PHILADELPHIA — Pope Francis celebrated a huge outdoor Mass on Sunday to wrap up his six-day visit to the U.S., just hours after taking the dramatic step of meeting with survivors of clergy sexual abuse and promising to hold accountable those responsible for the church scandal.
At a white-and-gold altar built on Philadelphia’s arts boulevard, Francis led a crowd of the faithful estimated at nearly 1 million in the biggest event of his three-city American tour, which also took him to Washington and New York.
“Faith grows when it is practiced and it is shaped by love,” the 78-year-old Argentine-born pontiff told the pilgrims. “That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. These are the right places for faith to become life, and for faith to grow in life.”
People waited hours in security lines for their chance to see and hear the pope at his final Mass in the U.S.
Organizers set up dozens of large viewing screens for those who couldn’t get near the altar, but many people didn’t make it through the overwhelmed security checkpoints in time for the service and complained about poor planning by officials.
Scores of priests, bishops and volunteer Eucharistic ministers fanned out to administer Communion.
The huge crowd was testament to this pontiff’s extraordinary popularity, a bond with the public that grew even stronger over the weekend as Francis stopped frequently on his travels across the city to bless the faithful and kiss disabled children.
Francis visited Cuba before coming to the United States. The Mass in Philadelphia was his last official event before his departure to Rome.
“The pope’s a great ambassador for all that’s really human,” said Bob Motley of Hatfield, Pennsylvania. “What we love about him is he touches us deep in our hearts about what we’re called to be, and he does it with a very gentle touch. His message is mercy.”
Earlier Sunday, in a stunning move, the pope met with survivors of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal and said he wold hold offending clergy accountable for their “evil” acts.
“God weeps,” Francis told an audience of 300 bishops from around the world at a seminary chapel. “These sins, these crimes, these sexual abuses cannot be held in secret any longer. I pledge to you that we will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead. Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children.”
Francis met for an hour Sunday morning with three men and two women who were victims of sexual abuse, said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office. He said they were victimized by clergy, family members or teachers.
On an event-filled visit, his first to the United States, Francis also made an unprecedented stop with inmates at Philadelphia’s largest prison, the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, where he prayed with prisoners and their families. He told them to spend their time behind bars getting their lives back on track.
“May you make possible new opportunities, new journeys, new paths,” Francis said.
The blue-uniformed men and women seemed moved by the encounter. They clasped Francis’ hands, and two hugged him. Some spoke to him in Spanish. They also presented him with a basket of prison-grown vegetables and made him a wooden chair for the occasion.
The Philadelphia Archdiocese was rocked by a major sex abuse scandal several years ago. A grand jury found that church officials kept offending clergy in their jobs and covered up their actions. A monsignor was convicted of endangering children by not removing pedophile priests, the first American church official to be held criminally responsible.
The pope has created a Vatican tribunal to prosecute bishops in such cases and has accepted the resignations of three U.S. bishops accused of mishandling cases. He met with victims at the Vatican last year.
On Sunday, Francis thanked the survivors for having the courage to speak out.
“Those who have survived have become true heralds of mercy,” he said. “Humbly, we owe each of them our gratitude for their courage. And they have had to suffer terrible abuse, sexual abuse of minors. I say this: I would like to express my gratitude to the archbishop, and I felt it very important that I share this message with you today.”
Whether the pope’s gesture will be enough to quiet the Vatican’s vociferous critics is another matter. A leading victims support group, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, dismissed the meeting as an exercise in public relations.
“Is a child anywhere on earth safer now that a pope, for maybe the seventh or eighth time or ninth time, has briefly chatted with abuse victims? No,” said SNAP’s David Clohessy. “We beg Francis to stop acting like the abuse and cover-ups are over and that only healing is needed. That’s disingenuous and dangerous.”
Each survivor was accompanied by a family member or support person, Father Lombardi said. The group was accompanied by Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, archbishop of Boston and chairman of the commission set up by the pope for the protection of minors, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, and by Bishop Michael J. Fitzgerald, head of the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s commission for the protection of minors.
“The pope spoke with visitors, listened to their stories, greeted them individually and prayed with them,” Father Lombardi said. “He told them that he shared in their suffering, and he had pain and shame in particular in the case of injury caused by clergy or church workers.”
The Vatican said Francis “renewed the commitment of the church to the effort that all victims are heard and treated with justice, that the guilty be punished and that the crimes of abuse be combated with an effective prevention activity in the church and in society.”
Addressing the bishops at St. Charles Borromeo after meeting with the victims, Pope Francis said in Spanish: “I hold the stories and the suffering and the sorry of children who were sexually abused by priests deep in my heart. I remain overwhelmed with shame that men entrusted with the tender care of children violated these little ones and caused grievous harm. I am profoundly sorry.”
Some in the audience at the seminary were surprised that Francis departed from his prepared speech at the start of the event to address such a delicate topic.
“He really got down to business, didn’t he?” said Monsignor Michael Magee, chairman of the seminary’s systematic theology department. “But he put it all in a spiritual perspective and really challenged us to confront the problems. I think it was very effective.”
The next World Meeting of Families will be held in 2018 in Dublin, church officials announced Sunday, placing the event in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country that has been ground zero for the church’s clergy sex abuse crisis outside the United States.
The announcement was made near the end of a public Mass celebrated in front of hundreds of thousands of people in Philadelphia, The Associated Press reported.
Francis also told the bishops that pastors must overcome a “supermarket” of distractions such as social media to convince young people of the importance of starting families. He urged church leaders to counsel young Catholics with an understanding of the challenges they face in modern culture.
“Today’s culture seems to encourage people not to bond with anything or anyone, not to trust,” Francis said. “The most important thing nowadays seems to be follow the latest trend or activity. The result is a culture which discards everything that is no longer ‘useful’ or ‘satisfying’ for the tastes of the consumer.”
The pope said church leaders must accept this reality and work through it to reach the next generation and help build strong families.
“We would be mistaken … to see this ‘culture’ of the present world as mere indifference towards marriage and the family, as pure and simple selfishness,” the pope said. “Many put off marriage while waiting for ideal conditions, when everything can be perfect. We need to invest our energies not so much in rehearsing the problems of the world around us and the merits of Christianity, but in extending a sincere invitation to young people to be brave and to opt for marriage and the family.”
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