds of them.”
Francis, who has pushed for prison reform, also visited Philadelphia’s Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on Sunday. He told inmates they could turn around their lives, and criticized prisons that do nothing to help restore offenders to society.
The East Coast tour was a whirlwind six days for the pontiff, who will be 79 years old in December. He visited three cities, spoke to a joint meeting of Congress and addressed world leaders at the United Nations. Earlier, he spent a few days in Cuba.
Throughout his visit, Francis talked about the need for helping the poor, treating immigrants and refugees with respect, and solving the world’s environmental problems, including climate change. He told Congress members to work for the common good.
Just as in Washington and New York, the Philadelphia faithful treated Francis like a star, braving massive security to line the streets to catch a glimpse of him in his “popemobile.” This stop drew the biggest crowds, with parishes from Oregon to Miami and beyond making the trek to see him.
Throngs filled the streets all the way to City Hall, a mile away. Even from that distance, Stacey Vasquez, 40, of Peabody, Mass., said she felt the presence of something special. “Oh, my God, yes. You know how it is — you can really feel it, sense it,” she said.
Others brought lawn chairs and blankets and waited all day to get close to the altar. At one point before the Mass, organizers erected a white tent in front, sparking chants of “Move that tent!” from those whose views had been blocked. After it spawned a Twitter hashtag — #takeitdown — the tent was dismantled.
When the pope arrived, onlookers yelled in ecstasy and rushed up with babies for him to kiss.
“Thank God we’re here,” said Eshban Sarfraz, who had waited since 7:30 a.m. with his family. A Pakistani American Catholic living in Philadelphia, Sarfraz said he was amazed by how diverse the Mass was, with families participating from all over the world, including Syria.
“Now they’re going to go back and spread his word,” he said.
As the Mass ended and Francis prepared to leave, Cindy Shea, 55, a dental technician from Aiken, S.C., clutched a handful of rosaries. The experience, she said, “will stay with me for the rest of my life, how we became one family.”
Hennessy-Fiske and Tanfani reported from Philadelphia and Muskal from Los Angeles.