On way to Philadelphia, Pope veers to see Statue of Liberty

Pope Francis celebrates mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, on Sept 26, 2015.
Pope Francis celebrates mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, on Sept 26, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK/PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Pope Francis flew over New York's Statue of Liberty and the former immigration station of Ellis Island aboard a helicopter on Saturday (Sept 26), in an unscheduled detour that gave him nostalgia for his home town Buenos Aires.

Flying to JFK International Airport to take a plane to Philadelphia, the pope asked the helicopter pilot to circle the landmarks, New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan said. "You could see he was very, very moved," Dolan told reporters.

"And he said 'You know, Buenos Aires was a city of immigrants too,'" Dolan said.

The son of an Italian immigrant family and the first Latin American pope, Francis has taken up the plight of immigrants as one of the main issues of his papacy, along with climate change, economic equality and religious freedom.

On Thursday, the Argentine pontiff urged Americans in a historic speech to Congress to reject "a mindset of hostility"toward immigrants.

In Philadelphia later on Saturday, he will address Hispanic immigrants in a speech in Spanish at the site of Independence Hall, the 18th century red-brick building where the United States' two bedrock documents, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, were adopted.

The biggest crowds of the pope's six-day visit to the United States are expected in the city, where some 1.5 million people are set to attend a Mass led by the pontiff on Sunday before he flies back to Rome that night.

Despite a tightly packed schedule, Francis again displayed the kind of human gesture that has endeared him to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

After arriving at the Philadelphia airport, the pontiff ordered his car to stop so he could get out and kiss a severely disabled child in a wheelchair.

Adoring fans greeted Francis as he rode in his signature Fiat car down the streets of the city.

Pulling up to the Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary, where he will stay during his visit, scores of students lined the steps to greet him. "He is someone who is very open, who is very approachable. It's good to see that in the leadership," said Phil Tran, an 18-year-old in his first year of studying for the Catholic priesthood. "I'd like to see more of the clergy take that approach."

GREATER ROLE FOR WOMEN

In a homily at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics said the Church should give a greater role to lay members, especially women.

Although he does not support ordaining female priests, Francis urged the Church to value "the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make, to the life of our communities."

Following an arduous schedule in New York and Washington on the back of a four-day trip to Cuba, the 78-year-old Francis stumbled several times as he climbed the stairs of the American Airlines jet taking him from JFK to Philadelphia.

But he smiled and waved once he reached the airplane door, apparently in good shape, and the plane took off.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi acknowledged to reporters on Friday night that the pope was tired amid a packed schedule. He said the pope usually has physical therapy for a leg problem but cannot undergo therapy during trips so was having some difficulty with steps.

On his visit to Philadelphia, Francis will promote religious freedom, an issue close to the hearts of both Catholic conservatives and American Evangelicals who fear the encroachment of the secular world in public life.

Many Catholics object to a provision of President Barack Obama's 2010 healthcare law which they say forces companies to provide contraceptive coverage to female employees even if that is against the religious beliefs of the employer.

The Pope made a surprise visit in Washington on Wednesday to a group of nuns who are suing the Obama administration over the Obamacare law.