Pope Francis’ Philly First: Marian Mass With Bishops, Priests, Religious

The votive Mass at the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul was said in a combination of Spanish and English, with the entire Eucharistic Prayer in Latin.

Pope Francis speaks at the Sept. 26 Mass he celebrated at  the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.
Pope Francis speaks at the Sept. 26 Mass he celebrated at the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. (photo: YouTube)

PHILADELPHIA — Following an ecstatic reception in New York City, Pope Francis flew from John F. Kennedy Airport to Philadelphia International Airport Saturday morning to begin a busy weekend of events. His first stop was the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, where he celebrated a votive Mass for Our Lady, Mother of the Church, with more than 1,600 bishops, priests and men and women religious.

A votive Mass is one offered for a special intention, not necessarily using the readings for the day.

The Pope arrived at 10:15am in his signature Fiat to cheering crowds, many of whom camped overnight to get an ideal view of the man who has set the nation on fire. He was greeted by a youth choir, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, retired Cardinal Justin Rigali and other Church leaders. Mass was said in a combination of Spanish and English, with the entire Eucharistic Prayer in Latin.

A visibly fatigued Pope Francis began his homily by noting the history of the basilica. The 149-year-old church was begun only two years after nativist riots racked the city with anti-Catholic violence and the destruction of churches. Its design reflects the tumult of the time: Its walls are strong, and there are no windows low enough to be hit with a rock.

“I would like to think, though,” he said, “that the history of the Church in this city and state is really a story not about building walls, but about breaking them down. It is 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.”

He pointed to the many shrines, schools and churches of Philadelphia as evidence of the city’s strong Catholic roots. This legacy is the work of generations of priests, religious and laypeople.

As an example, he pointed to the life of St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955), the Philadelphia heiress who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament: “When she spoke to Pope Leo XIII of the needs of the missions, the Pope — he was a very wise Pope! — asked her pointedly: ‘What about you? What are you going to do?’ Those words changed Katharine’s life, because they reminded her that, in the end, every Christian man and woman, by virtue of baptism, has received a mission. Each one of us has to respond, as best we can, to the Lord’s call to build up his body, the Church.”

Those words, he said, are particularly important to priests, deacons and religious in transmitting the joy of the Gospels. The words — “What about you” — are a calling that echoes down through the years.

“They made [Katharine] think of the immense work that had to be done,” the Holy Father said, “and to realize that she was being called to do her part. How many young people in our parishes and schools have the same high ideals, generosity of spirit and love for Christ and the Church! Do we challenge them? Do we make space for them and help them to do their part, to 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?”

He continued:

“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. This 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.”

Pope Francis found it significant that the encounter between Pope Leo and St. Katharine was an older man directing a young laywoman. The nature of the Church is changing, Francis said, and calls for “a much more active engagement on the part of the laity.” 

While the Church has always spent a great deal of attention on catechesis, the challenge today is to “foster a sense of collaboration and shared responsibility in planning for the future of our parishes and institutions. 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, it means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make to the life of our communities.”


Concluding Remarks

The Pope concluded by thanking all of the gathered clergy and religious for answering the call of Jesus and returned to a persistent theme by asking them to bring his “affectionate greetings” to the elderly or infirm who could not make it to the Mass. He also urged them to support and pray for “couples preparing for marriage and our young people,” as well as to pray for the synod on the family. His homily ended with a prayer to the Blessed Mother, “for the growth of the Church in America, in prophetic witness to the power of her Son’s cross, to bring joy, hope and strength into our world.”

Archbishop Chaput offered concluding remarks, saying, “Philadelphia has waited a long time for this moment. This is a city that would change its name to Francisville today.”

Priests and religious were filled with joy following the Mass. “It felt so good. It was so important from him to come here and give us hope, give us guidance and encourage us in the work we do,” said Sister Elizabeth of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

“It was wonderful,” said Father Scott Reilly. “It really gives you a feeling of being a son of the universal Church under the Bishop of Rome.”

After the Pope departed the basilica, he went to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in nearby Wynnewood, Pa., to greet the seminarians and see the room where he will stay on the last leg of his grueling, nine-day journey that began Sept. 19 in Cuba.

Register correspondent Thomas L. McDonald is covering the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia.

He blogs about faith, history and technology at God and the Machine.