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September 26, 2015

At Mass, pilgrims feel blessed to witness pope's message of love and inspiration

The Mass commences a papal visit expected to thrill Philly

Pope Francis challenged the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to foster a sense of personal responsibility for the church's mission — particularly among youth — by building upon its solid foundations during a Votive Mass held Saturday morning at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

The Mass, attended by some 2,100 clergy members and archdiocesan guests, commenced Pope Francis' eagerly-anticipated visit to Philadelphia. At least one million people are expected to flood Center City throughout the weekend for a trio of public events, including a papal Mass Sunday on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

But Francis first celebrated Mass with local clergy who have endured a trying decade defined, in many ways, by the clerical abuse scandal, dwindling church attendance and numerous closings of schools and parishes.

"This morning I learned something about the history of this beautiful cathedral — the story behind its high walls and windows," Francis said during his homily (transcript). "I would like to think, though, that the history of the church in this city and state is really a story not about building walls, but about breaking them down."

In challenging the clergy, Pope Francis referenced Saint Katharine Drexel, telling how Pope Leo XIII urged the Philadelphia native to live out God's mission.

"How many young people in our parishes and schools have the same high ideals, generosity of spirit and love for Christ and the church?" Francis asked. "Do we challenge them? Do we make space for them and help them do their part?

"One of the great challenges facing the church in this generation is to foster in all the faithful a sense of personal responsibility for the Church's mission, and to enable them to fulfill that responsibility as missionary disciples, as a leaven of the Gospel in our world."

Scott Reilly, an urban missionary for the Legionaries of Christ, said Francis "put the rubber to the road" in urging the archdiocese to fulfill its mission of service and love. 

"There are not many cities that can boast of two saints," Reilly said, referring to Saints John Neumann and Katharine Drexel. "But then he's challenging us because we can't live in the past, of what was built on the hearts of people back then. We're enjoying the fruits of their labor, but we have to elevate it even more. 

"Like he said, we have to use our creative juices involving the laity much more. We all work together to build up Christ's church. That was a key, key moment. "

Meeting that challenge, Francis said, requires adapting to changed situations and opening up to the opportunities presented by the Holy Spirit.

"It is significant that those words of the elderly Pope were also addressed to a lay woman," Francis said, again referencing Saint Katharine Drexel. "We know that the future of the Church in a rapidly changing society will call, and even now calls, for a more active engagement on the part of the laity."

Francis said this does not mean relinquishing spiritual authority, but discerning wisely the various gifts provided by the Holy Spirit to the church.

"In a particular way," Francis said, "It means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make, to the life of our communities."

The Holy Father, who sat at the Cathedra during the Mass, kissed the altar following the processional. He read his liturgical readings in English, but delivered his homily in Spanish with the assistance of a translator. The Eucharistic prayer was read in Latin.

The service also included scripture readings from Genesis (3:9-15, 20), in which God punishes Adam and Eve for eating fruit from the forbidden tree, and the Gospel of John (19:25-27), in which Jesus sees his mother, Mary, at the foot of the cross.

Afterward, Pope Francis walked over to several children in wheelchairs, kneeling to kiss them on their heads. 

"He just exudes peace and joy — and that's what he wants us to feel," said Karen Carey, who works for Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr, Montgomery County. "He's not afraid to be a 'people person.' He's not afraid to stand up for his faith and I think that's what he's calling all of us to do – to not be afraid.

"I think it was something that our city and our whole area very much needed, particularly after the abuse crisis, when people have walked away," she said. "He's speaking to them in terms that they understand. People think this guy is really real. He's telling us more to walk the walk and not just talk the talk." 

The papal visit sparked months of anticipation with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Many Catholic leaders drew comparisons to the elation felt after Pope John Paul II's visit in 1979. The challenge for the archdiocese will be to build on the excitement after Pope Francis heads back to Rome.

Msgr. Ken McAteer, of St. Ephrem Parish in Bensalem, Bucks County, said his church will put together discussion groups to determine the best response.

"I felt very blessed," McAteer said. "This is such an extraordinary experience. I've never been that close to the pope in all my life. I could just feel his Holiness and his special quality of love and union with all of us in the church."

Pope Francis came to the Basilica immediately after arriving in Philadelphia around 9:30 a.m. The pair of children's choirs greeted Pope Francis outside the Basilica as a throng of pilgrims cheered from across the street.

Many of the pilgrims began arriving outside the cathedral shortly after the city's secure areas opened to the public at 6 a.m. Within an hour, the crowd had grown several rows deep with people hoping to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis.

Archbishop Charles Chaput, in delivering closing remarks, drew upon that excitement, saying Philadelphia has waited a long time for this moment.

"This is a city that would change its name to Francisville today," Chaput said. "We would do that if we could do it without inconveniencing the rest of North America. ... Holy Father, welcome to Philadelphia." 

The entire crowd burst into a thunderous applause. Francis soon exited into The Chapel of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, where he greeted about 500 guests who watched the Mass from a video screen.

"It was very inspiring," said Scott Adair, of Our Lady of Consolation in Tacony. "Just to be here alone is an awe-inspiring thing to begin with."

The pontiff then went to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, where he greeted seminarians and was expected to rest before delivering a speech at Independence Hall. He will finish his day by participating in the Festival of Families, an event celebrating the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families.

The WMOF Congress, a triennial Catholic conference focusing on family issues, brought some 17,500 pilgrims from 100-plus countries to Philadelphia earlier this week. It also marked the stated reason for Pope Francis' first visit to the United States, which also included visits to Washington and New York.