PHILADELPHIA — It was a moment veteran pope-watchers had been anticipating since Francis arrived in the United States Tuesday: When was he going to toss aside his prepared remarks and speak from the heart?
That moment came Saturday night, when the “Pope of the People” looked out over the tens of thousands of faithful gathered on Independence Mall, set down his papers, and delivered a moving — and, at times, funny — tribute to the family.
He urged parents to care for both children and grandparents, lest they put the future of their family in jeopardy.
“The children, whether they are young or older,” the pope said, “they are the future, the strength that moves us forward. We place our hope in them.”
“Grandparents,” he continued, “are the living memory of the family. They passed on the faith, they transmitted the faith to us.”
Repeating a theme Francis has used frequently during his pontificate, he said, “a people that does not know how to look after children and grandparents is a people that have no future, because it does not have the strength or memory to go forward.”
The pope reflected on the creation story in Genesis, telling the crowd that God “created man and woman and he gave them everything. He gave them the world that they may grow, multiply, cultivate the land.”
“All that love that he made in creation, he gave it, and shared it, and bestowed it on the family,” he continued.
God did not abandon humanity when they made mistakes, the pope said, but loved them all the more. In fact, his love was so great that he sent his only son to save it.
“And where did he send his son?” he asked the crowd. “To a palace? To a city? To a company? No, he sent him to a family. God sent him to a family!”
Absent from the pope’s Saturday evening address was any mention of same-sex marriage, which US bishops have railed against in recent years as threats to the family. Francis has mostly avoided talking directly about contentious social issues during his visit to Washington, New York, and Philadelphia.
Instead, Francis told the crowd not to worry if their families seemed imperfect.
“Do you know what God likes most?” Francis asked. “To knock on the doors of families and to find the families who love each other.”
And he drew appreciative laughs from the crowd when he talked about his own unmarried status and the messiness of family life.
“Some of you might say, ‘Of course, Father, you speak like that because you’re not married!’” he said, laughing along with his audience. “Families have difficulties. Families, we quarrel. Sometimes plates can fly, and children bring headaches. And I won’t even speak about mothers-in-law!”
The pope said he hears about the challenges of family life from his lay staff, who “come to work, and they look tired. They have a one-month-old child, and I ask them, ‘Did you sleep?’ and they say, ‘I couldn’t sleep, your Holiness, because they were crying.’”
But those sleepless nights are worth it, Francis said, because the family is about love, and is worth fighting for.
“Love is about celebration, love is joy, love is moving forward,” Francis said.
The pope’s prepared remarks contained a call to consider outside pressure families face, and how the Church might help respond.
“How many problems would be solved if our societies protected families and provided households, especially those of recently married couples,” the text said, “with the possibility of dignified work, housing and healthcare services to accompany them throughout life.”
The Vatican has stated in the past that even when prepared remarks are not delivered, they nonetheless become part of the pope’s official statements.
The pope concluded his address Saturday with a bit of practical advice for when times get tough between couples: “Never let the day end without making peace. You can’t finish the day off not being in peace.”
Francis’ talk came near the end of a Festival of Families concert held to close out the week-long international World Meeting of Families, held in the United States for the first time.
The evening, emceed by actor Mark Wahlberg, included testimony from six families from around the world, as well as artistic and musical performances.
His off-the-cuff speech, and the written remarks, were significant, because they come just about a week before Francis kicks off the second part of Synod on the Family in Rome.
Last October, bishops from around the world began a yearlong dialogue about family life, in which hot-button topics such as Communion for divorced Catholics and sexuality came to dominate the conversation.
Earlier this month, Francis sought to take pressure off the Communion question, altering rules to make annulments easier to obtain.
The pope’s words in Philadelphia suggest that he would like bishops to reflect not on tough social issues, but on other issues facing families.
Francis delivered his speech in a city whose downtown is effectively shut down, with airport-style security procedures in place for pilgrims seeking access to the heart of the city. (One funny aside: TSA agents told people that although they could carry in bananas and grapes, “hard fruits” such as apples and oranges had to be tossed into large bins before they could enter.)
Earlier in the day, the pope talked about religious liberty on Independence Mall, giving a talk in which he steered clear of mentioning contraception and gay marriage, instead employing language of diversity and tolerance.
The pope wraps up his US tour Sunday with a public Mass expected to draw 1 million worshippers.