PHILADELPHIA (NBC NEWS) — Pope Francis closed his multi-city U.S. trip Sunday with a mass before a crowd of hundreds of thousands where he preached a message urging the church to practice unlimited inclusion and acceptance.
Before Francis arrived at the closing mass of the World Meeting of Families on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, his “popemobile” — which was open on either side — wound through crowds lining the parkway.
Thousands at a time erupted into cheers as the pope passed. Some scaled trees to get a better view of Francis, whom many had been waiting hours to catch a glimpse of.
Alyssa Hebel, 26, who traveled from New Jersey to see the pope for a fraction of a minute, told NBC News she made the right choice. “That was the most exciting four seconds of my life,” she said. “It was totally worth the wait.”
Tight security and a throng of Secret Service agents didn’t stop the pope from kissing several young children and nearly a dozen babies, who were handed over to agents from the dense crowd and taken to Francis for kisses on their heads.
During the last mass of his historic three-day trip to the U.S., Francis asked families to offer gestures of kindness to children, with the hope that those children will be more inclined to love and help others, regardless of differences and disagreements.
“Our common house can no longer tolerate sterile divisions,” the pope told an estimated 860,000 people. “May our children find in us models and incentive to communion.”
“I leave you with a question, a question for each of you to answer: In my own home, do we shout, or do we speak to each other in love and tenderness? That’s a good way of measuring our love,” Francis said.
Jericho Ponce, 44, said the challenge struck him. “We’ve all been guilty of not being tender. This city, this country and this world especially need that message,” he said.
Francis said the gathering before him was reassurance that a goal of unity was possible. “How many of us are here at this celebration? This itself is something prophetic, a kind of miracle in today’s world,” he said.
Rachel Evans, 39, said she was moved by the message she traveled from Kentucky to hear. “It hit me at a personal level. We have to find the peace in our own families before we can take it to the rest of the world,” said Evans, the mother of seven. “We’ve got to reach out to all people. We can’t be exclusive. It’s not for us to pick and choose who is worthy of Christ’s love.”
The theme of Francis’ homily has been represented during his papacy and especially during his trip to the U.S. Several of the pope’s stops focused on those who might be ignored or rejected.
Before the mass Sunday, Francis visited inmates at Philadelphia’s largest prison, and on Friday, he visited students at a school in Harlem in New York.
The 78-year-old’s packed schedule — which included a speech at the U.N., prayers at the 9/11 memorial, a mass at New York’s Madison Square Garden, an address to Congress and a motorcade through Central Park — also featured unscheduled diversions to focus on the sick and afflicted. He stopped his motorcade to kiss a boy with cerebral palsy, and on Sunday he met with victims of clerical sexual abuse.
“Jesus tells us not to hold back little miracles. Instead, he wants us to encourage them, to spread them,” Francis said during the Sunday mass.
And in a final request before departing for Rome, Francis told the faithful: “Pray for me. Don’t forget.”