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'City of Brotherly Love' welcomes Pope Francis

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Philadelphia changed its rhythm and routine to greet the Holy Father and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world at three public events, including his remarks at Independence Hall, where Pope Francis urged Americans to treat immigrants with warmth and tolerance.

With security checkpoints in place in Center City Sept. 25, the day before Pope Francis made his historic visit to Philadelphia, passing through a metal detector and having belongings inspected became mandatory before entering the city's barricaded areas. The National Guard, state troopers, local police officers, public transit employees and World Meeting of Families volunteers lined the streets to steer the crowds, give directions, hand out water bottles and ensure public safety. With many businesses in Center City closed for the weekend, pilgrims brought picnics or bought food from the rare street vendor. Street parking was restricted, garbage was cleared and signs declaring prohibited items - balloons, selfie sticks and hard coolers among them - abounded.

This was all to prepare for the enthusiastic crowds visiting Philadelphia from every region of the United States and beyond. Throngs of people camped out in the streets awaiting the Saturday events, sleeping on cardboard mats that could be discarded since tents and sleeping bags would not be allowed past the security checkpoints. Those who did not camp arrived early, with a line already forming outside Independence Hall two hours after the security checkpoint opened at 6 a.m. People without tickets gathered in Benjamin Square Park to watch Pope Francis deliver his remarks on a Jumbotron hundreds of yards away from the actual event.

Inside the gated area, pilgrims flooded the green lawn in front of Independence Hall. Two Jumbotrons were set up in front of the building, obscuring the stage where Pope Francis would eventually speak at the same lectern Abraham Lincoln used to deliver the Gettysburg Address. Another group of people, still within the ticketed section, waited on the opposite side of the road from Independence Hall, closer to the National Park Service's visitor center. The early birds staked out their spots, introduced themselves to each other, strummed guitars, sang and ate breakfast. State troopers and police officers alternated to guard the path where the popemobile would pass in several hours.

When footage of Pope Francis arriving at the Philadelphia airport appeared on the Jumbotrons, the crowd roared with applause, whistles and other celebratory sounds. Shortly thereafter came a broadcast of the Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. Live cultural programming, including speeches and music, ticked away the hours and minutes until Pope Francis arrived. When the programming ended, there was a short period of restlessness until the first glimpse of the popemobile prompted thousands to shout, cry, wave flags, hold up their small children and whip out their cell phones and cameras.

One teenage girl screamed, "Oh my God! It's the pope!" and began sobbing. "I'm sorry," she said to her friends, after her tears subsided. "I'm just so happy to see him."

Some attendees tried to exit the ticketed area after realizing Pope Francis' talk would take place in Spanish with no English translation, but found all of the exits blocked.

"You'll have to stay here for an hour and listen to the pope until he's finished," said one state trooper.

After the pope's remarks on globalization, immigration and religious freedom - where he stated, "You should never be ashamed of your traditions," among other encouraging words - the crowd gradually filtered out of the gated area, heading toward Ben Franklin Square Park and the bridge to Camden, N.J., either to see the pope at the Festival of Families or head home. Upon exiting the event, attendees were bombarded by anti-Catholic protesters armed with megaphones, banners and pamphlets.

Pope Francis spoke on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway two days in a row: at the Festival of Families Sept. 26, which culminated the World Meeting of Families Congress that had taken place at the Pennsylvania Convention Center earlier in the week, and then when celebrating his final Mass of his U.S. tour Sept. 27. The enthusiasm from Philadelphia's pilgrims was palpable all weekend-long, even for those without tickets. They were glued to the Jumbotrons streaming the events live so as not to miss a word or moment. And when the pope spoke, streets that had been loud with cheering, laughter and music fell quiet with anticipation and intent listening for his wisdom on love, humility and service.

"(Jesus) asks us to go through life, our everyday life, encouraging all these little signs of love as signs of His own living and active presence in our world," said Pope Francis during his homily at the Mass. "So we might ask ourselves: How are we trying to live this way in our homes, in our societies? What kind of world do we want to leave to our children? We cannot answer these questions alone, by ourselves. It is the Spirit who challenges us to respond as part of the great human family. Our common house can no longer tolerate sterile divisions."

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015