comscore At Independence Hall, Pope offers a broad vision of religious freedom

At Independence Hall, Pope offers a broad vision of religious freedom

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PHILADELPHIA >> Standing near Independence Hall, where America’s founding documents were signed, Pope Francis on Saturday called religious freedom a “fundamental right” and laid out a broad and tolerant vision of what it should be, but also warned about its perversion “as a pretext for hatred and brutality.”

On the final leg of his first trip to the United States, Francis arrived in Philadelphia and went straight to the city’s Roman Catholic basilica, exhorting ordinary Catholics to bolster their role in sustaining the church. After a Mass before 2,400 people and a long midday rest, he traveled to Independence Mall and broadened his canvas: addressing the place of faith in a nation.

Religious freedom means the right to worship God, “as our consciences dictate,” Francis said. And, he went on, the principle goes beyond temples and the private sphere: Religion also serves society, especially as a bulwark “in the face of every claim to absolute power.”

Francis emerged from Independence Hall to the strains of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” He stood at the lectern used by Abraham Lincoln to deliver the Gettysburg Address, and in his own address, Francis extolled the principles of the country’s founding fathers embodied by the Declaration of Independence signed in the building behind him.

The brief speech was an elaboration on comments from his very first remarks on American soil, when on arrival Wednesday he told President Barack Obama that religious liberty “remains one of America’s most precious possessions” and should be vigilantly protected.

But while some conservatives in politics and the church had expected his comments to bolster their opposition to the Obama administration’s health care mandate for contraception and other such issues on religious grounds, Francis did not press the issue Saturday. His comments seemed tilted toward creating an idea of religious liberty with broad applications — freedom to worship but also to play a role in caring for others.

Religious traditions, he said, “call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good and compassion for those in need.” He continued, “At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.”

Francis listed the ways the exercise of religion suffered and how it could be twisted, without any specific references, such as to cruel interpretations of Islam by the Islamic State in Iraq and by the Taliban in Afghanistan or, in a completely different category, defiance in this country on religious grounds of same-sex marriage rulings.

“In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality,” Francis said, “it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”

Audience members on Independence Mall were mainly Latinos and other immigrants. At one point, after giving a note of appreciation to the Quakers and their “ideal of a community united by brotherly love,” Francis departed from his prepared speech. Growing more animated, he said globalization was a force for good if it worked toward equalizing, uniting and bringing respect to people. But if it “tries to make everybody even, as if it was a sphere, that globalization destroys the richness and specificity of each person and each people.”

Then, the Argentine pope, the first from Latin America, greeted the Hispanic people in the audience with affection. He noted the human cost of immigration and said, “Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face.”

His call for the United States to embrace immigrants has been a running theme; here, he gave them a direct morale boost.

The pope ended the day with an appearance at an event honoring families that wove in musical acts — Aretha Franklin, Sister Sledge, The Fray and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Mark Wahlberg as moderator — with testimony from six families from around the world and readings. But maybe the best performance was by Francis himself, who cast aside his prepared speech about the need for government support for families for 25 minutes of boisterous off-the-cuff remarks.

Looking his most animated during a week of scripted homilies and carefully orchestrated events, the moment was notably spontaneous and energetic.

“Division of hearts cannot overcome any difficulty,” he said. “Only love is able to overcome.”

Francis talked about the nature of God’s love and God’s gift in creating the family, joked about the headaches caused by children, pointed out he was single and recounted the biblical story of Cain and Abel.

“Let’s protect the family, because it’s in the family that our future is at play!” he declared.

After a final blessing in the Spanish he had used throughout, he concluded, in English, “Thank you, and see you tomorrow!”

The pope’s earlier stops in Washington and New York included addresses to Congress and the United Nations, intimate moments with schoolchildren in Harlem and families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks at ground zero and large public encounters in Central Park, Fifth Avenue and Madison Square Garden. He is ending his trip to the United States in Philadelphia, where he plans a Mass on Sunday.

In the morning, speaking at a Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, he cited Pope Leo XIII’s words to the Philadelphia-born Katharine Drexel — later recognized as a saint — during an 1887 audience: “What about you? What are you going to do?”

Francis said the question should be addressed today to young people and by implication to women, noting it was important that Leo asked the question of a laywoman. “We know that the future of the church calls, for a much more active engagement on the part of the laity,” he said.

The issue has particular relevance in a country where one-fifth of parishes have no priest in residence and parishioners are often called on to take up the burden, and where the proportion of people who identify as Catholics has declined to a fifth from about a quarter over the last 20 years.

Though he encouraged help from people in the pews, he gently warned that there were limits. “This does not mean relinquishing the spiritual authority with which we have been entrusted,” he said. “Rather, it means discerning and employing wisely the manifold gifts which the Spirit pours out upon the church.”

One of Francis’ biggest applause lines during his homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Friday came when he expressed his love and appreciation for nuns. He added to the thought Saturday, remarking on the “immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make to the life of our communities.”

Francis spoke to bishops, priests and nuns from Pennsylvania at the cathedral, the 151-year-old seat of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, where he arrived by motorcade after flying in from New York.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput gave a formal welcome with a jocular line: “This is a city that would change its name to Francisville today,” he said.

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