Pope Francis focuses on religious liberty, immigration at Independence Hall

POPE27-aaa
members of the Secret Service use binoculars on the crowd from atop The Monoco Hotel before Pope Francis speaks at Independence Hall in Philadelphia Saturday September 26, 2015. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer ) Pope Francis arrives at Independence Hall in Philadelphia Saturday September 26, 2015. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

There was much talk that Pope Francis' address Saturday on Independence Mall would focus on immigration and perhaps the plight of refugees, a topic dear to Francis. It did, but it spoke more to the issue of protecting religious liberty, a topic dear to Philadelphia's Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.

Francis begins by noting that it was here in Philadelphia  and in the backdrop to his speech, Independence Hall  that the founding fathers codified the religious freedoms that most of us today assume as our natural birthright. 

"But history shows that these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended," Francis said early in his address. And so, he continued, "I would like to reflect with you on the right to religious freedom." 

It can allow us to "worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate," he said. But the 20th and 21st centuries are littered with "atrocities" committed by those seeking  or claiming  to build an "earthly paradise" that denies rights and imposes absolutist principles on the very people it purports to serve. 

"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 ... it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join in their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others," Pople Francis said. 

These ideas seem to echo those of Chaput, who in April cowrote a letter decrying those who denounce opponents of same-sex marriage as engaging in discrimination. Chaput was also a leader of the Fortnight for Freedom campaign against the requirement in the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) that required religiously-run hospitals and schools to provide contraceptives and abortifacients to their employees. He was also a vigorous defender of Indiana's controversial "Religious Freedom Act" that opponents said allowed businesses to discriminate against homosexuals on religious grounds.

Francis' address on Independence Mall does not touch on these controversies, but it seems likely that Chaput may have helped to shape its broader themes. Long before Francis' journey to the United States, his advisors were in communication with the bishops of each of the cities he was to visit -- Washington, D.C., and New York -- to discuss the matters of major concern in each.  Chaput cordially declined to discuss what advice he gave when I asked him last month, saying it was between him and them. 

Francis' talk went on to praise the Quaker tradition of religious freedom that made Pennsylvania unique in the colonies. He urged his listeners to defend the poor and immigrants -- themes he has repeated many times on this long trip.  

He also greeted the Hispanic community in the crowd "with particular affection," and urged them not to be discouraged "by whatever challenges and hardships  you face...You should never be ashamed of your traditions," the Argentine-born pope said.

As we've come to expect, Francis is a lively engaging speaker when he speaks in Spanish, and that's just what he did here. The audience responded warmly.