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After Week in U.S., Pope Francis Departs With a Final, Warm Message About the Family

"He wants us to think about what the truth of the church points us to"

Francis, the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church, left the United States with a parting message in the same spirit of acceptance that the country showed him.

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The church appreciates anyone trying to raise a good family, "whatever the family, people, region, or religion to which they belong," Francis told a massive audience in Philadelphia after a trip full of adoring crowds and official ceremonies.

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It capped a week where Francis called for nations to embrace immigrants, declared that man has no right to abuse the environment and sought the abolition of the death penalty.

Footage shows towering flames in San Francisco as crews battle a fire caused by a gas explosion.

"I think there were a lot of expectations for the pope to come and kind of let people have it," Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant.

But Francis was instead compassionate, Misleh said, "urging us to get involved, to become better angels, to become the people who God intends us to be."

Francis' six-day visit packed in enough events to make it seem like he was making up for lost time – it had been seven years since a pope visited the U.S. – ranging from intimate blessings to a speech at the United Nations directed at the whole world. Then there were the huge religious ceremonies that showed the church's continued connection with this country, including the first canonization of a saint in North America.

The children Francis embraced captured national attention, perhaps none more so than wheelchair-bound Michael Keating, 10, who has cerebral palsy. The image of Francis bending over to cradle and bless Michael's head on Saturday seemed to capture the tender humanity that brought nearly a million people to Philadelphia for his Sunday Mass, closing the first World Meeting of Families conference in the U.S.

Footage shows towering flames in San Francisco as crews battle a fire caused by a gas explosion.

From his arrival in Washington, D.C., to his departure from Philadelphia, the visit's constants were Francis' daily nap and cheery disposition, an outlook that reflects his religious philosophy.

"Love is a concept that he comes back to over and over again," said Tiziana Dearing, an associate professor at Boston College's School of Social Work.

He thinks love manifests it in family, service and preference for the excluded, she said.

[NATL] Pope Francis Stops to Bless Kids During U.S. Visit


"He's very hesitant to talk about getting people into church as an institution. He wants us to think about what the truth of the church points us to," namely the joy of Jesus and the church as Catholics' mother, Catholic University of America professor Chad Pecknold said.

The papal visit comes before an important period for the church, which is about to revisit how the church understands the family, possibly updating its position on divorce and gay marriage. Francis has declared a "Year of Mercy" beginning December 8, 2015, which Pecknold thinks may be a way to influence the bishops' deliberations. Francis has given all priests the power to absolve the "sin of abortion" during the Year of Mercy.

The World Meeting of Families was an important prelude to those discussions, and Francis' comments about the family in his Sunday evening homily may set the discussion for the church's upcoming decisions about the family.

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Pecknold noted that this visit was much grander than Benedict XVI's U.S. visit in 2008. He also gave Benedict credit for "getting the ball rolling" on addressing sexual abuse at the hands of clergy.

Francis' meeting with victims of abuse, including clerical sexual abuse, and his impassioned comments vowing to hold abusive priests accountable were some of the most shocking of his trip, as the press was given no notice that he would speak so directly about the matter, which has rocked the church in America since the early 2000s. 

“I have in my heart these stories of suffering of those youth that were sexually abused,” he said. “God weeps.”

Pope Francis met with victims of clergy sex abuse Sunday morning and vowed “careful oversight” of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church to ensure “all responsible will be held accountable.”

But for all the moments of gravitas, there were light-hearted ones as well. Francis learned how to use a touchscreen from a student in New York, and met an old friend – a rabbi he used to work with in Argentina – to dedicate a statue about Judaism and Catholicism in Philadelphia.

“I’m having a hard time imagining a more well-choreographed visit. Every stop seemed to be filled with meaning and things to ponder,” Misleh said. 

The political moments of Francis' trip occasionally made the news as much for what happened around them than what he said.

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His speech to Congress – a first for a pope – came the day before Speaker of the House John Boehner, a very religious Catholic, announced he will soon resign. Many in the Washington press speculated on whether the pope's appearance had anything to do with Boehner's announcement, essentially injecting him into a national political story he had nothing to do with.

"The pope comes with none of these intentions in mind but our political system plays out in the context of what he's saying, no matter what," said Dearing, the Boston College professor.

One national issue in which Francis did intervene was Cuba. The visit came several months after talks he'd brokered yielded a historic agreement between the U.S. and Cuba, and he toured both countries on this trip.

[NATL] Pope Francis Stops to Bless Kids During U.S. Visit

Days after meeting with President Obama, he delivered to U.S. bishops in Philadelphia a statuette of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus sent from Cuban bishops, who wanted it to be delivered to a Cuban community in America.

"Now I'm not gonna get in this difficult situation, you will decide which Cuban community needs this the most," Francis joked.

Yet it's in politics where Misleh, the Catholic Climate Covenant director, hopes to see the lasting effects of Francis' trip to the U.S.

"I would hope that there would be some indication in our political discourse that people have been listening to the pope, that we can have conversations without the vitriol, that we can sit and have dialogue with one another to understand each other’s different points of view," he said. "Right now, at least before the pope’s visit, it certainly didn’t feel that way."

Nelson Hsu/NBC

Noreen O'Donnell contributed to this report. 

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