PHILADELPHIA — Pope Francis used his address Saturday at one of America’s most hallowed monuments to call on America to renew its commitment to religious liberty and offered comfort to the nation’s immigrant community.
Speaking to a jubilant audience from outside Independence Hall, Francis called it an honor to stand at the doorstep of where the Declaration of Independence was drafted. But he also underscored that the principles set out in the country’s founding document need to be “constantly reaffirmed.”
“The history of this nation is also the tale of a constant effort, lasting to our own day, to embody those lofty principles in social and political life,” said Francis, who spoke from the same lectern used by Abraham Lincoln to deliver the Gettysburg Address, the Civil War speech that not only delved into the importance of keeping the Union intact but also focused on human dignity. “This shows that, when a country is determined to remain true to its founding principles, based on respect for human dignity, it is strengthened and renewed.”
The speech, at such a potent symbol of American history, offered grist for Americans on the political right and left.
He expressed concerns about “various forms of modern tyranny” leading to religious freedom being reduced to “a subculture.”
“We live in a world subject to the ‘globalization of the technocratic paradigm’ which constantly aims at a one-dimensional uniformity and seeks to eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity,” he said.
The remarks on religious freedom come after Francis made a surprise visit while in Washington to the Little Sisters of the Poor, the nuns who are suing the Obama administration over the requirement that employers cover the cost of birth control. The Vatican said that the visit was meant to show a sign of support for the nuns in their battle over the reform that came with President Obama’s signature health care law. The Little Sisters maintain that their religious freedoms are violated by the birth control requirement.
A compromise to the law allows religious groups to opt out of paying for contraception and sterilization, as long as a third party pays for the services instead. The sisters say the law still violates their religious freedom.
Francis also weighed in on immigration, at a moment when the issue has come into focus in the 2016 presidential campaign. Donald Trump, the current front-runner for the GOP nomination, has spoken perhaps most provocatively about immigration — calling for building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out people he has labeled as "rapists" and "criminals."
Francis, the Argentinean son of immigrants, struck on the issue of migrants fleeing conflict in Syria in his speech before Congress earlier this week. He called on U.S. lawmakers to not be “taken aback” by their numbers, but to be mindful of their personal stories and often tragic circumstances.
But the issue was put in greater focus in his address at Independence Hall, where he was greeted by a crowd that waved flags from Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico.
Francis noted that among the crowd were members of “America’s large Hispanic population,” who he said had come to the U.S. at great personal cost. He told them they should not be “discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face.”
“I ask you not to forget that, like those who came before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation,” Francis said. “You should never be ashamed of your traditions.”
Omara Navarra, 34, who traveled from Clinton, N.J., to hear Francis, noted the Pope’s message of compassion sharply contrasts with much of the rhetoric of Trump. Navarro said he was “humiliated” by Trump’s rhetoric, but was hopeful that Francis’ call for compassion for immigrants would be an important counterweight in the broader conversation on the issue.
“The pope with not too many words will touch so many people,” Navarro said. “Donald Trump was trying to divide immigrants from the rest of the community, but the pope is going to put them together.”
Before his remarks, Francis also blessed what is known in Spanish as “cruz de los encuentros,” a 5-foot-tall cross symbolizing the journey of Latino Catholics. Speakers ahead of Francis’ arrival included a young deaf Indonesian man, who is a beneficiary of the Dream Act, which temporarily suspends deportation for people who were brought to the U.S. as children. Prayers were also said by the crowd for immigrants facing deportation.
“I’m hopeful that people will listen to Pope Francis and hear what he has to say about the dignity of people — immigrant or not — and reflect on that,” said Josefa Lopez,63, an Argentinean immigrant who lives in West Orange, N.J. “I think his words can change minds.”
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