PHILADELPHIA — Pope Francis kicked off the last leg of his US visit by urging Catholics in this City of Brotherly Love — and, by extension, all Catholics — to go out to the peripheries of society to spread the mission of the Church.

“What about you?” he asked, echoing the words of Pope Leo XIII, who posed that question during a private audience in 1887 to St. Katharine Drexel, a wealthy Philadelphian heiress who was then inspired to take up missionary work.

“Those words changed Katharine’s life,” the pope said, “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.”

Francis thanked the nearly 2,000 bishops, priests, and nuns gathered in the Basilica of the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul — and all Catholic religious — for helping the poor, the sick, immigrants, and prisoners.

And he asked them to use their own experience as missionaries to encourage laity to do the same.

“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,” he said.

“…in the end, every Christian man and woman, by virtue of baptism, has received a mission,” the pontiff said. “Each one of us has to respond, as best we can, to the Lord’s call.”

Pope Francis’ homily at Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia

Several times during his pontificate Francis has called for the laity to have a more active role in the life of the parishes. One of his most memorable comments came during his trip to Brazil, where he called on youth to “create a havoc” in their diocese.

The pontiff also praised the Church in the United States for having “devoted immense effort to the work of catechesis and education.” The challenge, Francis said, is to share the responsibility in planning for the future of parishes and institutions and give lay Catholics a much more active role.


Under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, many US bishops worked to shore up their authority, upsetting parishioners who had high expectations for more of a say in Catholic life. By touching on the issue, Francis seemed intent on healing one of the major rifts in American Catholicism that has alienated many from the Church.

“This does not mean relinquishing the spiritual authority with which we have been entrusted,” he said. “Rather, it means discerning and employing wisely the manifold gifts which the Spirit pours out upon the Church.”

The pope also said there is a special role for women.

The future of the Church in America, according to Francis, requires “valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make, to the life of our communities.”

Despite his words of praise for women’s role in the Church, Francis has had a mixed track record on that score. On one hand, he has solidly rejected the notion of women being ordained, and sometimes uses a rather old-fashioned and somewhat paternalistic tone, once calling a group of female theologians the “strawberries on the cake” of a new international theological commission.

On the other hand, he more than doubled the number of women on that commission, and has appointed women to other Vatican boards and commissions. He also ended a Vatican investigation into US nuns, and has taken many opportunities to specifically thank religious sisters for their work.

Toward the end of his address on Saturday, Francis turned to the main reason he is visiting the United States: The international World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, being held in the States for the first time. He asked the clergy and religious sisters to reflect on how they minister to families, to couples preparing for marriage, and to young people.

He asked them “to pray fervently for them,” and to pray for the deliberations of bishops who will gather next month in Rome for the second phase of the Synod on the Family.

Later in the afternoon, Francis will meet with migrants and refugees at Philly’s Independence Mall, and then join hundreds of thousands at the Festival of Families on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.