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By Rachel Zoll and Michael R. Sisak
PHILADELPHIA — Pope Francis arrived in the City of Brotherly Love on Saturday for the final leg of his U.S. visit – a festive weekend devoted to celebrating Catholic families – and immediately called for the church to place greater value on women.
The pontiff’s plane touched down at the Philadelphia airport after takeoff from New York, bringing him to a city of blocked-off streets, sidewalks lined with portable potties, and checkpoints manned by police, National Guardsmen and border agents.
After speeches to Congress and the United Nations earlier this week aimed at spurring world leaders toward bold action on immigration and the environment, he is expected to focus more heavily on ordinary Catholics during his two days in Philadelphia.
From the airport, Francis rode by motorcade to the downtown Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul to celebrate a Mass for about 1,600 people. In his homily, he said the future of the Catholic Church in the U.S. requires a much more active role for lay Catholics.
“It means valuing the immense contribution in which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make to the life of our communities,” he said.
Francis has repeatedly said women should have a greater role in church leadership, although he has rejected the idea of ordaining women.
Under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, many U.S. bishops worked to shore up their authority, upsetting parishioners who had high expectations for more of a say in Catholic life. By touching on the issue, Francis seemed intent on healing one of the major rifts in American Catholicism that has alienated many from the church.
Among those greeting Francis at the airport was Richard Bowes, a former Philadelphia police officer wounded in the line of duty seven years ago. Francis also got out of his black Fiat to bless a boy in a wheelchair on the tarmac, kissing him on the forehead.
A Catholic high school band played the theme song from the Philadelphia-set movie “Rocky.”
Also on the itinerary for Saturday: a late-afternoon speech on religious freedom and immigration at Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The 78-year-old Argentine was scheduled to speak from the lectern Abraham Lincoln used to deliver the Gettysburg Address.
Francis will be the star attraction at the World Meeting of Families, a conference for more than 18,000 people from around the world. The weekend’s activities will culminate in an outdoor Mass Sunday evening for 1 million people on the broad Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
It will be the last major event of his U.S. visit before he leaves that night for Rome.
On the first two legs of his six-day U.S. journey, in Washington and New York, Francis was greeted by throngs of cheering, weeping well-wishers hoping for a glance or a touch from the wildly popular spiritual leader, despite unprecedented security.
The Philadelphia visit, months in the making, all but paralyzed Center City, with stretches of Broad and Market Streets and other routes closed to all but pedestrians and lined with metal crowd-control barricades, massive concrete blocks and tall fences.
“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 ahead of the pope’s visit. “People feel he’s sincere and he’s genuine.”
As he has done in New York and Washington, the pontiff will give his attention to both the elite and the disadvantaged, this time visiting inmates in Philadelphia’s largest jail.
“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 three 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.
A monsignor who oversaw priest assignments was found guilty of child endangerment, becoming the first American church official convicted of a crime for failing to stop abusers.
The pope is widely expected to talk privately with abuse victims this weekend.
The visit is also shaping up as one of the most interesting ecclesial pairings of the pope’s trip. His host is Chaput, an outspoken opponent of abortion and gay marriage who takes a hard 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.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics plan to hold separate events in a push for more 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 closings.
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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