Papal Visits to Philadelphia

Papal Visits to Philadelphia

This lesson asks students to complete an inquiry-based analysis of news articles from the papal visits to Philadelphia, in 1979 and 2015, examining them within the context of global issues such as the human rights, poverty, the environment, and materialism. When looking at the articles surrounding both visits, students should think about the point of view of the authors, the ideas presented by the popes, and the interpretation of those ideas.

The articles span from the first visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 to more recent articles remembering the first visit and articles on Pope Francis in 2015. Engage students by asking questions throughout such as, “How does this interpretation fit the larger context of history both then and now, and how was it influential?” Be sure to compare and contrast how the visit was written about in 1979 with contemporary news accounts to see if or how coverage has changed. These articles offer an opportunity to discuss a diversity of opinions within the community and to tie political and social history to literacy standards.

Essential Questions

What role does analysis have in historical construction?


Students will be able to:

  • Analyze multiple sources on a topic and conclude the point of view of the author.
  • Understand how ideas and opinions can change over time by examining multiple primary source documents.

Other Materials

Primary Sources:

Articles and a photo collage from Pope John Paul II’s visit:

Pope John Pual II's homily's and speeches:

Articles remembering Pope John Paul II’s visit:

Articles on Pope Francis:

Suggested Instructional Procedures

  1. Begin the inquiry with a connecting question that will get students thinking about the primary sources in connection to their own lives. Sample questions could be: What role does religion play in your life? What do you consider to be your culture? Do the religious views of others ever influence your actions or beliefs?
  2. To set the context of the 1970s, have students read a book such as Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Although it is written in the 1960s, it was an important influence in the fight against the use of chemicals in the natural world. In addition, check out websites such as, President Johnson's State of the Union Address (1964), and to set the 1970s - and the Pope’s visit - into the context of increasing environmental awareness, concerns about poverty, and the continuing effects of the Cold War.
  3. Introduce Pope John Paul II by providing a brief overview of his life.  Then ask students to read Pope John Paul II’s homily from when he visited Philadelphia in 1979. Ask students to write down the main ideas of the author (the Pope) and how they fit in with what they know about the 1970s. What was the main message the Pope was trying to convey?
  4. Next, have students read selected primary sources (roughly 2-4) from those listed and write down the main ideas from each. Have students answer the following questions: What was the author’s point of view? What did the articles say were the main ideas of the Pope’s message? Was the article positive or negative in its coverage? Who was writing this article and why? When was it written? Is it a reliable source of information? Students can then compare and contrast the local and national articles as well as compare the articles to what the Pope actually said in his homily. Do you think the articles understood the Pope’s message? Why or why not?
  5. To understand the bigger picture, students should then place these events in the context of world events. Why was the message important at the time, and how did it relate to issues such as the human rights, poverty, the environment, and consumer culture? Discuss how the 1970s was a time of increased environmental awareness and political participation.
  6. Take the conversation into the present day and discuss if the issues addressed by Pope John Paul II are still of concern today. Did it create any change in the actions of Philadelphians or Americans?
  7. As a further discussion, compare and contrast the visit in 1979 to the visit in 2015. What can we learn from this history? Can one person change community attitudes?