PHILADELPHIA — Pope Francis led hundreds of thousands of the faithful Sunday at the last and biggest event of his joyful, six-day U.S. visit — a Mass on Philadelphia’s grandest boulevard — after consoling victims of the church sex abuse scandal and offering words of hope to jail inmates.
Riding through the streets in his open-sided popemobile, the pontiff waved to cheering, screaming, singing, flag-waving crowds as he made his way up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and reached the altar at the steps of the tall-columned Philadelphia Museum of Art, a towering golden crucifix as a backdrop.
Francis told his listeners that their presence itself was “a kind of miracle in today’s world,” an affirmation of the family and the power of love.
“Would that all of us could be open to miracles of love for the sake of all the families of the world,” he said.
The Mass was a vibrant tableau of brilliant gold, green and white in the slanted evening sunlight of a mild early-autumn day. It was the final event on Francis’ itinerary before the 78-year-old pontiff was to return to Rome.
June Bounds, 56, of Rochester, New York, watched along with fellow parishioners on a large screen set up a few blocks away at City Hall, closing her eyes and blinking back tears as the Mass opened.
“It’s very overwhelming,” she said. “You feel like you’re one body with everyone here, whether you’re here, whether you’re back home, whether you’re anywhere in the world.”
Of the pope, she said: “He’s brought so much joy and holy spirit into the United States. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Catholic; he’s just trying to unite everybody for a better world.”
Organizers predicted a crowd of 1 million, though there were fears that the unprecedented security, including airport-style bag searches, crowd-control cattle chutes and blocked-off streets, had scared many people away and would depress the turnout.
En route to the Mass, Francis stepped off his popemobile to see an art installation with particular meaning for him: Inside the grotto outside Philadelphia’s cathedral were 30,000 white knotted ribbons, each representing a personal hardship or societal challenge.
The exhibit was inspired by one of Francis’ favorite paintings, “Mary, Undoer of Knots,” showing Mary untangling a long ribbon symbolizing life’s difficulties. The painting hangs in a church in Germany, where then-Rev. Jorge Mario Bergoglio saw it while studying in the mid-1980s.
Earlier in the day, in a gesture of reconciliation, he met with victims of child sexual abuse and told them he is “deeply sorry” for the times they came forward to tell their story and weren’t believed. He assured them that he believes them and that bishops will be called to account for shielding child-molesting priests.
“I pledge to you that we will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead,” Francis said in Spanish. “Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children.”
Then, he went into a meeting with American bishops in town for a Catholic festival on the family and told them the same thing face-to-face.
“God weeps” over what was done to the youngsters, he lamented.
Also Sunday, Francis visited a Philadelphia jail to give hope of redemption to about 100 inmates, included suspected killers, rapists and mobsters. He greeted the men one by one, telling them to use their time behind bars to get their lives back on track.
“May you make possible new opportunities, new journeys, new paths,” he said, standing before a wooden chair the men had made for him for the occasion.
The blue-uniformed inmates, some of them heavily tattooed, seemed moved. They clasped Francis’ hands, and two gave him a hug.
Francis’ U.S. journey also took him to Washington and New York. Along the way, he drew large and adoring crowds, met with President Barack Obama, visited ground zero and an East Harlem school, and addressed Congress and the United Nations, calling for urgent action on climate change and poverty.
As the hour of the papal Mass in Philadelphia approached, people endured hourslong waits to pass through security checkpoints, and the lines stretched for several blocks.
Sarah and Terrence Williams, both 36, of Williamstown, New Jersey, have been trying for more than a year to have a baby and said they were hoping that attending the Mass might result in a miracle.
“Hopefully he’ll drive by and just his acknowledgment will be the blessing we need to get our miracle,” Terrence Williams said.
The meeting on Sunday with victims of sexual abuse was the second one Francis has held. He received some at the Vatican in July 2014.
But in an apparent effort by the church to reshape the discussion, the Vatican said not all five of the victims on Sunday were abused by members of the clergy; some of the three women and two men had been victimized by relatives or educators.
The choice of victims underscored the Vatican’s argument that child molestation is not unique to the church and happens also in schools and within families.
Victim support groups were unimpressed by the meeting, which took place at a seminary on the edge of Philadelphia and lasted more than a half-hour.
The main victims’ support group, SNAP, dismissed it as an exercise in public relations.
“Is a child anywhere on Earth safer now that a pope, for maybe the seventh or eighth time or ninth time, has briefly chatted with abuse victims? No,” said SNAP’s David Clohessy.
The Rev. Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer who worked at the Vatican embassy in Washington and is now an advocate for victims, said that including more than just victims of abusive clergy “seriously minimizes” the problem in the church.
“We don’t think we’re going to get any real support to change this from the leadership in the Vatican,” Doyle said. “They’re having this big meeting of families. But there’s been no real room for all the families that the Catholic Church has destroyed through sexual abuse.”
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been hit hard by the scandal and has been the subject of repeated grand jury investigations, including one that accused it of keeping on more than three dozen priests facing serious accusations. A monsignor was found guilty of endangering children by not removing pedophile priests, becoming the first American church official convicted of such an offense.
The pope has agreed to create a new Vatican tribunal to prosecute bishops who failed to protect their flock, and he has accepted the resignations of three U.S. bishops accused of mishandling cases. During the previous meeting with victims, he similarly vowed to hold bishops accountable.
During the meeting with the bishops, Francis referred to gay marriage for the first time in his U.S. trip, lamenting the new reality in which Christians must live.
But he also urged the bishops to redirect their energy away from complaining about it, saying a church that does nothing but explain its doctrine is “dangerously unbalanced” and “stuck in a vicious circle.”
The U.S. bishops have spent considerable time and resources battling gay marriage, calling its legalization by the U.S. Supreme Court three months ago “a tragic error” and “profoundly immoral and unjust.”