- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 26, 2015

PHILADELPHIA — Addressing Hispanics directly at the site where the United States was founded, Pope Francis urged recent immigrants to embrace their heritage and to keep pushing for rights and freedom in America.

Speaking at the base of Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, Francis said immigrants “bring many gifts” to the U.S.

“Please, don’t ever be ashamed of your traditions,” he said. “Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face.”

The pope didn’t refer directly to the ongoing political battle over immigration reform in Washington, but he said defending the cause of immigrants “frequently encounters powerful resistance.”

“You remind American democracy of the ideals for which it was founded, and you remind us that society is weakened whenever and wherever any injustice prevails,” he told those who advocate for immigrant rights.

Then, gesturing to the historic building behind him, the pope said, “Do not forget what happened here more than two centuries ago. Do not forget that Declaration that proclaimed all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend these rights.”

The pope’s first public event in Philadelphia was attended by tens of thousands of the faithful and well-wishers on Independence Mall. Francis also called on his audience to push for religious liberty around the world, saying the faithful have a duty to counter religious extremism.

He appeared to be speaking of the Islamic State when he said, “In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom … or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, for tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”

“Religions have the right and the duty to make clear that it is possible to build a society where a healthy pluralism, which truly respects differences and values them, is a precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity and a path to peace in our troubled world, in our world so harmed by war,” Francis said.

The pope arrived here Saturday morning to attend the World Meeting of Families. On Sunday, he’ll celebrate an outdoor Mass expected to be attended by up to 1 million people.

Among those greeting the Pope on the tarmac at Philadelphia International Airport were Archbishop Charles Chaput, Mayor Michael Nutter, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Comcast executives Brian Roberts and David Cohen. As Francis descended the stairs from his plane, a band played “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey and the theme song from the iconic Philadelphia movie “Rocky.”

Moments after the Pope got into his Fiat at the airport, the car stopped on the tarmac and Francis emerged to bless 10-year-old Michael Keating, who is in a wheelchair, and to greet family members who were overcome with emotion.

His first public event Saturday is an address to tens of thousands at Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers signed the declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He’ll speak at a lectern used by Abraham Lincoln for the Gettysburg Address.

Archbishop Chaput arrived in Philadelphia four years ago to take control of the diocese with nearly 1.5 million Catholics after it was rocked by a grand jury investigation into the covering up of a priest sex-abuse scandal. It’s believed the Pope will meet privately with sex-abuse victims during his stop.

Francis began his day by celebrating an invitation-only Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, the largest Catholic church in Pennsylvania.

Among the huge and diverse crowd converging on center city Philadelphia to see the pope, Austin Smith and Lisa Lenard of Springfield, Ohio, said their pilgrimage has helped them to better understand the broad reach of the church.

“We are united under one church,” Ms. Lenard said. “We really get a picture of the universal church that we don’t see in our home parishes.”

Added Mr. Smith, “The faith and the community here is so inspirational and so powerful.”

Street vendors in the city were doing a brisk business as the pontiff arrived, selling everything from glossy photos of Francis to souvenir limited-edition “pope coins” and papal beverage koozies ($5).

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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