In giving his speech on the north side of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pope Francis stood in the shadow of a statue of George Washington. It was also on the very spot where Abraham Lincoln, en route to Washington for his inauguration in 1861, delivered an address. Had the ceremony been on the south side of the building, the Pope would have stood in the shadow of a statue of Commodore John Barry, Catholic hero of the Revolutionary War and Father of the U.S. Navy.
Knowing the historic significance of the location, the Holy Father, remarked, “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.”
Recalling a number of events that helped realize the promise of the Declaration of Independence, Pope Francis mentioned; the abolition of slavery, extension of voting rights, the civil rights movement and the struggles to realize full equality for all citizens. Noting that these events show, “that, when a country is determined to remain true to its founding principles, based on respect for human dignity, it is strengthened and renewed.”
Interestingly, the Holy Father stood only blocks away from a shrine to religious freedom, when he stated, “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.”
In the mid-18th Century, Old St. Joseph Church in Philadelphia was the only place in the English speaking world where Catholic Mass could be legally celebrated, thanks to an exemption to the anti-Catholic English Penal Laws granted to William Penn’s colony by the King of England.
Against this background the Pope noted that, “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.”
William Penn’s Quaker religion was the reason he fought for and gained true religious liberty for his colony. The Pope recalled that, “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.”
In closing, noting the large number of Hispanics present, Pope Francis said, “I greet all of you with particular affection! Many of you have immigrated 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.”
This post is also available in/Esta entrada también está disponible en: Spanish