PHILADELPHIA — Pope Francis celebrated Mass with hundreds of thousands in the streets of the City of Brotherly Love on Sunday, closing his historic six-day visit to the U.S. where he drew big and enthusiastic crowds wherever he went.
His visit to Philadelphia, the third leg of his U.S. trip that also took him to New York and Washington, coincided with the World Meeting of Families, and Francis used his final scheduled public appearance of the trip to connect faith with family.
In his homily, Francis told the faithful that much like happiness, "holiness is always tied to little gestures."
"These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different," Francis said. "They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion."
At the conclusion of his Mass, Francis made one small personal request. “I ask you to pray for me," Francis said. "Don’t forget!”
Later on Sunday, in a farewell speech attended by Vice President Biden and his family, Francis recalled details of the USA trip, including his visit to New York's Ground Zero, "the place that speaks so powerfully of the mystery of evil."
"Yet we know with certainty that evil never has the last word," he said, to applause from the crowd. "In God’s merciful plan, love and peace triumph over all.”
Francis' last officials words: “May God bless you all — God bless America.”
His flight, a private American Airlines jet, departed for Rome around 7:45 p.m. ET. He was scheduled to speak to reporters once in the air.
Organizers earlier on Sunday said the Mass, which Francis celebrated a stone's throw away from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art made famous in the movieRocky, was expected to draw as many as 1 million participants. It capped a busy day for the pontiff, who spoke to victims of clergy sex abuse and vowed to provide "careful oversight" to protect young believers in the future.
He also visited a correctional facility where he blessed inmates and made an unscheduled stop at a local Jesuit university.
Catholics, as well as non-Catholics who are simply fans of "the people's pope," began flooding the Benjamin Franklin Parkway early on an overcast Sunday in hopes of landing a prime spot to bid Francis farewell. The parkway, an iconic thoroughfare, was dotted with big screens to watch the 78-year-old pontiff deliver his final message to the American people before his return trip to Rome.
Boisterous church groups banging drums and singing songs went suddenly silent as the first strains of the musical preludes of the service wafted over the city streets. Crowds blocks away joined in the chanting and prayers as Mass began.
Shepherd One, the Pope's plane, takes off for Italy after leaving Atlantic Aviation at the Philadelphia International Airport. The crowds were packed as far away as Philadelphia's city hall, more than a mile from the pope's altar. The Mass could be heard across much of the city's downtown, where crowds stood rapt watching the celebration on the big screens.
"We are having a blessed time," said Maureen Cobb, 65, a retired teacher from Canal Winchester, Ohio. "The weather is beautiful, the people are beautiful. All these Christians who want to celebrate the good news of Jesus Christ."
Long lines stretched for hours ahead of the Mass, as National Guard soldiers worked to keep the surging crowds orderly.
Steve Mitchell, 61, a deacon from the archdiocese in Detroit, finally gave up as the crowds around him grew unbearably dense and stopped moving. His wife had extricated herself earlier after being jostled one too many times.
Mitchell said he wasn't surprised by the huge numbers of people going to great effort to see the pope celebrate his last Mass in the United States. "It's a historic moment," he said. "This is a guy who has caught the attention of everyone. He's everyone's pope. Non-Catholics, even atheists."
Tom Delesandro, 33, a teacher from Rockledge, Pa., was on the parkway with his mother, wife and 16-month-old daughter, Ava.
"We just wanted to take all this in," he said with Ava in his arms. "This is an amazing day, a once or twice in a lifetime opportunity. I'm just hoping my daughter can catch a glimpse of the pope."