PHILADELPHIA — In the sky above New York Harbor on Saturday, Pope Francis found his way to the cockpit of his helicopter and asked the pilot to make a loop past Ellis Island, the historic gateway for millions of American immigrants.
It was an emotionally moving sight for the pontiff, the first Latin American pope, a child of immigrants, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the son of an Italian bookkeeper in Buenos Aires.
That impromptu detour on the way to the airport for the short flight to Philadelphia lent a symbolically resonant note to a U.S. visit in which the pontiff has interwoven references to the plight of immigrants, a call that powerfully resonates with the large U.S. Latino population so critical to the future of the U.S. Catholic Church. Although the pope has not delivered the kind of extensive remarks on the topic as he did on climate change at the United Nations, he introduced himself to the U.S. Congress as a “son of immigrants,” empathized aloud with immigrant schoolchildren in Harlem, and Saturday, with the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia as a backdrop, delivered a message that appeared to resonate greatly with the large number of Latino immigrants in the audience.
“I greet all of you with particular affection!” the pope said in Spanish. “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.”
The pope’s remarks come at a time when debates about multiculturalism and assimilation, and derisive remarks about Latino immigrants, have peppered the national dialogue. But he urged Latinos to preserve a sense of their identity and pride, without reservations or fear.
“Please do not be ashamed of your traditions,” he told the audience. “Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land. I repeat, do not be ashamed of what is part of you, your lifeblood. You are called to be responsible citizens and to contribute, like others who with so much strength did before you . . . fruitfully to the life of the communities in which you live.”
Francis also culled American history to underscore his remarks about the treatment of immigrants.
“We remember the great struggles which led to the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement, and the gradual effort to eliminate every kind of racism and prejudice against the earlier arrival of new Americans,” he said.
In touching on immigration repeatedly during his six-day U.S. tour, Francis has injected himself into an issue that has played a prominent role in the early months of the Republican presidential campaign but that is also critical to the future of the Catholic Church in the United States. A majority of U.S. Hispanics remain Catholic, but large numbers have been leaving the church either to become evangelical Protestants or because they no longer affiliate with any religion.
Francis originally considered entering the United States via the U.S.-Mexico border, an idea he says he rejected — not because it might have been controversial, but because he did not want to offend Mexicans who would have expected him to visit the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
Instead, on Thursday, during the first papal address to the U.S. Congress, he told lawmakers that “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.”
Loretta Sanchez, a California Democratic congresswoman who has pressed for immigration reform, said in an interview Saturday that she sat listening to him speak with a thought racing through her mind: “Yes! Yes! Let my colleagues open their hearts.”
On Saturday, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D) echoed the pope’s address to Congress, telling the crowd gathered at Independence Mall that “immigrants are not people to be feared,” adding that they have brought hard work, energy and new ideas to the United States. He also called for a “common sense” immigration reform policy with a “pathway to citizenship” for all immigrants.
“We are all immigrants, whether we came here 10 generations ago or 10 minutes ago,” Nutter said.
The strains of mariachis warming up could be heard on the mall as the crowd awaited the pope. A salsa band took the stage as the throngs gathered.
The popemobile, the nickname for the pontiff’s open-sided vehicle, ferried Francis to Independence Mall through streets thick with pilgrims. Before taking the stage, the pope blessed the 5-foot-tall “Cross of the Encuentros,” a wooden cross presented to him by a group that included 14-year-old Elena Visoso from Silver Spring, Md.
The presentation is significant for Hispanic Catholics because it “recognizes Latinos in every aspect of church life,” said Visoso’s mother, Mar Muñoz, executive director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Throughout the audience, there were Latinos drawn to the event by a sense of hope that the papal visit would lead to changes in U.S. policies, particularly on the issue of what to do about an estimated 11 million people in the United States without proper documentation.
Reynaldo Hidalgo, an immigrant who had once been detained by immigration authorities until members of his church helped him raise the $10,000 bail, said he hoped that immigration reform opponents were listening and that Francis “can soften their hard hearts.”
At each stop on his trip, Francis has drawn big Latino audiences. In New York, Jose Polanco, 56, stood for three hours in line to get into the Mass at Madison Square Garden on Friday.
Polanco said he had once been a teacher and business owner in the Dominican Republic but had come to the United States “like everyone else does, to find a better life.” Lately, he has been down on his luck and struggling between jobs as a restaurant cook, but he said that seeing and hearing Pope Francis had lifted his spirits.
“He reminded us that this is a country where everyone can still dream, no matter who they are or where they come from,” he said.
Julia Yolan, 49, a health-care worker from Peru, said she felt a little taller after hearing what Pope Francis had to say about immigrants during his visits to Washington and New York.
“He said he is the son of immigrants and America should not be afraid of them,” she said with a satisfied nod, standing on a crowded subway platform in Manhattan on Friday after leaving the Mass at Madison Square Garden.
“So many of us here are taking care of people, like I do,” Yolan pointed out. “Why should they be afraid?”
In Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles Chaput, one of the speakers who took the stage before the pope, used the example of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, who was born in the West Indies, to speak of the possibilities embodied by immigrants.
“The lesson in his life is simple: This is a nation that no single ethnic group or privileged economic class ‘owns,’ ” Chaput said.
After the pope’s address, Gladys Stillwagon — who is Mexican American — said it doesn’t matter that Francis spent just a few minutes on immigration in his Saturday speech at Independence Mall.
“It’s important to mention it, but if you notice, he has included it in fragments of every speech he has given here,” said Stillwagon, who is from Glassboro, N.J. “He has talked about it when he talks about family, about human dignity and about love.”
Francis has done more for immigrants with his presence and actions, she said, than he could ever do with his words.
“Do you know how important it is that he came and spoke to us in Spanish?” Stillwagon said. “He has affirmed us and given us the tools to take the next steps.”