Pope Francis will visit a Philadelphia prison and an East Harlem elementary school with a large student population of immigrants during his visit to the U.S. in September, suggesting that he plans to continue focusing on social issues during his high-profile trip.
According to an itinerary first reported by the Washington Post and confirmed by the Vatican yesterday, the Pope will hit the typical circuit of presidential meetings and huge public masses. But it's the smaller events that stand out: a visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels School, a Catholic school in East Harlem where he will meet with immigrants, refugees and DREAMers; the Philadelphia's Curran-Fromhold Corrections Facility, where he will meet with prisoners and their families. He will also meet with homeless people at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.
The Argentinian-born Pope will speak Spanish during his trip, the Post reported. Latinos are making up a larger proportion of Catholics in the U.S. and more than half of Latinos in the U.S. are currently Catholic, according to a 2014 Pew Research study. (The proportion of Latinos that are Catholic, however, has declined over the past few years.)
The Curran-Fromhold prison will likely give Francis a good taste of U.S. criminal justice. An investigation by the Philadelphia City Paper last year found video evidence of a number of violent beatings by guards. In a separate incident, a prison guard was charged with battery last year after beating a prisoner in the head and spraying him with mace.
Another inmate died there in 2012 just six days after being admitted to the prison after officials failed to give him the medicine he told them he needed. Jail officers paid a $1.45 million settlement this year. And less than two weeks ago, an inmate who has been awaiting trial there for three years attacked a prison guard. According to Pennsylvania law, people aren't supposed to be held in prison longer than 180 days after a complaint has been filed.
Francis has previously talked about supporting immigrants and mercy to prisoners—he responded to 500 letters from prisoners serving life sentences in the U.S.—and so far he's led one of the most activist papacies in recent memory. His trip to the U.S. will come on the heels of his recently-published encyclical on climate change, a powerful secular social critique that has enraged some conservative Catholics.
One itinerary item that might interest conservatives is a speech by Francis on "religious liberty" at Philadelphia's Independence Mall. Some are using the idea of religious liberty to reject same-sex marriage. But the term has a broader meaning, and Francis may be speaking about persecution of Christians abroad.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he reminded Americans that religious freedom issues in the United States are not the same as religious freedom issues around the globe," Christopher Bellitto, a church expert at Kean University, told the Associated Press.
During his trip, which will begin Sept. 23, Francis will also meet with President Obama, address a joint session of Congress (becoming the first Pope to do so) and the UN General Assembly, and lead mass at New York City's Madison Square Garden and the 9/11 Museum.
This could be the only U.S. visit for the 78-year-old pope. When former Pope Benedict visited the U.S. in April 2008, he also visited Ground Zero and lead several open-air masses at sports stadiums.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.