In these final days leading up to the papal visit, expectations are high. Religious leaders are praying for a deep renewal among the faithful. Civic leaders are hopeful that our city will gleam in the world spotlight. Business leaders are anticipating a massive economic boost from the million-plus visitors.
Many of us who have been involved in issues of homelessness, hunger, and poverty are especially hopeful:
Pope Francis has been a powerful voice of mercy and justice. One of the most inspiring and compelling aspects of this global religious figure — who has attracted millions, beyond the Catholic community and even those who are not religious — has been his personal acts of compassion and his persistent challenge to reach out to those who suffer and to build a society that includes all persons. His planned visit to a local prison and his talk on immigration during his Philadelphia visit will highlight his special concern for those who are outcast and on the margins.
With distressingly high rates of poverty in our city, and given the thousands of sisters and brothers who struggle with homelessness, hunger, addiction, and exclusion, Pope Francis' challenge is urgently needed.
But we need to remember: Pope Francis is not a Superman who can wave a magic wand and solve all our problems (as he would surely be the first to assert). Although we do believe that this papal visit is a potentially transformative moment — the real transformation is ultimately up to us.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a visionary leader and a powerful nonviolent activist — but he didn't bring about the successes of the civil-rights movement by himself. That was the work of millions of foot soldiers, marching, advocating, and voting.
Even with his massive papal responsibilities, Pope Francis has washed the feet of prisoners, and he welcomes homeless people in Rome to the Vatican. We too must engage in acts of compassion.
In the past few months, thousands of people in our region have contributed to the Francis Fund, which will allow dozens of organizations to expand and enhance their services to some of our poorest citizens. The hope is that even more people in our region will get involved to generously share their resources, time, and talent with those in need.
Through the Mercy and Justice campaign (mercyandjustice.org) in honor of the pope's visit, thousands of people have contacted their congressional representatives urging them to forge substantial policies that meet the needs of poor Americans in response to Francis' challenge. The hope is that many more people, congregations, and organizations in our region will commit to the long haul work of advocating for systemic change and social justice — especially as we enter a national election year.
Many outreach workers, formerly homeless persons, city officials, and volunteers have been working hard for months to create a plan to ensure that homeless persons in Center City and on the Ben Franklin Parkway are provided adequate supports, legal protection, and full inclusion during the papal visit. The hope is that this concern and energy can translate into new housing and assistance to empower people to come off the streets permanently.
The beautiful "Undoing the Knots" grotto at the Basilica Cathedral in Center City, created in honor of the pope's visit, has collected more than 40,000 "knots" through which people have shared their struggles. The hope is that we learn more deeply as a community the importance of naming and sharing our struggles, which can become a taproot of real strength and healing for all of us.
That the wonderful interfaith bonds that have come together through the World Meeting of Families and the Mercy and Justice campaign can broaden and deepen, creating new relationships and more energy in the mission of ending hunger, homelessness and poverty.
That our faith communities hear the pope's challenge to grow beyond a personal, privatized spirituality and make greater commitments to compassion and social justice.
That people on the margins — prisoners, immigrants, persons experiencing homelessness — hear the pope's message of their dignity and goodness, and they are empowered to bring their gifts to the work of social transformation.
It's up to us.
We believe Pope Francis will bring us a message of hope, and that he can inspire us in the work of ending homelessness and poverty in our city. But, beyond Sept. 27, we must do the work of turning that hope and inspiration into concrete reality.