Pope Francis said he wants to visit a state that borders Mexico, but has not specified which.
Pope Francis has spoken out frequently in defense of migrants worldwide since taking over as head of the Roman Catholic Church nearly two years ago.
His concern for migrants, including tens of thousands of children who poured into the U.S. this year fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, is fueling speculation that he will include a visit to a border state, perhaps Arizona, when he makes his first papal trip to the United States next year.
The pope confirmed Monday that he will attend a massive Roman-Catholic-sponsored gathering in September in Philadelphia known as the World Meeting of Families.
A visit by the pope to the border would be “profoundly symbolic,” said Gerald Kicanas, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Tucson.
Kicanas noted that on Francis’ first trip outside Rome, the pope visited the Italian island of Lampedusa, where migrants from Africa trying to reach the European Union frequently drown in rickety boats. “He has a deep interest in the plight of migrants,” Kicanas said.
Cristofer Pereyra, director of the Hispanic Mission Office of the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, agreed, saying a visit to the border by the pontiff would be “a very palpable way” of showing his solidarity with immigrants.
“The pope has expressed a lot of compassion and shows himself very close to the suffering of immigrants since he started in the papacy,” Pereyra said. “If he were to come to the border — and this is pure speculation — that would definitely be another gesture of solidarity with the suffering of immigrants.”
Kicanas and Pereyra both stressed that they have not heard any official announcement from the Vatican about the pope visiting the border.
Pope Francis, a native of Argentina, is the first pope from the Americas. In the 20 months since he was elected, he has called for greater tolerance for immigrants forced to leave their countries in search of a better life amid globalization.
In September 2013, in honor of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis called for “a change of attitude towards” immigrants away from “attitudes of defensiveness and fear,” urging greater acceptance.
In July, he called for the U.S. to protect the tens of thousands of migrant children from Mexico and Central America crossing the U.S.-Mexican border illegally on their own.
“This humanitarian emergency requires, as a first urgent measure, these children be welcomed and protected,” he said.
And most recently, on Sunday, the pope warned of a “social emergency” in the wake of mounting tensions in Rome between citizens and immigrants that echo tensions in other European cities, according to the Vatican’s website.
Petra Falcon worked for the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix in 1987, when Pope John Paul II made a one-day visit to the Valley. She also was among the 80,000 people who packed Sun Devil Stadium at Arizona State University in Tempe for a papal Mass. It was the last time a pope visited the Valley.
A visit by the pope to the U.S.-Mexican border “would bring international attention to the immigration issue,” said Falcon, now director of Promise Arizona, an immigrant-advocacy group. “We definitely have a broken system in the U.S., and it impacts families not only from Mexico but from all over the world.”
The group has been holding nightly vigils at the state Capitol with a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe to pray for President Barack Obama to use his executive powers to protect undocumented immigrants from being deported.
Immigrants from Latin America “tend to be Catholic,” Falcon said, and the pope’s visit would bring attention to “the faces of immigrants at the border.”
Mexican news outlets reported that the pope is considering stopping in Mexico on his way to Philadelphia and would like to travel to the U.S.-Mexican border to see what’s happening there.
In April, nine members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, led by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, visited the U.S.-Mexican border in Nogales, Ariz., where they held a Mass and passed Communion through the border fence to people on the Mexican side.
During the visit, O’Malley called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year that would include a way for millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to legalize their status and become citizens.
Obama is expected to take action on his own on immigration any day now after Congress failed to pass a bill.
For years, Arizona was the most popular corridor for illegal immigration along the southern border with Mexico, but the main crossing point is now in the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas, largely due to an influx of Central Americans.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 68,541 unaccompanied children were apprehended by the Border Patrol along the southern border. The majority of the minors, nearly 50,000, were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The pope’s visit comes at a time a when the U.S. Catholic Church is losing members, including a significant number of Latino immigrants who have been converting to Protestantism or leaving organized religion altogether, according to the Associated Press.