PHILADELPHIA — Six days ago, Pope Francis landed in Washington for his first visit to the United States — a country that he did not know and that did not know him. He flew out Sunday night, having wowed Washington and New York, while leaving behind a downtown Philadelphia transformed into a “Francisville” of pilgrims, families and hawkers selling Francis swag.
The Argentine pope, at 78, after enduring an exhausting schedule, seemed to have had fun, too.
“Please know that as I prepare to leave, I do so with a heart filled with gratitude and hope,” Francis said at Philadelphia International Airport before departing.
Popes historically have done well during visits to the United States. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI, a far less charismatic figure, filled Yankee Stadium and drew large crowds elsewhere. Few people doubted Francis, the first Latin American pope, would connect with the masses.
The question was how he would navigate a uniquely American minefield of political and religious divisions — as well as an outspoken faction of conservative Catholics deeply suspicious of him. He had his stumbles, especially when he lavished praise on bishops for their handling of the American sexual abuse crisis before finally meeting victims on Sunday morning.
But mostly Francis demonstrated a nuanced political dexterity, effectively sidestepping the familiar framework of American debate while charting his own broader path. He advocated “life” but emphasized opposition to the death penalty, not abortion. He made strong stands for religious freedom — a major issue for American bishops — but refocused the concept on interfaith tolerance and harmony.
“I was frankly taken aback at how savvy he was,” said Stephen Schneck, the director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. “He was clearly aware of all the very divisive issues for Catholics in American public life but talked about them in a way that didn’t give ammunition to either conservatives or progressives in the United States to use in their political wars.”
With nearly every issue, he addressed American politics in his own pastoral terms. Tacking more left than right, he made vigorous calls at the White House, Congress and the United Nations for action to protect the earth against environmental destruction and climate change. He continued his advocacy for the needs of the poor. And he made a passionate and personal plea on behalf of immigrants from his native Latin America.
“Like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation,” Francis told the many Hispanic families attending an outdoor rally at Independence Hall. He added, “By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within.”
The success of the trip is doubly important for Francis, because he returns to the Vatican for what could become a showdown between liberal and conservative factions in the Roman Catholic Church over doctrine and social teaching. Beginning on Sunday, Francis is convening a synod of bishops to hash out how the church should approach issues such as homosexuality and divorce — a meeting that loomed over his interactions with American clergy.
Bishops in the United States have been outspoken, arguing against same-sex marriage, and nondiscrimination laws that would require Catholic institutions and businesses to serve gay couples. Some bishops have forced Catholic schools in their dioceses to dismiss openly gay teachers or required them to sign doctrinal oaths. And at their most recent meeting, the bishops agreed that their top priorities are promoting respect for life and marriage — by which they mean teaching against abortion and same-sex marriage.
Francis responded on this trip by advising the bishops to use less harsh language, be less critical and offer a more welcoming approach in the church and in society. “Our common house can no longer tolerate sterile divisions,” he said Sunday during his final Mass, on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Interactive Feature | Highlights of Pope Francis’ Remarks in the U.S. Over six days, the pope addressed Catholics and non-Catholics alike as he pleaded for environmental stewardship and compassion for immigrants and the poor in the halls of power.
He never mentioned same-sex marriage — and is opposed to it — but analysts say his message was that bishops should focus less on such issues and more on pastoring to Catholic families over all. “The pope said church leaders need a conversion in the way that they approach modern families,” said John Thavis, an American church analyst and author of “The Vatican Diaries.” “He laid it on the line, saying less complaining and more appreciation. He calls it a realistic approach.”
Mr. Thavis added, “I think the message is that the church has to work in the real world, with real families, instead of expecting families to meet the ideal definition, or measure up to church teaching.”
Many conservatives were pleased that Francis emphasized religious liberty; some found meaning in his glance toward President Obama when he raised the issue at the White House. Others praised the pope’s unscheduled visit to the Little Sisters of Charity, an order of nuns suing the federal government over the contraception mandate in the health care act. But many were disappointed that Francis endorsed Mr. Obama’s environmental agenda and failed to mention abortion, doctor-assisted suicide or same-sex marriage.
While Francis needed to be careful wading into politics, “complete silence on these issues demoralizes those who are on the front lines of these battles,” wrote R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, a conservative journal on religion in public life. “The only specific issues Francis mentioned before Congress are associated with progressive politics.”
For Francis, largely avoiding the political minefield allowed him to pursue what many analysts say was his primary agenda as bishop of Rome: to present a new, more optimistic and welcoming style to American Catholics, and to embrace and encourage a domestic Catholic church that is increasingly Hispanic and populated by new immigrants. He avoided issues such as a border wall or a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, yet he made clear that immigration is central to his identity and America’s ideals.
When he was taken into a helicopter above New York, he asked the pilot to circle the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island — symbols of freedom and immigration. When the 5-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants broke through security at the Ellipse in Washington, Francis ordered guards to bring her over so he could offer a kiss. He also introduced himself at the White House as a son of immigrants.
“When you talk about leaders — his words are reaching those who have not been heard,” said Maria Rodriguez, 65, a member of a Hispanic Catholic Charismatic movement, who came with 120 others to Philadelphia from Orlando, Fla. “For the Spanish-speaking people, he’s our voice. And when he speaks, people listen.”
From the outset of his papacy, Francis has reached out to the poor, casting himself as the humble pope through word and gestures. In the United States, he ended many of his speeches by asking the audience to “pray for me, don’t forget” — a jocular admonition in accented English. And he insisted on traveling in a small Fiat, an advertising coup for the Italian carmaker, which led to endless images of him waving out the open window to adoring crowds snapping photos with cellphones.
Multimedia Feature | Francis in America News and features on Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, New York and Philadelphia in September.
He kissed babies. He halted his Fiat to embrace a disabled boy. He met with prisoners and leaders of other faiths at the Sept. 11 memorial, told New Yorkers struggling with inequality and isolation that “God is living in our cities,” and prayed with the homeless in Washington after canonizing a saint for the first time on American soil. (On Sunday, the police in California said vandals had defaced the mission where the remains of the new saint, the Rev. Junípero Serra, are buried, splattering paint on walls, a statue, a fountain and a crucifix.)
Francis’ most emotional speech came Saturday night as he stood before hundreds of thousands of families from around the world, who had gathered for the World Meeting of Families. Smiling, gesticulating like an energetic grandfather, he tossed aside his script and told a simple story of love and creation that would have been impossible with the usual doctrinal footnotes.
A day later, Linda Giovinco, 66, of Linfield, Pa., was walking toward the exits after Francis’ final Mass. The enormous crowd was thinning, and Francis was already on his way to the airport.
“I love the inclusiveness of this pope,” she said. “He stepped outside the borders of what’s been acceptable before in the Catholic Church.”
While everyone in the church if not the country was parsing what Francis said during his visit, the faithful, including Ms. Giovinco, heard unmitigated tolerance. “He’s following the original precepts of the church: Love one another.”
Interactive Feature | Moments of Strength and Vulnerability The pope made public appearances and shared private moments among the people and the powerful in Washington.
Photographs | Pope Francis’ Visit to America, in Pictures Photographs of the pope’s first trip to the United States, as Catholics and non-Catholics alike will navigate crowds in three cities to catch a glimpse of the “people’s pope.”
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