Maybe the pope can lead us back to the things that matter?

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Crowds cheer as Pope Francis passes by yesterday during his meeting with the youth at the University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines. AARON FAVILA / ASSOCIATED PRESS

WHEN POPE FRANCIS hits Philly next month, I pray he misbehaves.

Go rogue, pontiff. Throw caution and schedules to the wind and head to one of the city neighborhoods hardest hit by poverty and crime.

Lots of people have suggested Kensington, but I'm not picky. Pontiff's choice - we have plenty of hurting people and places in Philadelphia.

Hey, his holiness has gone off script before. In February, he made a detour on the way to a parish to stop at a shantytown on the outskirts of Rome. In January, while in the Philippines, he held surprise meetings with street children.

Last year, the pope who has made the poor a central part of his papacy, stopped his car on an Italian country road to bless a young disabled girl who was waiting with her family to see him pass.

So, how awesome would it be for him to do these kind of things here, to remind city leaders who are ignoring pressing issues as they pour all their time and energy into his three-day visit of what really matters, of who really matters?

Many readers said I wrote my one-way ticket to hell by suggesting in my last column that the future of a 15-year-old black kid should mean more to Philadelphia than a visit by the pope. But many others were just as disgusted that the relentless crime plaguing the city this summer has once again taken a back seat to temporary distractions.

"What we have are a series of extremely complex problems met by a set of resources that, while impressive in a general sense, fall far short of what is needed," said state Rep. Mark Cohen, who in response to my column wrote an open letter on crime to the citizens of Philadelphia while other city leaders whined about bad papal press.

The numbers are undoubtedly already out of date as I type them, but when I called the police department yesterday afternoon they had recorded 724 shootings this year, as opposed to 635 in 2014 and 163 murders, 10 more than last year.

And yet most of our attention is on the upcoming pope's visit, soon to be on the Democratic National Convention and inevitably on to something else after that - because there's always something else that supersedes the lives of the city's most vulnerable.

Charles Williams, professor of psychology and education at Drexel University, said violence in urban communities has become "white noise - no pun intended.

"The very people in communities most affected by violence have become cynical, indifferent or apathetic; this provides cover for politicos not to follow through on pledges to make communities safe," he said.

So these issues are important enough for the pope, but not the politicians elected to serve the people?

While the pope has not spoken about crime or poverty in the United States, his concern for those suffering on the margins has been a constant, said Rocco Palmo, author of the widely respected "Whispers in the Loggia" blog. In fact, he said the last thing the pope would want is for his visit to distract from his message about "the basic work of human decency" - which to my mind means caring for and empowering the voiceless.

When I confided in Palmo that I really hoped the pope went rogue and headed into some of the neglected neighborhoods, he said chances were slim that security would allow such a detour, amazing as it would be.

But he said if the popular pontiff has proven anything in his time as pope it is that he will share his message from whatever stage he's on. And if his past speeches are any indication, that message will include a call for social justice.

"Let's not be afraid to say it: We need change; we want change," he said in his powerful speech before World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. "We want change in our lives, in our neighborhoods, in our everyday reality. The globalization of hope, a hope which springs up from people and takes root among the poor, must replace the globalization of exclusion and indifference."

"Let us together say from the heart: no family without lodging, no individual without dignity, no young person without a future . . . Keep up the struggle."

If that message sinks into the 1.5 million pilgrims expected, if those words lead us all to start demanding and working toward the well-being of all our citizens, then all the papal hoopla would have been worth it.


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