Where Pope Francis Goes, Rallies and Protests Will Follow

Pope Francis greets a boy at the Vatican on Saturday. FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

Natalicia Tracy knows what it’s like to be undocumented, to make $25 per week as a live-in nanny, not to have a say in setting her own wages because of her former status as an undocumented immigrant.

So she—like thousands of others, on issues ranging from climate change to abortion and workers’ rights—is hoping that the most powerful voice in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, will take up her cause when he reaches the United States for the first time.

The visit of any pope would set off a flurry of political action, with activists hoping to use the huge spotlight to draw attention to their issues. But Francis isn’t just any pope—his focus on lifting up the poor, combating inequality, and fighting climate change has drawn out a new coalition of supporters planning to speak out during his trip to the U.S.

Immigration is one such issue, and Tracy, the Brazilian Worker Center’s executive director, is participating in part of a 100-mile pilgrimage. It starts at the York County, Pennsylvania, detention center Sept. 15 and arrives in Washington on Sept. 22—the same day as Francis. She’s one of 100 women to make the journey organized by We Belong Together, which mobilizes women to advocate for immigration reform that doesn’t separate families.

Recommended Reading

“We are really hoping that when [Francis] meets with President Obama that he’ll echo what we’re saying, that he will talk about the feelings, the emotions, the human side, and the human suffering that exists because of a lack of immigration reform and the importance of keeping families together,” said Tracy, who lives in Boston.

Francis is expected to address immigration and religious liberty before a crowd numbering in the thousands—which will include immigrants and Hispanic families—at Philadelphia’s Independence Mall on Sept. 26. He’s been outspoken on immigration since he was elected pope, taking his first official trip outside Rome to the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where he honored those who died migrating overseas. And over the weekend, he called on “every” European parish, religious community, monastery, and sanctuary to take in a refugee family.

Francis's visit starts with a three-day D.C. swing that includes meetings with the White House and a high-profile address to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 24. He’ll then head to New York City and Philadelphia; the pontiff will visit a school in East Harlem, a correctional facility, and more, concluding with a mass at the World Meeting of Families.

Among the topics he’s expected to bring up before Congress is the need to act on climate change, building on the encyclical released in June that called for a “bold cultural revolution” on protecting the environment. It’s a message that could leave some prominent Catholic politicians who challenge the science of climate change—among them, House Speaker John Boehner—in an uncomfortable spot.

Backing up that message will be a rally organized by environmental groups that’s expected to draw as many as 200,000 people. Rally organizer Lise Van Susteren, cofounder of the group Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, said she’s seen support from groups of all faiths, green groups, and other progressive organizations because the pope’s climate message touched on so many different values.

“We’ll be there on the doorstep of the Capitol to show our leaders that they need to take action, not only in response to the pope’s message but to a huge cross section of the American people,” said Van Susteren.

The Franciscan Action Network is also organizing a 10-day fast to draw attention to climate issues, and interfaith groups will hold a prayer vigil on the National Mall associated with the rally. To emphasize the interfaith message, Jewish groups will celebrate Yom Kippur beginning at sundown on Sept. 22 on the Mall in association with the climate rally.

Labor groups fighting for a higher minimum wage are also hoping that the pope’s visit will provide a platform for their issues. Francis came into the papacy with a unique focus on poverty, calling inequality “the root of all social evil” and making it clear throughout his tenure that it is a moral responsibility to lift up the poor.

“Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit—that goes against God,” he said at a 2013 address on May Day.

Airline workers in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia are planning their own action as the pope flies into each city, part of a larger effort to demand higher wages and labor rights under the Airport Workers United banner. At Philadelphia International Airport, workers will hold a pray-in and vigil ahead of Francis’s arrival.

Onetha McKnight, a wheelchair attendant in Philadelphia, said all the airport workers were excited because the pope's visit offered a great opportunity for workers to tell their stories. McKnight brings home just $8.40 an hour for her work, less than the $12/hour minimum wage in Philadelphia for city contractors (because wheelchair attendants can earn tips, they are exempted, but McKnight said her tips do not make up the difference).

Fast-food workers and home-care workers—two groups that have been deeply involved in the national Fight for $15 minimum wage movement—are also considering action during the pope’s visit.

But it won’t only be progressive causes competing for attention during the visit. As Congress is in the midst of a fight to defund Planned Parenthood, Philly Alive—a coalition of antiabortion groups—is holding events on Sept. 22-26 outside of Planned Parenthood locations in Philadelphia and other nearby counties, masses at several churches, and a rally. 

“I would like the Holy Father to boldly teach that children in the womb are the least of our Lord’s brethren,” Mike McMonagle, Philly Alive director, said. He added that the pope “strongly has declared the church stands for protecting the child.”

Still, the overriding narrative of Francis’s papacy has been his embrace of the world’s poor and a championing of issues that have ignited those on the left just as much as the traditional right-leaning allies. The Rev. Jennifer Butler, CEO of the group Faith in Public Life, said the public response to his visit only bears that out.

“The pope is going back to some of the traditional issues that the Catholic Church has addressed. We’re seeing a shift away from the culture wars and back onto the social justice issues the church has always fought for,” said Butler, who is affiliated with the climate-change rally. “That’s what’s brought in this whole new coalition. There are alliances across the whole spectrum. It’s not just progressives that are rallying, it’s moderates and conservatives as well.”