On Friday, an American archbishop all but confirmed that Pope Francis will visit Philadelphia, Pennsylvania next year, leaving Catholics and Americans at large buzzing about what the pontiff’s first visit to the United States could entail.
Speaking at a Catholic conference in Fargo, North Dakota, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said that the pope plans to attend the last three days of the Eighth World Meeting of Families, a Catholic meeting set to take place in Philadelphia September 22–27, 2015.
“Pope Francis has told me that he is coming,” Chaput said. “The pope will be with us the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of that week.”
A formal papal visit to the City of Brotherly Love, where more than 60 percent of the region’s religious are Catholic, has been rumored for months. But while the Vatican has yet to confirm the trip, Friday’s news — coming from a prominent cleric — appears to make the pontiff’s visit a virtual certainty. What is not certain, however, is what the pope will say when he arrives, and whether or not he will speak directly to issues facing the local population — a common practice among popes. Granted, papal trips are not always focused on the places they visit. Pope Benedict XVI’s widely-covered visit to the U.S. in 2008, for instance, was mostly used by the Vatican as platform to discuss broader issues affecting the Catholic Church, including the child sex abuse crisis. Similarly, Pope John Paul II’s visit to Philadelphia in 1979, while clearly an exciting event for those who living in the city at the time, was reportedly largely an exercise in celebrating mass and greeting his fellow Catholics.
Still, popes often use their recognizable moral weight to address localized issues — especially Pope Francis. He implored Brazilian bishops to protect the Amazon rainforest while in Brazil last July, and visited Israel and Palestine with the expressed purpose of decrying the violence plaguing the embattled region. His travels and messages garnered international attention in both instances, and while his presence certainly didn’t “fix” the problems he lamented (especially not Israel-Palestine), his global reach nonetheless helped draw attention — and potentially resources — to the issues at play.
With this in mind, here are three things the pope should talk about when he visits Philadelphia next year.
1. Urban Poverty
The pope is well-known for his deep concern for the poor. Since assuming the papacy, he has published an entire papal encyclical on moral economics, blasted “trickle down economics” for subjugating the impoverished, and called for “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits.”
The pope’s concern for the “least of these” has special relevance in Philadelphia, where crippling poverty is a way of life for thousands of families. Philadelphia is currently the poorest big city in America, where 28 percent of residents currently live below the poverty line. The city’s median income is just above $34,000 — the second lowest of any U.S. city, just above Detroit, Michigan — and the child poverty rate hovers around 40 percent. This and other local factors have devastated the local education system, leading to massive layoffs of school employees and worsening the condition of already-underserved schools — including some where almost every student is categorized as living at or below the federal poverty line.
Addressing these and other poverty issues could go a long way to helping Philadelphia’s poorest, but it’s also worth noting that the mere presence of the pope can be an economic boon in and of itself: some analysts predict that the Families conference to pump $100 million into the city’s economy, a figure that could easily increase as buzz builds about the pontiff’s upcoming trip.
2. Gun Violence
The pope has frequently condemned both the tools and the perpetrators of violence. He has prayed for a peaceful resolution to wars in Israel-Palestine and Syria, asked his fellow Catholics to “[say] no to the proliferation of arms and the illegal trade in arms,” and declared in August 2013 that “faith and violence are incompatible.”
Although Philadelphia isn’t quite a war zone, the so-called “City of Brotherly Love” is well acquainted with violence. Waves of gun deaths have hit Philadelphia several times over the past decade, which had the highest homicide rate (20.7 homicides per 100,000 people) of the nation’s 10 most populous cities in 2011 and was one of only a few large U.S. cities with a double-digit gun homicide rate in 2012. This was fueled in part by spikes in illegal gun sales and “straw purchases” at local gun shops. And while Philadelphia law enforcement officials are reportedly making progress in reducing gun deaths (aided in part by faith-based community initiatives), violent crime is on the rise in many lower-income neighborhoods.
Drawing attention to Philly’s issues with violent crime could bolster the work of local gun violence prevention advocates, and encourage local elected officials to explore forward-thinking policies to lessen gun deaths. And even if lawmakers don’t immediately act, Francis’ words could encourage Philadelphia’s “Catholic vote” to consider the issue of guns come election season.
3. Immigration Reform
Pope Francis, the first pontiff to hail from Argentina, is an outspoken supporter of immigrant rights. In addition to his recent comments lamenting the plight of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, Francis’ first trip outside the Vatican was to visit with immigrants on the island of Lampedusa, where he called attention to immigration concerns and later tweeted, “We pray for a heart which will embrace immigrants.”
Similarly, while Philadelphia might not be a border town, it does have a rich history of welcoming immigrants. A 2008 Brookings study found that, among its “peer” cities, metropolitan Philadelphia has “the largest and fastest growing immigrant population, which now stands at over 500,000, comprising 9 percent of the population.” Recent census results report that nearly 12 percent of Philadelphia county is now foreign born, and, since 2000, almost 75 percent of greater Philadelphia’s labor force growth is the result of immigrants.
More recently, local activists made headlines for fasting to protest the record number of deportations performed by President Barack Obama’s administration, and Philadelphia police announced in April that they will no longer hold immigrants without a warrant, a move that limits their cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
If timed properly, a religious conversation around immigration reform could also be paired with the pope’s possible visit to the U.S.-Mexico border — which he is reportedly considering — where he would presumably speak to the rising surge of unaccompanied children and families crossing into America to escape widespread poverty and violence in Central America. Relatedly, city officials in Philadelphia recently announced their intention to house 500 of the unaccompanied immigrant minors.