PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia’s soaring rates of homicide and gun violence have deep-rooted causes that can only be solved with a combination of spirituality and concrete action, said several Philadelphia priests.
Since January, the city has seen a 33 percent increase in homicides over 2020, with at least 132 victims. As of April 8, there were 98 fatal shootings, with another 423 nonfatal gun attacks.
Last year was its own grim milestone, marking a 30-year high in Philadelphia’s murder rate, and exceeding the 2019 homicide total by 40 percent.
Those wounded or killed have included pregnant women and children as young as 11 months. One 55-year-old man, a member of a video production team, was shot dead March 31 while filming an anti-violence documentary for Netflix.
“We must ask, ‘Why are we so violent?'” said Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez. “We also need to pray, and to come together as parish communities to become beacons of hope and peace for people.”
Philadelphia isn’t the only U.S. city grappling with a spike in gun violence. Across the nation, communities saw the largest one-year increase in homicides on record in 2020.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, firearms were responsible for the deaths of more than 43,500 individuals in the U.S. last year. Over 24,000 were the result of suicide, with the remainder due to murder, defensive gun use or unintentional shootings.
The trend has continued into 2021, with more than 4,900 non-suicide gun fatalities to date, including recent high-profile attacks in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, that left a combined total of 18 dead.
Several inner-city priests surveyed by CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, agreed that ready access to guns, lack of educational and economic opportunities, and systemic racism all contribute to gun violence.
But the root of the problem, they said, can be located in the heart and in the home.
“For me, it all comes down to a loss of hope,” said Father Stephen Thorne, pastor of St. Martin de Porres. “So many, especially younger people in this city, have lost hope.”
Living in one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods, Father Thorne has witnessed the effects of gun violence firsthand. Shortly after his parish’s 2019 Easter Vigil Mass, when the church was empty, a young man was fatally shot dead in front of church and a bullet pierced one of the windows.
Four years earlier, Philadelphia Police Sergeant Robert Wilson III was killed while attempting to stop a robbery at a nearby game store.
Such tragedies “bring to light what our communities go through” on a day-to-day basis, said Thorne.
“If I don’t believe my life is important or that God loves me or that I have a plan for my life, I’m going to get angry, even in traffic or on social media,” he said. “And then — guns.”
“Ultimately, there is too much anger, hatred and pent-up frustration among people today,” said Father Thomas Higgins, pastor of Holy Innocents Parish a neighborhood where at least two shootings have occurred within blocks of the church in recent months.
Such tension can be felt “every day while driving,” he said.
“People are so impatient anymore,” said Msgr. Federico Britto, pastor of St. Cyprian Parish and parochial administrator of St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish. “They don’t argue verbally. They argue by using guns.”
Communities as a whole have also frayed, said Msgr. Wilfred Pashley of St. Barbara Parish.
“Years ago, everybody on the block knew one another,” he said. “We’ve lost that sense of responsibility for the actions of and people within our communities.”
Fear and isolation among residents only compounds the issue, said Pashley.
Despite daunting statistics and the issue’s scope and complexity, gun violence can — and must — be met with a courageous, committed pastoral response, these priests said.
“We are not going to solve this problem unless we as leaders come together, talk and bring about a sense of engaging with young people,” said Thorne, who represents the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on a city task force for countering racism and violence.
Missionhurst Father Andrew Labatorio, pastor of Our Lady of Hope, said parishes should become “more proactive” in their outreach, rather than simply functioning as “individual structures within a community … not directly interested in the local level and in other (area) organizations.”
He and his parishioners are in the process of forming a “community brigade” or town watch group that will invite young people to assist in caring for their neighborhood.
With the number of city parishes and priests decreasing, “the laity have to speak (up)” about gun violence, Pashley said.
“If there’s a shooting on your block, you have to cooperate with police,” he said. “If you see someone in your neighborhood causing problems, call and report it; don’t hide.”
Urging elected officials to advocate for gun control is also critical, he said.
Throrne said part of the solution is both inside and outside the parish, noting that maintaining parish grounds and cultivating gardens, particularly amid distressed neighborhoods, can have a subtle but profound impact.
“We are very intentional about flowers, lights and cleanliness,” he added. “Blight adds to hopelessness. There’s a connection between violence and a lack of beauty.”
He also said it’s important to walk the streets and listen to residents’ concerns.
As he put it: “We have to go to the streets to be the church and not just stay inside the building.”
Christian is a senior content producer for CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.