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​Pope Francis extols America's founding ideals in Philadelphia

Last Updated Sep 26, 2015 10:30 PM EDT

PHILADELPHIA -- Standing at the birthplace of the United States, Pope Francis extolled America's founding ideals of liberty and equality Saturday while warning that religious freedom is under threat around the globe.

The pontiff arrived in the City of Brotherly Love on the final leg of his six-day U.S. trip, and in a moment rich with historical symbolism, he spoke outside Independence Hall -- where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed -- and used the lectern from which Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

"It was here that the freedoms which define this country were first proclaimed, the Declaration of Independence which 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," Francis said. "These 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."

The pope, known for his simple tastes and devotion to the poor and downtrodden, arrived to the strains of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man."

Addressing an exuberant crowd of tens of thousands with the red-brick colonial building as a backdrop, he extended a warm welcome to Hispanics and immigrants.

But he said he wanted to talk mostly about religious freedom -- a rallying cry for U.S. bishops who have waged high-profile fights against same-sex marriage, abortion and insurer-provided birth control.

Francis didn't mention any of those topics by name in his speech, putting religious liberty instead in a historical and global context.

"In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality," he said, "it is imperative that the followers of various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others."

Francis came to Philadelphia to close out a big Catholic festival for families. He found a city practically under lockdown, with blocked-off streets and checkpoints manned by police, National Guardsmen and border agents.

There had been fears that visitors might be scared away by all the security, and, in fact, train ridership was lower than expected, some streets were eerily quiet, and a vendor of pope sunglasses cut his price from $15 to $10 for lack of business.

It remains to be seen if the expected 1 million people will turn out for Francis' final Mass in the U.S., an outdoor event Sunday on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

He reached Independence Hall in his open-sided Jeep, rolling slowly past adoring crowds and kissing babies handed up to him by members of his security detail.

Earlier in the day, the pontiff arrived from New York at the Philadelphia airport, where a Catholic high school band played the theme song from the Philadelphia-set movie "Rocky" upon Francis' arrival. Among those greeting him was Richard Bowes, a former Philadelphia police officer wounded in the line of duty. Francis also kissed the forehead of a 10-year-old boy severely disabled with cerebral palsy.

Pope Francis kisses and blesses Michael Keating, 10, of Elverson, Pa., after arriving in Philadelphia and exiting his car when he saw the boy Sept. 26, 2015, at Philadelphia International Airport in this photo provided by World Meeting of Families.

Pope Francis kisses and blesses Michael Keating, 10, of Elverson, Pa., after arriving in Philadelphia and exiting his car when he saw the boy Sept. 26, 2015, at Philadelphia International Airport in this photo provided by World Meeting of Families.

Joseph Gidjunis/World Meeting of Families via AP

Then Francis celebrated a Mass for about 1,600 people at the downtown Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, saying in his homily that the future of the Catholic Church in the U.S. requires a much more active role for lay Catholics, especially women.

"It means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make to the life of our communities," he said.

Francis has repeatedly said women should have a greater role in church leadership, though he has rejected the idea of ordaining women. By calling for more involvement of women and the laity, he seemed intent on healing one of the major rifts in American Catholicism that has alienated many from the church.

Francis is in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, a conference for more than 18,000 people from around the world.

Saturday night, at the meeting's closing festival, Francis called families a "factory of hope." He gave an off-the-cuff monologue in Spanish after hearing from six families from the U.S., Australia, Ukraine, Jordan, Nigeria, and his homeland of Argentina.

"In the family, there are difficulties, but those difficulties are overcome with love," he said through an interpreter. "Love is about celebration, love is joy, love is moving forward."

Francis called for families to be cared for and protected -- particularly children and the elderly.

The families told Francis about their joys and struggles, in between musical performances from acts including The Fray and Aretha Franklin.

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Pope Francis speaks at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania September 26, 2015.

BRIAN SNYDER, REUTERS

During the first two legs of his U.S. visit, in Washington and New York, he addressed Congress and the United Nations, urging action on such global issues as climate change and inequality. The Philadelphia visit is expected to be more personal, more focused on ordinary Catholics and their families.

"He has a magnetic personality that not only appeals to Catholics, but to the universal masses. He's not scripted. He's relatable," said Filipina Opena, 46, a Catholic from LaMirada, California.

As he did in New York and Washington, the pontiff will give his attention to both the elite and the disadvantaged, this time visiting inmates in Philadelphia's largest jail.

"It's probably not politicians who will remember his message but the kids," said Liza Stephens, 48, of Sacramento, California, who was in Philadelphia with her two daughters, ages 10 and 12.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia organized the conference, hoping for a badly needed infusion of enthusiasm amid shrinking membership, financial troubles and one of the worst clergy sex-abuse scandals to hit a U.S. diocese.

The archdiocese has been the target of repeated investigations. In 2011, before Archbishop Charles Chaput came to Philadelphia, a grand jury accused the diocese of keeping on assignment more than three dozen priests facing serious abuse accusations.

A monsignor who oversaw priest assignments was found guilty of child endangerment, becoming the first American church official convicted of a crime for failing to stop abusers.

Cardinal Justin Rigali, who retired as Philadelphia archbishop in 2011 amid the scandal, helped celebrate Saturday's Mass with Francis.

The pope is widely expected to talk privately with abuse victims this weekend.

The visit is also shaping up as one of the most interesting ecclesial pairings of the pope's trip. His host is Chaput, an outspoken opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage who takes an especially hard line.

Francis has strongly upheld church teaching on such issues but has struck a more compassionate note, saying, "Who am I to judge?" when asked about a supposedly gay priest.