Pope Francis lauds role of women in the church during Philadelphia mass
Pope Francis delivers his speech from the window of his apartment during the Sunday Angelus prayer in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on September 13, 2015 (AFP Photo/Andreas Solaro)

Pope Francis urge priests and lay Catholics to embrace a more personal, dynamic and active version of their faith and ‘adapt to changed situations’

Speaking at a cathedral completed during the American civil war, in a diocese riven by changing politics and failing schools, Pope Francis sketched a vision for a more open, unified and adaptable Catholic church on Saturday morning in Philadelphia.

Presiding over mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts Peter and Paul before an audience of about 1,600 people, the pope urged priests and lay Catholics to embrace a more personal, dynamic and active version of their faith.

“I would like to think,” he said, “that the history of the church in this city and state is really a story not about building walls, but about breaking them down.”

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Pope Francis spoke in particular about the importance of young people and women, saying it was time the church valued “the immense contribution” of lay and religious women, and suggesting that the church could not afford to stay mired in old ways. Reinvigorating people’s faith, he said, was “one of the great challenges facing the church in this generation”.

“This will require creativity in adapting to changed situations,” the pope said, “carrying forward the legacy of the past not primarily by maintaining our structures and institutions, which have served us well, but above all by being open to the possibilities which the spirit opens up to us.”

Pope Francis’s speech began his two-day tour through Philadelphia and underscored his concerns for the future of Catholicism in the US, where the religion’s parishioners have steadily declined and where Hispanic immigrants – 11 million of whom are the unwilling center of a charged political debate – increasingly make up the 50 million Catholics around the US.

The diversity of American Catholics was on display outside the church, in an ebullient crowd that pressed up against the barriers for a glimpse of the pontiff. Families spanning generations, parish outings, immigrants and native pilgrims alike thronged as the pope arrived, and a children’s choir welcomed him up the steps as a fitting prelude to his homily about young people.

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From inside the cathedral, a muffled roar of screaming and cheers could be heard when his motorcade approached. As he stepped through the doors, the pews of priests, brothers and nuns, politicians, and locals burst into applause.

At the pulpit, the pope used an American saint to illustrate his call to action, recalling the story of St Katharine Drexel, a young Philadelphian heiress who met with Pope Leo XIII on a trip to Europe in 1887.

When she asked the pope about the needs of church missions around the world, Francis told the crowd, “the Pope – he was a very wise Pope – asked her pointedly, ‘What about you? What are you going to do?’”

Francis argued that the questions were still relevant 128 years later, saying they “were addressed to a young person, a young woman with high ideals, and they changed her life”.

He gently scolded his contemporaries, exhorting them to do more for the interests of young people: “Do we challenge them? Do we make space for them and help them to do their part? To find ways of sharing their enthusiasm and gifts with our communities, above all in works of mercy and concern for others?”

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At the barricades, the ebullient crowd mingled with police, national guardsmen in fatigues, and wary agents from the secret service and FBI, in suits save for telltale holsters, badges and microphones.

Undeterred by the small army of security, several hundred cheery visitors had massed at the cathedral barriers by 6am, some wearing brightly colored shirts labeled by their parish, others lining up to buy Vatican flags from hawkers, and a few giving change to the homeless people who wandered near the edges.

Sovilda Rondon, with her family from the Dominican Republic, said she had been outside the church since 4am. Rondon, who lives in Philadelphia, said she hopes the pope will help convince leaders to clean up the city: “He brings such joy, such happiness, such hope.”

“Of course it’s worth waiting for all night.”

Maria del Carmen Serrano, from Peoria, Illinois, could barely contain her excitement despite the early morning hour. “Everything, everything about him is great,” she said. “His humility, his love. He recognizes the dignity of everyone. I just want to see and feel what it’s like to be near to him.”

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