PHILADELPHIA — When masons built the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul where Pope Francis celebrated Mass on Saturday, they placed clerestory windows only in the basilica's uppermost story, fearful that anti-Catholic sentiment at the time would lead to vandalism.
Times have changed since the 1840s, when just 100,000 Catholics called Philadelphia home, and Francis in a powerful homily delivered during the Mass urged church leaders in the United States to tear down those "high walls and windows" to create a more welcoming and engaged church.
"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," the pontiff said in a homily delivery softly in Spanish to 1,600 people who packed the cathedral. "It is a story about generation after generation of committed Catholics going out to the peripheries and building communities of worship, education, charity and service to the larger society."
The Mass was closed to the public, but before dawn Saturday, the faithful, hoping for a glimpse of the pontiff, staked out key spots in front of the cathedral basilica in Philadelphia's city center. Some people, bundled against an autumn chill, slept on the street all night, pressed up against the barricades erected around the city for the pope’s visit.
Maria Santos, from Egg Harbor, N.J., prays behind a barricade at Independence Mall in Philadelphia, as a Mass with Pope Francis at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is projected on a large screen. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster, AP)
The pews in the soaring, marble-clad basilica, dedicated Nov. 20, 1864, filled with priests from each of Philadelphia's 219 parishes, seminarians and other clergy and a sprinkling of the state's notables, including former Gov. Tom Corbett and Gov. Tom Wolf. Priests also doled out tickets to the church's most devoted lay people, who filed a smaller side chapel where they watched the Mass on a jumbo-sized screen.
The audience gasped and cheered when it heard the first sounds of police motorcycles leading the pope's motorcade to the church. Pope Francis, making his first appearance in Philadelphia, entered the church as the choir sang Tu es Petrus or "You are Peter" in Latin. The Votive Mass that followed was dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and was delivered in multiple languages, including Latin, English and Spanish.
The homily, clearly meant for the assembled clergy and the larger church leadership, was a call to action. The pope said the clergy would need to be creative to adapt to a changing world without losing the church's legacy and would need to make greater efforts to involve women and lay people.
"This does not mean relinquishing the spiritual authority with which we have been entrusted; rather, it means discerning and employing wisely the manifold gifts which the Spirit pours out upon the Church," the pope told the priests. "In a particular way, it means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make, to the life of our communities."
In a nod to Pennsylvania's homegrown saint, St. Katharine Drexel, the pontiff recounted Pope Leo's words to her when she complained of the needs of the missions.
Leo, whom the pontiff called "a very wise pope," asked Drexel pointedly, "What about you? What are you going to do?"
"Those words changed Katharine’s life, because they reminded her that, in the end, every Christian man and woman, by virtue of baptism, has received a mission. Each one of us has to respond, as best we can, to the Lord’s call to build up his Body, the Church," the pope said.
The pope asked the clergy whether they had done enough to cultivate high ideals, generosity of spirit and love for Christ and the Church among Catholic youth.
"Do we challenge them? Do we make space for them and help them to do their part? To find ways of sharing their enthusiasm and gifts with our communities, above all in works of mercy and concern for others? Do we share our own joy and enthusiasm in serving the Lord?" he asked.
Pope Francis blesses the bread and the Blood of Christ during a Mass at Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. (Photo: Julio Cortez, AP)
He concluded the homily as he had done in Washington and New York by asking the assembly to pray for him.
Father Ed Hallinan, a priest for 32 years and the pastor at St. John Chrysostom Church in Wallingford, Pa., said he was particularly taken by the pope's humility and graciousness.
"It was a wonderful thing to witness the Holy Father's mercy and welcome to all Philadelphia, but especially to the poor, the marginalized and the ill," Hallinan said. "He saw folks in wheelchairs. He stopped. He went over to them, smiled and radiated God's love."
But he also heard the pontiff's challenge.
"I'm going to try to share his message, to try to put it into action and to challenge my parishioners to put it into action," Hallinan said.
At the conclusion of the Mass, Francis made his way through the adjoining chapel, which erupted in thunderous applause and cheers. There he stopped to bless and hug children in wheelchairs, provoking tears from many in the audience.
Melanie Moletzsky, 34, watched the Mass from the chapel with her in-laws Pat and Andy Moletzsky of Plymouth Meeting, Pa. Moletzsky, the mother of a 3-year-old boy, Andrew, will begin her sixth round of chemotherapy this week after learning eight months ago that she has brain cancer. The family's parish priest from Sacred Heart Church in Swedesburg, Pa., gave them three tickets to the Mass to keep her spirits high. It worked, she said.
"It brought tears to my eyes to be given this special gift," she said.
The pope, Pat Moletzsky said, "is so inspiring, so humble and such a role model for not just Catholics, but for anyone. I wish people would just listen to him once. The world would be a more loving place. He's touched my heart."
She noted that Francis, when he entered the chapel, stopped first to visit with a disabled child.
"He goes to the infirm, the homeless, the sick," she said. "That's who we should emulate."
Andy Moletzsky, whose family had been involved for five generations with Sacred Heart, said he's not an emotional guy, but "when the Holy Father entered the chapel, I got tingles."
"To be blessed by him, it's like standing in front of God," he said.
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