Pope Francis speaks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia Sept. 26 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

Pope Francis Says Declaration of Independence Must be “Reaffirmed” and “Defended”

Speaking in front of  Independence Hall, the birthplace of the United States where the freedoms which define this country were proclaimed on July 4, 1776, Pope Francis electrified a crowd of more than 50,000 Hispanics and immigrants from many other countries with his strong affirmation of their dignity and their rights as people.

They cheered loudly and applauded for a long time when at the beginning of his talk, and again at the end recalled that “The Declaration of Independence stated that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights.”

These stirring words “continue to inspire us today,” he said, just as they have inspired people across the world “to fight for freedom to live in accordance with their dignity.”

“History shows that these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended,” he said. He recalled that the history of the United States since the Declaration of Independence “is a the tale of a constant effort, lasting to our own day, to embody those lofty principles in social and political life.”

He mentioned “the great struggles” that 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 these struggles show that “when a country is determined to remain true to its founding principles, based on respect for human dignity, it is strengthened and renewed.”

He reminded them that it is important to remember the past, saying, “A people which remembers does not repeat past errors; instead, it looks with confidence to the challenges of the present and the future.”

The Hispanic Community and the immigrants from many other countries applauded energetically and shouted their joy when he arrived in his popemobile jeep, in Independence Hall Park, under the most stringent security measures, surpassing even those of Washington D.C., and New York.

They came from most countries of Latin America, and other countries too. Many told me they had been here from very early morning just to get a glimpse of him and receive his blessing.  Several told me they feel “very proud” of him, and almost everyone said he gives them hope that through his visit those who hold power in this land can reform the immigration system.

I offer four examples that capture the various motivations that brought them to the park today. Milagros Orengo, a domestic worker from the Dominican Republic, who has lived in this country for 23 years told me, “We love Papa Francisco. For us he means reconciliation, love and hope. We hope that his visit may be able to change the hearts of those who rule this country so that they will bring about a reform of the immigration laws.”

A young woman from Argentina, Silvina Rios, who works as a full-time baby sitter, took great pride in the fact that he too is Argentinean. “He’s a great person, so humble, he’s uniting all people and inspiring many who had left the Catholic Church to return. He’s the pope of the whole world,”  she said.

Yanick Joachim from Haiti, who has lived here for 37 years but can no longer work due to an accident, said she had come in the hope that his blessing will somehow relieve her suffering. “He gives us hope. Sometimes we are afraid because America is no longer a safe country, but I believe he can change hearts and make life better for all of us,” she said.

A middle-aged man from Mexico, Ubaldo Giraldez, who’s lived here 20 years and works in the health care service, came here at six o’clock in the morning to see the pope. “He means so much to us. He comes with a modern mentality and is bringing change to the Catholic Church. He’s so human, so close to the poor people, he gives us hope that the immigration system can be reformed. He gives me a beautiful feeling when I listen to him.”

A Nigerian woman, Margaret Anyanwu, who has been here since 1994, told me that Pope Francis gives her “a wonderful feeling, something that I cannot explain in words. I experience so much joy when I listen to him.  I admire this Pope, he cares so much for people, he’s so humble, he brings religions together, he unites us.”

Pope Francis was clearly very happy to be with the Hispanic community, that counts for 17 percent of the population of the United States, and 8 percent of the population of this city. One could see the joy on his face as he told them that this encounter “is one of the highlights of my visit.”

They cheered and chanted when, speaking in Spanish, he greeted with particular affection! He recalled that many of them had “emigrated to this country at great personal cost, in the hope of building a new life.” Knowing that many are experiencing difficulties, he urged them, “Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face.” He reminded them “not to forget” that “like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation” and said, “You should never be ashamed of your traditions…. I repeat, do not be ashamed of what is part of you, your life blood.” His encouraging words brought thunderous applause and chants of ‘Francisco, Francisco.”

He encouraged them “to be responsible citizens” and “to contribute fruitfully to the life of the communities in which you live.” He reminded them that they have treasures to bring to their new country: a vibrant faith, a deep sense of family life, and many other values. “By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within,” he said.

Earlier, he had spoken about religious liberty and defined it as “a fundamental right which shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors whose religious views differ from our own.”

Aware that there are different religious communities in Philadelphia and cities across the United States, Francis said they all remind us “that, as human beings, we are called to acknowledge an Other, who reveals our relational identity in the face of every effort to impose a uniformity to which the egotism of the powerful, the conformism of the weak, or the ideology of the utopian would seek to impose on us.” He also recalled that the “atrocities” committed by different political systems that had no place for religion and did not respect human dignity or human rights in the 20th century.

In today’s world too Francis said, “various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality.”

In this dramatic situation he said, “it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.” He himself had done exactly that in his keynote talks to Congress and the United Nations earlier in the week.

He reminded the tens of thousands of immigrants in the Independence Hall Park that the Quakers who founded Philadelphia “were inspired by a profound evangelical sense of the dignity of each individual and the ideal of a community united by brotherly love” and this conviction led them to found a colony which would be a haven of religious freedom and tolerance.” And, he said, “that sense of fraternal concern for the dignity of all, especially the weak and the vulnerable, became an essential part of the American spirit.”

He recalled that when John Paul II ended his visit to the United States in 1987, he reminded all Americans that “The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless ones.” Francis made clear that those words are still valid for the United States today and tomorrow.

Share Pope Francis Says Declaration of Independence Must be “Reaffirmed” and “Defended”