Standing at a famous lectern in a location where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed, Pope Francis gave a much-anticipated speech Saturday that focused on two hot-button social issues in America today — immigration and religious freedom.
Pope Francis spoke in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia as a religious leader for whom the treatment of immigrants is central to his doctrine.
Using the same lectern President Abraham Lincoln used to give the Gettysburg Address, the pope had a specific message to America’s Hispanic population and recent immigrants to the U.S., who he addressed with “particular affection."
“Please don’t ever be ashamed of your traditions. Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land," he said. "I repeat, do not be ashamed of what is part of you, your life blood."
He called on immigrants to be "responsible citizens," and to contribute to the life of the communities in which they live.
"I think in particular of the vibrant faith which so many of you possess, the deep sense of family life and all those other values which you have inherited," he said. "By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within.”
Francis, who came out of Independence Hall to Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," said that the United States was built on the ideas that all men and women are created equal, and that people have certain inalienable right, but that they always have to be "reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended."
"We remember the great struggles which led to the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement, and the gradual effort to eliminate every kind of racism and prejudice directed at successive waves of new Americans," he said. "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 pope also went off script, as he is known to do, when he talked about globalization, saying that a globalizing tendency is good and brings people together.
"But what may be bad is the way this happens," he said. "If globalization would seek to make everyone the same, as if it were a single sphere, that globalization destroys the richness and the particularity, the individuality, of every person and every people. If globalization seeks to bring all of us together, but to do so respecting each person, each individual person’s richness and peculiarity, respecting all people and their own distinctness, that globalization is good and makes us all grow and leads to peace."
Among those in attendance were Jack Shapey, 52, a sales professional, and Steven N. Pyser, 55, a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University in Camden in the School of Business. They are both Jewish, and said they would not have been drawn by previous popes.
"This transcends faith," Pyser said. "It's humanity. It's dignity."
Said Shapey: "He’s inspirational, motivational and very much needed in today's world."
Also in attendance was Erik Sanchez, 14, who is from Brooklyn.
"I thought it was heartwarming," said Sanchez, whose parents are from Mexico. "And true because we should never forget where we come from. It felt good because usually the people don’t have that respect and sometimes the people aren't heard. And for some public figure to say something like that -- a big public figure can make people notice."
On immigration, Pyser said that the way Pope Francis framed the topic invited a conversation and allowed people to momentarily sidestep the polarization that has engulfed it.
"But it's a very knotty subject and it will be vigorously debated," Pyser said.
Said Shapey: "It needs to be addressed."
Before his speech, the pope rode his "Popemobile" through the streets leading to Independence Hall, waving to the crowds and kissing babies along the way. He also blessed a 5-foot-tall cross symbolizing the journey of faith of Latino Catholics.
The South American son of immigrants himself, Francis is making immigrants one of the focuses of his first visit to the United States. At a time when a top Republican presidential contender, Donald Trump, advocates for a wall along the Mexican border to keep out what he labels rapists and other criminals, Francis urges respecting the reasons that children, women and men leave their homes.
Speaking to the U.S. Congress on Thursday, Francis urged its members to be humane and just as they responded to the migrants pouring into Europe and the immigrants, often undocumented, coming to the United States from Latin America.
"We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best as we can to their situation," Francis said.
A volunteer for the pope's visit in Philadelphia on Saturday, Kim Vinch, said Francis' address was coming at the right time given the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has become part of the public discourse.
"I think it's perfect timing because our country just seems to need it," said Vinch, 51, of Lawrenceville, N.J. "We need reform. We need this kind of guidance."
Nearby on Market Street, Mary Sue Gorman and her 15-year-old daughter, Sarah, stopped to take a photo with a life-sized cut-out of Francis on their way to Independence Hall.
"He says what he wants to say," Gorman, a pension consultant, said of Francis and his views on immigration. "Hopefully people will hear and be compassionate and come to a compromise."
Francis' worldview is from the bottom up, with immigrants at the core of what he cares about, said John Carr, director of Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.
When Francis visited Lampedusa in 2013, the tiny Sicilian island toward which tens of thousands leaving North Africa have fled, he said the drownings of migrants was "a thorn in the heart." Two years later, with masses of Syrians refugees arriving in Europe, he is calling on every Catholic parish, monastery and convent to take in a family.
"For Pope Francis this is personal not political. This is moral not ideological," Carr said.
Francis' visit is replete with reminders of his appeal for better treatment for immigrants, including meetings with day laborers and children who crossed the border unaccompanied by adults. Francis had talked about arriving in the United States via a border crossing, though in the end he flew into Joint Base Andrews.
"To enter the United States from the border with Mexico would be a beautiful gesture of brotherhood and support for immigrants," Francis said.
Francis’ views on immigration and some other topics are out of step with many in power in the United States. A Gallup poll found that his favorability rating had dropped from 76 percent in February of last year to 59 percent in July, a decline driven by Catholics and conservatives.
In the last Congress, the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill that would have offered citizenship for many of the United States' 11 million unauthorized immigrants, but the bill died in the House.
By contrast, this Congress has opposed President Barack Obama’s executive orders to stop the deportation of some undocumented immigrants.