Pope makes passionate plea for religious freedom

  • September 26, 2015

Philadelphia, Penn. - American composer Aaron Copland’s stirring “Fanfare for the Common Man” greeted a most uncommon pope, who proceeded to speak to America’s better angels on behalf of common men and women, who thronged Independence Mall in their thousands hoping to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis.

The pope stepped directly and fearlessly into the sometimes divisive and dangerous divides of American politics. But he gave the issues of religious freedom, immigration and family values a global and Catholic perspective.

With hundreds of thousands gathered, many of them Latin American and Asian immigrants who clearly made sacrifices to be in Philadelphia and hear the pope, Francis made the case for a place in the public square where “the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power” is heard and respected.

He decried the real tyranny faced by Christians in many parts of the world, but also warned against the tendency to push aside religious voices and contributions even in advanced democracies.

“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,” he said.

Societies are impoverished when they exclude the public contributions of religious people, argued the pope.

“Religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families” said the pope.

It is in the best traditions of American democracy to make room for a diversity of religious views and contributions, said Francis. To make this point, the pope began by quoting from the Declaration of Independence, which had been written in Independence Hall, the historic building at the head of Independence Mall.

“When individuals and communities are guaranteed the effective exercise of their rights, they are not only free to realize their potential, they also contribute to the welfare and enrichment of society,” he said.

The crowd roared and broke into applause when Francis specifically greeted Latino immigrants and spoke of their contributions to America.

It would be wrong to think of Pope Francis message on immigration, globalization and religious freedom strictly in terms of Republican candidate promises to build walls along America’s borders, said Canadian Teresa Hartnett from Hamilton who was in the crowd listening.

“It may have been directed to American issues, but in the world today it speaks to every human,” she said at the end of the speech. “With so many refugees and people fearing what bringing them to their country might do, his message today reminded us that they would give their gifts and talents, that their differences can enrich us not harm us and that we are in fact all one family.”

Pope Francis deviated from his script to speak of both the good side of globalization and its tendency to roll over cultural differences demanding a colourless uniformity in every part of the world. He urged the immigrants in his audience “Do not be ashamed.” They should rather celebrate their difference as a valuable contribution to the country and society where they have made their home.

In tone and substance the pope was confident, passionate and caring.

“For me, what first struck me was the strength of his voice” said Hartnett. “And the challenge for all of us to remember that our country was founded on immigrants… It is, I believe, his best ability – to speak in words that make sense to our hearts and minds, whether we are Catholic or not.”

Calgary’s Sara Francis was encouraged by the pope’s insistence that Christianity is not a subculture to be safely ignored.

“It can be difficult to live out my Catholic faith in the public sphere in our secularized culture,” she said. “His words gave me much strength for when I return home.”

The core of the pope’s message was that each culture, each individual deserves to be welcomed and included, said Prince George, B.C.’s Ryan Wilson.

“He stressed that globalization done in a way which minimizes or marginalizes any of the human family is a bad pursuit,” Wilson said in a phone text to The Catholic Register. “Rather, globalization has to be done in an inclusive manner.”


You can read the full address below:

Address of His Holiness Pope Francis
Meeting for Religious Liberty
Independence Mall, Philadelphia
Saturday September 26, 2015

Pope Francis spoke from the Gettysburg Lectern, which was used by President Abraham Lincoln to deliver the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Foundation of The Union League of Philadelphia ("the ALF"), the lectern from which President Lincoln spoke just 272 words in dedicating part of the battlefield as the first National Soldiers Cemetery is part of the J. Howard Wert Collection and is on long-term loan from a private collector.

Dear Friends,

One of the highlights of my visit is to stand here, before Independence Hall, the birthplace of the United States of America. It was here that the freedoms which define this country were first proclaimed. 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. Those ringing words continue to inspire us today, even as they have inspired peoples throughout the world to fight for the freedom to live in accordance with their dignity.

But history also shows that these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended. The history of this nation is also the tale of a constant effort, lasting to our own day, to embody those lofty principles in social and political life. We remember the great struggles which 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. This shows that, when a country is determined to remain true to its founding principles, based on respect for human dignity, it is strengthened and renewed.

All of us benefit from remembering our past. A people which remembers does not repeat past errors; instead, it looks with confidence to the challenges of the present and the future. Remembrance saves a people’s soul from whatever or whoever would attempt to dominate it or use it for their interests. When individuals and communities are guaranteed the effective exercise of their rights, they are not only free to realize their potential, they also contribute to the welfare and enrichment of society.

In this place which is symbolic of the American way, I would like to reflect with you on the right to religious freedom. It is a fundamental right which shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors whose religious views differ from our own. Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.

Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim. They call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness. They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power. We need but look at history, especially the history of the last century, to see the atrocities perpetrated by systems which claimed to build one or another “earthly paradise” by dominating peoples, subjecting them to apparently indisputable principles and denying them any kind of rights.

Our rich religious traditions seek to offer meaning and direction, “they have an enduring power to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and heart” (Evangelii Gaudium, 256). They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.

Our religious traditions 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 â €œa 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” (M. de Certeau).

In a world where 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, 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.

We live in a world subject to the “globalization of the technocratic paradigm” (Laudato Si’, 106), which consciously aims at a one-dimensional uniformity and seeks to eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity. The religions thus have the right and the duty to make clear that it is possible to build a society where “a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such” (Evangelii Gaudium, 255) is a “precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity… and a path to peace in our troubled world” (ibid., 257).

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. This conviction led them to found a colony which would be a haven of religious freedom and tolerance. That sense of fraternal concern for the dignity of all, especially the weak and the vulnerable, became an essential part of the American spirit. During his visit to the United States in 1987, Saint John Paul II paid moving homage to this, reminding 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” (Farewell Address, 19 September 1987, 3).

I take this opportunity to thank all those, of whatever religion, who have sought to serve the God of peace by building cities of brotherly love, by caring for our neighbors in need, by defending the dignity of God’s gift of life in all its stages, by defending the cause of the poor and the immigrant. All too often, those most in need of our help are unable to be heard. You are their voice, and many of you have faithfully made their cry heard. In this witness, which frequently encounters powerful resistance, you remind American democracy of the ideals for which it was founded, and that society is weakened whenever and wherever injustice prevails.

Among us today are members of America’s large Hispanic population, as well as representatives of recent immigrants to the United States. I greet all of you with particular affection! Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life. Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions. Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land. I repeat, do not be ashamed of what is part of you, your life blood. You are also called to be responsible citizens, and to contribute fruitfully to the life of the communities in which you live. I think in particular of the vibrant faith which so many of you possess, the deep sense of family life and all those other values which you have inherited. By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within.

Dear friends, I thank you for your warm welcome and for joining me here today. May this country and each of you be renewed in gratitude for the many blessings and freedoms that you enjoy. And may you defend these rights, especially your religious freedom, for it has been given to you by God himself. May he bless you all. I ask you, please, not to forget to pray for me.


Read our complete coverage of the Pope's historic visit to the United States of America.

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