Pope Francis to immigrants: 'Don't be discouraged, be responsible citizens'

  • Pope Francis delivers remarks at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015.

    Pope Francis delivers remarks at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015.  (ap)

  • Pope Francis rides in the popemobile along Independence Mall on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in Philadelphia.

    Pope Francis rides in the popemobile along Independence Mall on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in Philadelphia.

In an emotional Spanish-language speech in front of 40,000 people gathered outside of Independence Hall – and the hundreds more gathered at screens set up around the city – Pope Francis delivered a simple but clear message of hope to the U.S. Latino community.

Saving the topic of immigration for the closing sections of his speech, and one that drew effusive cheers from the crowd, Francis greeted the Hispanic community with "particular affection" and offered up words of encouragement to the newly arrived immigrants in the country.

"Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face," Francis said, appearing more at ease speaking in his native Spanish than in English. "I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation."

Francis added: "You are also called to be responsible citizens and contribute fruitfully to the lives of the community in which you live... By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within."

On the cool fall afternoon, the crowd at the Meeting for Religious Freedom, which stretched from the front of Independence Hall two blocks north to the entrance of the National Constitution Center, was rapt and at times appeared overwhelmed by the pontiff's speech.

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"He speaks to my heart and I think he speaks to the reality of this nation which is rooted in migration," Father Miguel Ceja, the pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Health Church in Riverside, CA told Fox News Latino. "I was able to see a lot of emotion because he speaks to my reality."

Many of those gathered here were either Latin American immigrants and they said that Francis' message of inclusion particularly resonated with them.

"This pope is more in touch with our reality," Francisco Toledo, a gastroenterologist and Guatemalan immigrant told Fox News Latino. "He knows what is going on."

Pope Francis' message on immigration picked up where he left off during his speech on Thursday to the U.S. Congress. Immigration has been one of the most divisive issues in American politics for more than a decade and will play a major role in the upcoming presidential elections, especially given the importance of the Latino vote in 2016.

"All too often, those most in need of our help are unable to be heard," Francis said on Saturday. "You are their voice, and many of you have faithfully made their cry heard."

He added: "In this witness, which frequently encounters powerful resistance, you remind American democracy of the ideals for which it was founded, and that society is weakened whenever and wherever injustice prevails."

Francis ended his speech by leading the crowd in the "Our Father" prayer before cheers of "Viva Papa!" erupted.

"God bless you all," Francis said before leaving the stage.

Before his speech, Francis' motorcade rolled down Market Street and looped around Independence Hall as a rush of people swarmed to catch a glimpse or a photo of the pontiff.

Following his arrival, Francis blessed a 5-foot wooden cross known as the Cross of the Encuentros that is meant to symbolize the journey of faith of Hispanic and Latino Catholics in the U.S. A family of seven that came from Mexico presented the cross to Francis.

Encuentros is the Spanish word for meetings or encounters. Catholic officials say the cross will be taken to dioceses across the country as a symbol of an ongoing national pastoral movement called Encuentro, which has spurred Hispanic ministry in the country.

The movement includes a three-year process of missionary activity, consultation, leadership development and pastoral discernment.

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.

Then Francis then 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 town for the World Meeting of Families, a conference for more than 18,000 people from around the world. Also on the itinerary was a Saturday night music-and-prayer festival featuring Aretha Franklin, Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, actor Mark Wahlberg and comedian Jim Gaffigan.

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.

The AP contributed to this report.

Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.

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