PHILADELPHIA, USA (AP) — Pope Francis joined hundreds of thousands of the faithful yesterday for the last and biggest event of his joyful, six-day US visit — a mass on Philadelphia’s grandest boulevard — after meeting with victims of the church sex abuse scandal and offering words of hope to prison 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 foot of the broad steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
It was the final stop on his itinerary before the 78-year-old pontiff was to return to Rome.
Organisers predicted a crowd of one 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’ favourite paintings, Mary, Undoer of Knots, showing Mary untangling a long ribbon symbolising 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 what they did.
“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 said.
Also, yesterday, Francis visited a Philadelphia jail to give hope of redemption to about 100 inmates, including 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.Z
“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’ 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 addressed Congress and the United Nations, calling for urgent action on climate change and poverty.