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Vatican and Social Change: The Pope Visits Philadelphia

Catholicism has a long and noteworthy history in Philadelphia, from the first recorded Mass celebrated in 1707 to the 200 parishes established between 1844 and 1924 and the founding of our nation’s first seminary. It is estimated that currently 35 percent of the population of greater Philadelphia are baptized Catholic, making Catholicism the single largest religious denomination in the area. Now, as the location of the 2015 World Meeting of Families, all eyes are on Philadelphia as it welcomes Pope Francis. Given the popularity of the new pope, this is an exciting moment for both Catholics and non-Catholics in the City of Brotherly Love. Pope Francis’s visit provides a chance to look back at the first papal visit to the city, in 1979, by another admired pope, John Paul II, and then to compare that earlier visit to Pope Francis’s in 2015.

Rather than considering these papal visits as solely reflecting the beliefs or opinions of one religious group, it is useful to examine them through the lens of community history. The Popes, and the discussion surrounding them and their visits, engage Catholics and non-Catholics alike. How does the visit of a pope affect all of the people who live in a place?  Or, perhaps more importantly, how do the views expressed in the writings and speeches around the time of the papal visits reflect community concerns or spur community action?

Pope John Paul II was born Karol Jozel Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland. He lived in Poland during Nazi occupation, and was ordained a priest after World War II, in 1946. He made history by becoming the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years, and, as Pope, he traveled the world, visiting over 100 countries. He had a charismatic energy that drew people toward him, and over one million Philadelphians greeted him when he spoke in Logan Square on October 3, 1979. His visit garnered both praise, for his ideas that concerned helping the poor and human equality, as well as frustration, for his stance on certain social issues, such as contraception and female seminarians.

Pope Francis was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He also made history, as the first non-European pope. He took his title, Francis, from St. Francis of Assisi. While his message is similar to that of Pope John Paul II, he has stated that he believes the church has become too focused on issues such as abortion and gay rights, going so far as to say, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Both of these popes were named Person of the Year by Time magazine, John Paul II in 1994 and Francis in 2013, which speaks to their influence. Pope Francis has also been named one of the World’s Greatest Leaders by Fortune Magazine.

In the lesson attached to this unit, students will consider how the statements of the two popes have drawn public attention to and influenced opinions on pressing social concerns.  Pope John Paul II, in the 1970s, espoused a message of peace, humility, simplicity, and selflessness that resonated with many at a time when technology was rapidly increasing in the average American’s daily life, values of individual fulfillment seemed to supplant those of social responsibility, and the Cold War was still an ongoing struggle.  His writings spoke of helping the poor, preserving the environment for future generations, and avoiding materialism. In the summer of 2015, Pope Francis released his encyclical, Laudato Si, which calls for humanity to recognize and change its environmental impact. Many of his ideas mirror those of Pope John Paul II, and Pope Francis even quotes his predecessor, writing, “Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in ‘lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies.’”

*The image of Pope John Paul II was reprinted with permission from


21st century






Big Ideas

Perspective on Events

Essential Questions

What role do multiple causations play in describing a historic event?


  • History demonstrates the diverse cultural heritage of many peoples throughout the world.

  • Textual evidence, material artifacts, the built environment, and historic sites are central to understanding world history.


  • Analyze a primary source for accuracy and bias, and then connect it to a time and place in world history.

Background Material for Teacher

Laudato Si Readers Guide

End of Unit Assessment

Have students write about whether or not they believe Pope John Paul II and/or Pope Francis influenced Pennsylvanians. Make sure they emphasize why or why not, citing evidence from the sources and their own research.


Plans in this Unit

Papal Visits to Philadelphia

Grade Level

High School

Standards/Eligible Content




Pennsylvania Core Standards:


In Partnership With:

Wells Fargo Bank

About the Author

Alicia Parks, Wells Fargo Education Manager at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


Blog Post

Catholic Pennsylvania

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