By Bridget O’Brien
As a native daughter of Philadelphia, I’ve been following news of Francis’s planned trip there since it was more an assumption than a fact. That probably seems reasonable—it’s not every day the pontiff visits your hometown—but if I’m honest, it’s not Francis-mania that makes me scroll through pages of coverage. I’m excited about the pope . . . but the level of energy I’ve invested in following rumors of Francis’s impending visit to Philadelphia is not significantly lower than the energy I invest in rumors of friends’ spouses’ cousins’ visiting Philadelphia.
Philadelphians are obsessed with Philly.
If Francis were a friend rather than the Pope—and a real friend, not just someone who just wants to know where to find a cheesesteak near the Liberty Bell—I’d give him a list of the world-class restaurants Philly has to offer; I’d tell him to visit the Art Museum (on Wednesday, after 5pm, when it’s pay-what-you-can); I’d encourage him to eat lunch at Reading Terminal Market and check out Philly’s new-this-year seasonal pop-up boardwalk on the Delaware River (one of the world’s best urban beaches! one of the best floating restaurants!).
I’d tell him all these things mostly because I’d want him to understand why I love this city, but also, if I’m honest, out of a slight anxiety for Philly to prove itself—to prove that Philadelphia is worth loving, that we’re more than the city that booed Santa Claus, the gruff stepsister city of the Northeast where you stop for lunch and Independence Hall on your way from DC to New York.
But if my Philadelphia citizenship makes me desperate for the pope to love the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection, my faith reminds me that love, the theme of the Philadelphia World Meeting of Families (“Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive”), isn’t something you earn by showing off the prettiest parts of yourself.
Love, this gift we receive, this mission to which we’re called, isn’t about being impressed or impressive; rather, Cardinal Kasper reminds us, it is mercy, the central theme of Francis’s pontificate, which “is love revealed to us in concrete deeds and words.”
So what should Francis do? How should Francis, having chosen Philadelphia, have mercy? If mercy is, in the words of Jesuit moral theologian James Keenan, “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another,” then it won’t be by following the calm, carefully-orchestrated, anxious efforts of city officials and archdiocesan leaders to showcase the best parts of the city.
Growing up in Philly, the list of rules my parents gave me was fairly straightforward: always come home when the streetlights turn on, always be sure to lock the door, and never, ever, under any circumstances and for any reason walk four blocks (less than half a mile) northwest and cross Frankford Ave.
When I was a child, Frankford Ave was all broken glass, cracked uneven pavement, abandoned houses. Beyond Frankford Ave was drug dealing, were gunshots, was prostitution. Gentrification has shifted city demographics slightly: Frankford itself is now full of restaurants, cafes, bicycle shops. But go slightly beyond the gastropubs and vintage stores and you’ll still find the poorest area of Philadelphia, a mile from my family home, in which less than one square mile is said to have all ten of the city’s worst drug corners. If you start at Frankford Ave and walk until you reach the next arterial street, you’ll find yourself on Kensington Avenue, a street whose name is a metonym for Philadelphia drug use and poverty.
When Pope Francis visits Philadelphia, I imagine he’ll be driven down Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a beautiful, wide street lined by poles flying flags of the world, where John Paul II celebrated mass in 1979. I hope he can see the beauty of my beloved city in the fall, and celebrate the diversity of those who love it.
I imagine he will be presented with a choir of Catholic schoolchildren in uniforms. I hope he encourages those children, and the good work of those in Catholic education.
I imagine he will find a crowd primed to hear about religious liberty, and still caught between approaches to “pastoral challenges facing the family” that emphasize mercy and approaches that emphasize doctrine. I hope his leadership will help make the World Meeting of Families, like the current Synod on Families, a place where conversations are open to the Spirit, not closed off by fear.
And I hope that openness leads him into the corners of the city that seem most full of chaos.
I hope he listens to the young Philadelphians who organize for nonviolent public schools and the just funding of public education. I hope he invites the leaders who welcome him to the city to attend to “the institutional violence that grows each year when students are left with no counselors, support staff, supplies, or nurses,” to hear why Philadelphia public school students students strike in support of their teachers.
I hope he listens to families frightened of what will happen when the next child with asthma (a disease which disproportionately impacts inner-city children of color—Philadelphia’s asthma rate is twice the national average) stops breathing in a school where budget cuts have eliminated the school nurse.
And I hope he visits with families on Kensington Ave, the street where my parents, rightly concerned with their daughter’s safety, prayed they’d never find me. I hope he listens to the people he meets there. I hope he calls our attention to the love, hope, and mercy already present in their lives; and I hope he helps shine a light on the challenges to family life that come from the abandonment of neighborhoods, from the willingness to regret the plague of inner-city poverty and violence and the racism that allows that plague to burn, but then to return home and breathe a sigh of relief, back across the safe borders we imagine separate us from chaos, happy that those challenges stay contained across the street half a mile northwest, where we don’t have to go.
Bridget O’Brien is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame, where her dissertation examines contemporary theology in light of Jewish-Christian dialogue. She is forever grateful to her Philadelphia public school education for teaching her the beauty of interreligious friendship.