Pope Francis Ends Visit With Mass After Meeting Bishops and Inmates

By Laurie Goodstein and Daniel J. Wakin (New York Times)
September 27, 2015

PHILADELPHIA — Pope Francis turned penitent and pastor Sunday on the final day of his visit to the United States, declaring himself “overwhelmed by shame” at the sexual violation of children by his clergy, embracing inmates at a local jail, urging young people to leave the loneliness of social media and bidding farewell with a huge downtown Mass.

Since arriving in the United States from Cuba on Tuesday during his 10-day tour, Francis, 78, had been met by large crowds — tens of thousands during a drive through Central Park in New York, in Madison Square Garden, at a canonization in Washington; perhaps several hundred thousand on Saturday night for a potpourri of prayer, musical performances and testimonials at a festival for the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families.

Sunday’s Mass, marking the end of the meeting, on Eakins Oval in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, presented the pope on the grandest of scales, with nearly a million passing through the city’s lockdown-emptied streets into Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which was studded with Jumbotron screens.

The pope departed the United States at just after 7:30 p.m. local time, aboard an American Airlines charter jet.

After a week of big public statements — about fighting climate change, abolishing the death penalty, preserving religious liberty, welcoming immigrants — Francis turned his gaze on the Catholic Church with a forceful appeal for tolerance of different views. Some conservative prelates and commentators have not warmed to Francis, considering him inattentive to the church’s traditions and rules.

“The temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God threatens the authenticity of faith,” the pope said, adding that it should be “vigorously rejected.”

Excluding people not considered “like us” is wrong, he said. “Not only does it block conversion to the faith; it is a perversion of the faith!”

Francis seemed to be suggesting that intolerance is a greater threat to the church than doctrinal impurity. “Our common house can no longer tolerate sterile divisions,” he said.

The security stranglehold on central Philadelphia cast doubt on whether the crowd would pass the million mark. Yet before the Mass, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims packed the long boulevard leading to the makeshift sanctuary. Waving Mexican, Argentine, Vatican and other flags from around the world, people cheered as the pope, standing in his open-sided popemobile, took a spin around the boulevard, blessed babies and, as the choir struck up with a “Hallelujah” chorus, climbed out to meet the throng pressed against the gates.

Before the Mass, Francis, a member of the Jesuit religious order, made an unscheduled stop at St. Joseph’s Univerity, a Jesuit school. Francis has made it a practice to visit with his Jesuit brothers on trips abroad. He blessed a newly-installed statue dedicated to ties between Catholics and Jews.

Sunday began somberly, with Francis meeting privately with a small group of victims of clergy sexual abuse.

“I am profoundly sorry that your innocence was violated by those who you trusted,” he told them, according to a transcript of his remarks released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He blamed some bishops for failing to protect the abuse victims, or even worse, violating them. He echoed such comments publicly before a group of bishops at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, pledging that all responsible would be “held accountable.”

“God weeps,” he said.

Advocates for the victims had deplored his previous comments on the trip, which seemed mainly to provide moral support for the clergy who suffered through the scandal. The advocates said on Sunday that the pope’s comments were merely a public relations move.

In his prepared remarks, Francis went on to note the modern world’s challenges to the church’s traditional idea of family — without mentioning gay unions, contraception or other difficult issues for the church.

The bishops there were taking part in the World Meeting of Families. As he has for much of the weekend here in Philadelphia, the pope delved into related matters — marriage, young people, friendship, relationships. Here, he wrestled with how “unprecedented changes” in society have affected family ties, telling the bishops that the church must live in “this concrete world.”

Francis adapted his critique of a consumer society, one of the themes he most forcefully pushes and that draws some of the sharpest criticism from free-marketers, to modern concepts of family. “We have turned our society into a huge multicultural showcase tied only to the taste of certain ‘consumers,’” he said.

Francis also lamented how young people are delaying marriage. Departing from the text, the Argentine pope drew chuckles when he recounted exchanges he has had back home.

In Buenos Aires, he said, many women tell him, “ ‘My son is 30 or 34 years old and my son isn’t getting married, What do I do?’ And I say, ‘Don’t iron his shirts anymore.’ ”

And then he seemed to take on Facebook. Or at least social media.

He said society also resembled a “huge multicultural showcase” based on consumer tastes. “Running after the latest fad, accumulating ‘friends’ on one of the social networks, we get caught up in what contemporary society has to offer,” said Francis, who posts on Twitter as @pontifex.

Francis urged the bishops not to lament the good old days and dismiss young people as “hopelessly timid, weak, inconsistent.”

In a brief interview, Anthony Fisher, the archbishop of Sydney, Australia, responded to the pope’s speech to bishops on Sunday morning.

“I think it’s interesting that he was insisting that we had to rebuild or renew our covenant with families, suggesting that we maybe weren’t as close to families as we should be as bishops.”

Francis later went to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, mainly an intake jail, which has roughly 2,800 inmates and is one of six jails in Philadelphia’s system. Some of the inmates had made Francis a hand-carved chair, which he thanked them for. Prison ministry has long been a special mission of Francis’. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he frequently visited jails. As pope, he also made visits to prisons in Italy and abroad, washing the feet of inmates at the Rebibbia prison in Rome in a Holy Thursday ritual in April.

“I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own,” he told the roughly 100 men and women detainees, drawn at random, at Curran-Fromhold. “Jesus doesn’t ask us where we’ve been and he doesn’t ask us what we’ve done,” Francis said.

He said the Gospel story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples reflected the need in ancient times to soothe dusty, cut up feet, and used it to signal the possibility of redemption. “All of us need to be cleansed,” he said, adding, “It is painful when we see prison systems, which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities,” he said.

As he spoke, burly inmates, some with shaved heads and dreadlocks and one with a tattoo crawling up his neck, watched intently. After the speech, Francis walked along the rows of inmates sitting in chairs, shaking hands, chatting, laying his hand on their foreheads and hugging a few. Ron Cianci, 55, who said he would be inside for about six months, said afterward that he had asked and had received a blessing. “Right now I feel elated, kind of a little bit high on life,” he said.