“One of the great challenges facing the church in this generation is to foster in all the faithful a sense of personal responsibility for the church’s mission, and to enable them to fulfill that responsibility as missionary disciples, as a leaven of the Gospel in our world,” Pope Francis stated in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, Philadelphia, on Sept 26.
He drove directly to the cathedral from Philadelphia’s international airport, where he had arrived by plane from New York, a journey of ten miles. On arriving in this city of 4 million people (37 percent of whom are Catholic), he celebrated the Eucharist with some 2,500 faithful, including the bishops, priests, women and men religious, and five hundred lay people of Pennsylvania.
The Tom Wolf, governor of Pennsylvania, and Cardinal Charles Chaput O.F.M., Archbishop of Philadelphia, greeted him on arrival at the cathedral, and a children’s choir sang as he entered what he described in his homily as a “beautiful church,” which was completed in 1864.
Wearing white vestments, he delivered his homily in Spanish and the Vatican Monsignor Mark Myles, from Gibraltar, translated. He began by recalling the glorious history of the church in Philadelphia, describing it as “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.” It resembles the missionary church that Francis is advocating.
This story is also told, he said, by the “many shrines” and “parishes churches” that were built across this city and witness to “God’s presence in the midst of our communities.” In particular, it is a story of the efforts of “all those dedicated priests, religious and laity who for over two centuries have ministered to the spiritual needs of the poor, the immigrant, the sick and those in prison.”
It is seen too, he added, “in the hundreds of schools where religious brothers and sisters trained children to read and write, to love God and neighbor, and to contribute as good citizens to the life of American society.” In truth, as Archbishop Chaput said at the end of mass, “Philadelphia is the city that gave birth to the first parish schools in the United States, and a rich legacy of social service and Catholic education.”
Looking out at the congregation in the cathedral, and the millions following on live television, Francis told them, “All of this is a great legacy which you have received, and which you have been called to enrich and pass on.”
He went on to speak about one of the great local saints, Katharine Drexel, and recalled when she spoke with the elderly Pope Leo XIII and talked about the needs of the missions, he asked her pointedly: “What about you? What are you going to do?” Those words changed Katharine’s life, he said, “because they reminded her that, in the end, every Christian man and woman, by virtue of baptism, has received a mission” and “each one of us has to respond, as best we can, to the Lord’s call to build up his Body, the church.”
Pope Francis said there is immense work to be done in this country. Raising pointed questions that are linked to the present and future of the church, he asked whether the church today challenges young people in the way the elderly pope did Katharine Drexel? “Do we make space for them and help them to do their part, and 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”, the pope asked.
All members of the church have the mission “to transmit the joy of the Gospel and to build up the church, whether as priests, deacons, or members of institutes of consecrated life”, Francis said. And at this moment in history, he said it’s necessary “to foster in all the faithful a sense of personal responsibility for the church’s mission, and to enable them to fulfill that responsibility as missionary disciples, as a leaven of the Gospel in our world.”
To achieve this he said, “will require creativity in adapting to changed situations, carrying forward the legacy of the past not primarily by maintaining our structures and institutions, which have served us well, but above all by being open to the possibilities which the Spirit opens up to us and communicating the joy of the Gospel, daily and in every season of our life.”
His words reaffirmed what he had stated powerfully in his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” the first major text he issued after becoming pope. It was clear that his message in the cathedral today was not just meant for the church in Pennsylvania, it was addressed also to the church across this country with its 71 million members. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz confirmed this at a press briefing after the mass, and said “this is a great call for lay leadership, and especially for women to use their gifts in the church”
“We know that the future of the church in a rapidly changing society will call, and even now calls, for a much more active engagement on the part of the laity,” he told them.
He recalled how the church in the United States “has always devoted immense effort to the work of catechesis and education” and said that the challenge today is “to build on those solid foundations and to foster a sense of collaboration and shared responsibility in planning for the future of our parishes and institutions.”
He explained that “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.” “In a particular way, he said, it means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make, to the life of our communities.”
He went on to encourage the bishops, priests, women and men religious, “to be renewed in the joy of that first encounter with Jesus and to draw from that joy renewed fidelity and strength.”
He asked them especially “to bring my affectionate greetings to those who could not be with us, especially the many elderly priests and religious who join us in spirit.”
Pope Francis has come to Philadelphia, the fifth most populous city in the United States, to participate in the World Meeting of Families. It is the largest gathering ever and has brought together 20,000 from all over the world, and is taking place under most extraordinary security measures.
At the end of his homily he spoke about this meeting and asked the bishops, clergy and religious “to reflect on our ministry to families, to couples preparing for marriage, and to our young people.” He asked them to pray especially for the Synod on the Family, which will open in the Vatican on October 5 and last three weeks.
He concluded by telling them, “I pray for each of you, and I ask you, please, to pray for me.”
At the end of the celebration, Archbishop Chaput thanked the Pope for coming to this city and said the city has waited a long time for this moment, and not just the Catholics but also Christians from every tradition and the vibrant Jewish community.
He thanked him especially for his support for families, for marriage, for immigrants, for the young and the poor. In particular, he thanked him “for living the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a spirit of joy that has reached into every heart in this cathedral.”
Archbishop Chaput drew much laughter and applause, also from Francis, when he told the Pope: “This is a city that would change its name to ‘Francisville’ today, if we could do that without inconveniencing the rest of North America!”