Students, others lead efforts to persuade pope to visit Detroit in 2015

By Mark Pattison

Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — A grassroots effort is underway to persuade Pope Francis to come to Detroit should he make a pastoral visit to the United States in 2015 as many hope.

Leading the charge are students from the city’s Catholic schools, who have written hundreds of letters to the pope asking him to come.

While the Archdiocese of Detroit isn’t pushing the effort, it’s certainly not opposing it.

“The Archdiocese of Detroit is aware of a grass-roots effort to have Pope Francis visit Detroit and is encouraged by the support shown,” the archdiocese said in a statement issued Sept. 8. “As we understand it, the effort was launched by some Catholic high school students and has received the support of others in the community. We certainly would be honoured and delighted if the Holy Father were to come here.”

The effort also has the backing of Mike Duggan, the new mayor of Detroit. An archdiocesan spokesperson said the archdiocese will convey an invitation from the city through Vatican channels for the pope to visit.

The troubled city can be seen in a number of ways: block upon block of fields where houses once stood in some sections of the city, or a city making a comeback.

In the eyes of students, a little bit of both is true.

“It would mean so much to me if you would take time to come and visit our city. I think it would be a true blessing to the city,” wrote one student, Danielle Ford. “I know what you may hear about Detroit may not be all that pleasant, but there is good here. I promise. Yes, there are some neighbourhoods that look like a war zone, people talk negative about Detroit, and it may be bankrupt, but all cities have problems. Detroit just needs a fresh start and I believe you can help make that happen.

“There are many good things in Detroit as well. Downtown is beautiful, especially at night when all the buildings are lit up as bright as the stars. There are good people, too. People who actually care about Detroit and the people in it. It would mean the world to me if you would come and speak in Detroit. I’ll even give you a personal tour of the city and show you all the good things there are that I promised,” Ford wrote, ending her letter: “Much love and hugs forever.”

Brahian Hernandez, a fourth-grader at Holy Redeemer School in Detroit, wrote: “You should visit our city of Detroit to do a mass in our church and to see our school. You can also come to tell everybody in Detroit that they shouldn’t make more crimes. Also you can bless us, our school, and give a speech on how we should love and follow Jesus.”

Multiply those sentiments by 250 or so and you get the picture.

“Everybody’s excited and on board,” said Margaret Cone, who grew up on the city’s east side before moving to Washington and working as a lawyer and activist specializing in Middle East issues and inter-religious dialogue. She returned to Detroit to care for her ailing mother.

“What I’m hoping is that with the pope coming a year from now, it would be a celebration of the future of Detroit. It would start a celebration of the future, for the young people,” Cone said. “And as we do this, as we celebrate, who better to be part of the celebration than Pope Francis?”

“Oh, what that would do for our city — the pope coming again. It would be a great and powerful message,” Detroit Deputy Mayor Isaiah McKinnon told the Detroit Free Press. St. John Paul II visited in 1987. “The mayor has said we will totally support all the efforts,” McKinnon added.

Thom Mann, who has been behind the “Detroit Mass Mob” movement in which Catholics go to a different church in Detroit for mass once a month, also is lending his support.

“We need to reach out to all the children in Detroit schools,” Mann told Catholic News Service. “Unfortunately, there’s only four Catholic grade schools left in the city. There’s more in the suburbs, and we’ve got to reach out to them, too.”

Dr. Mike Busuito, a surgeon, has lent his energies behind the effort.

“This pope’s a rock star. Who is more popular in the world right now than Pope Francis?” Busuito told CNS. “He’s the one I think leading the rebirth of the modern Catholic Church in the world. If we could get him to lend this rebirth and exposure not only to the city of Detroit but to the Catholic community in Detroit, it would be win-win.”

The Catholic Church in Detroit has not been immune to more than two generations of capital disinvestment and “white flight” from the city.

There were 112 parishes in Detroit in 1989 before the late Cardinal Edmund Szoka, as archbishop of Detroit, closed 31 of them, citing small numbers of parishioners, sacraments and collections. Subsequent waves of closings, consolidations and clustering has further shrunk the number of city parishes to 47.

The 1950 Census showed Detroit’s population peaking at just over 2 million. Today, it is about 700,000. Only one auto assembly plant operates entirely within the boundaries of the “Motor City.” Even Motown Records had decamped for Los Angeles by the mid-1970s.

Detroit declared bankruptcy in July 2013 — the largest municipality by far ever to do so — and the courts and a state-appointed emergency manager continue efforts to find a satisfactory way for the city to emerge from it.

Despite, and sometimes because of, this backdrop, Catholics are hopeful Pope Francis will listen to their entreaties and include Detroit on his U.S. itinerary.

“It’s a blue-collar city. He’s a blue-collar guy. He would go to areas of the ghetto in the city where the police wouldn’t even go,” Busuito said of Pope Francis. “What city is more down and out?

“We hit rock bottom. We’ve survived. The church is coming back. The Catholic Church is coming back. The pope would be a breath of fresh air.”

In July, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announced Pope Francis had accepted his invitation to attend the World Meeting of Families being held in that city September 2015; the Philadelphia Archdiocese still has not received official confirmation from the Vatican.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio visited the Vatican this summer and invited Pope Francis to come to the Big Apple. A visit next year also would also coincide with the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s address to the United Nations. And Washington also could be on the itinerary — the pope has received a standing invitation to address a joint session of Congress.

When plans were made for St. John Paul II’s 1987 U.S. visit, Detroit was not on the list of cities to be visited. But then-Archbishop Szoka personally lobbied the pope and trip planners, citing the large numbers of Polish-Americans in the Detroit area. Detroit was added several months after the other cities on the itinerary had been announced.

Copyright (c) 2014 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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