Calculating the true impact of Pope Francis’ visit

     Pope Francis arriving to the Parkway on Sunday, Sept. 27 for the papal Mass. (Kevin Cook/for NewsWorks)

    Pope Francis arriving to the Parkway on Sunday, Sept. 27 for the papal Mass. (Kevin Cook/for NewsWorks)

    Nearly a month has passed since the Philadelphia papal visit captured our imaginations and caused us, if only briefly, to dream.

    We saw ourselves through the lens of Pope Francis’ message of service and sacrifice. We saw ourselves reflected in the eyes of the world, and in doing so, we believed that we could someday become the city we imagined ourselves to be: A city with less poverty; a city with functioning schools; a city with a future draped in hope.

    For a moment, we became that city, and as we stared across the throngs along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, or stood atop the cobblestones that border Independence Hall, we heard Pope Francis speak of faith and family, and we saw examples of what we could become.

    We saw Dinic’s, a Reading Terminal Market sandwich shop, which gave away bread when papal security kept customers at bay. We saw prisoners at Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility carve a sturdy wooden chair for the Pope. We heard a 14-year-old named Bobby Hill sing with the voice of an angel, and we were humbled by the power of music.

    We basked in those moments for days. Then we tried to quantify the pope’s impact.

    Wildly varying crowd estimates for his sermon on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway ranged from 142,000 to 800,000. The $400 million economic impact predicted by the sponsoring organization, the World Meeting of Families, was in the eyes of many, negatively impacted by extreme security measures. But even if we’d reached those gaudy numbers, there are some things the Pope’s visit couldn’t change.

    Things like schools left floundering in the absence of a state budget, neighborhoods starkly divided along lines of income and race, and crime that plagues our streets like a deadly, creeping contagion.

    Still, there’s reason for hope. While we could not have reasonably expected Pope Francis to solve intrinsic problems over the course of a single weekend, the things we saw during his days with us told us we may someday solve them for ourselves.

    After all, we saw the city stand still to listen. We saw prisoners build a thing of beauty. But the hope, in my view, is not in those events. No, the hope lies in young people like Bobby Hill, the boy who sang “Pie Jesu” for the pope, and in doing so, showed us the potential of Philadelphia’s youth.

    Hill, whose family I have known for more than 20 years, didn’t stop with a song. He took what the pope said and internalized it. Perhaps more importantly, he took what the pope did and emulated it.

    “I had the idea of singing at the prison a couple weeks ago,” Bobby told me in an interview at the Walnut Lane Golf Club, as his father Jerrold stood nearby.

    Hill took the idea to the Keystone State Boychoir, the group with which he perfoms, and the choir followed through. 

    “The pope inspired me because he went to Curran Fromhold,” Bobby said. “So we said that we wanted to go to the prison, so we went there and it was a little nerve wracking at first, just walking in there with all the loud doors and the armory and stuff, but when we started singing for the prisoners, you just realized that they were regular people and it was just—they got really into the performance. They were clapping and dancing and gave hugs, and just really got into the performance with me. It was just really a great experience.”

    Hill also displayed an understanding of some of the underlying factors driving mass incarceration. “Sometimes [prisoners] are just in there because they can’t afford bail,” he said. “Not saying that everybody in prison is just in there because they’re poor, but it’s just good to know that they’re getting some attention as well as me, because no one really pays attention to them, and it’s just a world that no one wants to talk about.”

    Therein lies the hope. The hope that young people will reach out in ways that the rest of us have neglected to do; that future generations will not forget the prisoners, or the poor, or the less fortunate; that our children will work to solve the problems that have beset us for generations.

    If the papal visit inspired Bobby Hill and the Keystone State Boychoir to do that much, then perhaps those young men can inspire others. And maybe, in a generation, a better Philadelphia will be more than a dream.

    Perhaps, in a generation, things will change.

    Listen to Solomon Jones M-F from 7 to 10 am on 900 am WURD.

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