Pope Francis heads to Philadelphia for Catholic family event

(Associated Press) - September 26, 2015 - 1:08am

PHILADELPHIA — After speeches to Congress and the United Nations, aimed squarely at spurring world leaders toward bold action on immigration and the environment, Pope Francis will embark on the segment of his American journey expected to be the most centered on ordinary Catholics: a Vatican-organized rally for the family that will culminate in an outdoor Mass for a million people.

Francis will spend the last two of his six days in the U.S. in Philadelphia as the star attraction at the World Meeting of Families, a conference for more than 18,000 people from around the world that has been underway as the pope traveled to Washington and New York.

In every city, Francis has been greeted by throngs of cheering, weeping well-wishers, hoping for a glance or a touch from the wildly popular spiritual leader. Philadelphia is expected to be no different. The unprecedented security for the anticipated crowds has been so heavy that organizers of the visit worried people would be scared away.

"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, taking pictures ahead of the pope's visit. "People feel he's sincere and he's genuine. The more people hear him, the more they see him, they all understand and realize it."

An Argentine on the first U.S. visit of his life, 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 a lectern used for the Gettysburg Address, another nod to Abraham Lincoln, one of the four Americans the pope cited as inspirations in his address to Congress.

As he has done in New York and Washington, he 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 trio 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, despite a 2002 pledge by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to oust any guilty clergy. The same grand jury indicted a priest who had overseen clergy for the archdiocese, Monsignor William Lynn. He was eventually convicted of child endangerment, becoming the first American church official convicted for failing to stop abusers.

The pope is widely expected to talk privately with abuse victims over this weekend, an event that church leaders said would not be announced until after it occurred.

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 aid the poor and sick. The pope will be staying at the seminary where Chaput also lives.

"Critics sometimes claim that America's bishops talk too much about abortion and religious freedom while they overlook the poor," Chaput said in recent remarks to reporters. "Of course we do talk about those issues. We work hard at those issues, and we'll continue to do so — vigorously, and for as long as it takes. Because the right to life and religious liberty are foundational to human dignity."

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 an event for gay parents and their children, on Saturday, as they advocate for broader 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 closures. But 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.'"

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