5 Takeaways From the Parkway Mass

Pope Francis is looking to build a big tent. So: No red meat.

Pope Francis delivers his speech during a Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope Francis delivers his speech during a Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope Francis just finished celebrating Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Five takeways from the event:

The pope struck an ecumenical note, saying he wants to ally with other individuals and religions with a “pro-family” bent. “Anyone who wants to bring into this world a family which teaches children to be excited by every gesture aimed at overcoming evil – a family which shows that the Spirit is alive and at work – will encounter our gratitude and our appreciation,” he said during the homily. “Whatever the family, people, region, or religion to which they belong!”

Sounds mild, but it might be a call to transform the underlying nature of Philadelphia Catholicism, which, as many experts have noted, was shaped by — and developed a culture of self-sufficiency — following the nativist riots of the 1840s. With dwindling numbers and shrinking attendance at parish schools, the Philadelphia church can’t stand alone anymore.

If you wanted conservative red meat from this pope, you were disappointed. A common refrain from conservative Catholics throughout the weekend was frustration that Pope Francis didn’t aggressively criticize abortion or same-sex marriage. Given one last chance to do so Sunday afternoon, the pope declined.

Why? Well, check back to Point No. 1: This pope was clearly more interested in using the Philadelphia portion of his trip to expand the tent than in drawing bright “do not cross” lines. It’s not like the Catholic Church’s stance on the topics is secret.

“He has avoided particular polemics or discussions because he wants to express a positive message,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said during a Sunday-afternoon press briefing.

Vermont Bishop Christopher Coyne added: “It’s part of the lay of the land  as part of what Catholics believe, without saying it over and over again.”

So what does that mean for the church in Philadelphia and nationally? There are some theologically minded people within the church who would like to draw the lines even more brightly and bring an end to “cafeteria Catholicism” once and for all. That could mean cutting the church down to its most fervent (and fervently conservative members) before growing again. If that sounds suicidal, well, church numbers have been in decline in recent years. Some might see a step or two backwards as the way to make progress.

Based on this Mass and this trip, Pope Francis doesn’t buy that position. (It was one that some believed his predecessor, Pope Benedict, held.) Which means that the fights over the cultural divisions affecting the church — particularly on sexuality and gender issues — will remain with us for a while yet.

The clergy sex abuse scandal remains much on Pope Francis’s mind. That’s the most obvious takeaway from the announcement that Dublin will host the next World Meeting of Families in 2018. Philadelphia got this year’s pick, in part, as a means of healing from its own scandals; the church in Ireland has declined even more grievously than in America, thanks almost entirely to clergy scandals there. A decade after the first grand jury report on the scandal was released in Philadelphia, Pope Francis is still trying to stop the bleeding from the Church’s worst-ever self-inflicted wound.

Somebody’s going to have to answer about the security. This isn’t a theological question, but a bureaucratic one: It appears thousands of pilgrims spent hours in line trying to get into the Parkway for the Mass, only to spend most of those hours … not moving. That’s a lot of people disappointed about not seeing the pope. Why the holdup? Can these kinds of isssues be fixed before we host the DNC next year?

The World Meeting of Families may be over. But we may not be done learning its lessons, Philadelphia.

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