This weekend, the annual Social Ministry Gathering, sponsored by the USCCB, began here in Washington. From dioceses and parishes across the country, people who work for the Church gather in Washington for a series of plenary talks and small group discussions about various issues they face. Like all such conferences, there are the coffee stands, the pre-plated lunches and dinners served in large hotel ballrooms, the people outside the rooms talking on their cell phones, the recognizing of old friends and making of new ones in the hallways. Point of personal privilege: It is really humbling to walk down a hall and have complete strangers come up and say, “I read you every day!”
The Social Ministry Gathering has a very different flavor from, say, a meeting of the bishops. The attire is far more casual, for one, and the conversations are often more animated. This last is hard to judge because I suspect the bishops’ conversations in executive session, behind closed doors, are where the animation happens and we don’t get to see it. There are no executive sessions at the Social Ministry Gathering. There are, however, great stories.
At the meeting on how the Church and organized labor can work together, sponsored by the Catholic Labor Network and led by Clayton Sinyai of the Laborer’s Union, one priest from Beaumont, Texas spoke about his efforts to help the young people in his poor, largely African-American parish “find the doors” to employment opportunities in the oil and gas industries. A director of CCHD talked about organizing warehouse workers, who faced deplorable conditions, in Illinois. A lawyer from CLINIC talked about her work helping immigrants get good information and avoid exploitation as the President’s executive order on immigration is implemented. The people in the room peppered each other with questions. All had their own tales to tell, their own issues to confront, but all were in agreement on one thing: They love Pope Francis.
I attended a session of fighting physician-assisted suicide proposals. As an observer, I did not ask the question that seemed most on my mind: Has it helped or hurt the effort to resist physician-assisted suicide to have the USCCB talking almost non-stop about the sovereign rights of individual conscience these past few years? In the event, someone asked that question, albeit in less pointed form. My old friend Richard Doerflinger observed with his typical dry wit that the issue of choice in this matter is a little like asserting that the rich and poor alike are free to forage in a dumpster for food. He noted that there are powerful interests, indeed specific financial interests, in the equation and that it is the person who is being nudged towards considering physician-assisted suicide who is the most vulnerable and least able to assert his or her own will. Andrea Garvey from the Maryland Catholic Conference asked, “Whose choice is it really?” when an insurance company denies access to an expensive treatment but thoughtfully offers a brochure from the Hemlock Society as a more affordable alternative. Garvey is a rockstar I had not met before and her presentation, which was sophisticated as well as impassioned, would have stolen the show had it not been for Samantha Crane from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. She explained the origins and significance of the slogan “Nothing about us without us,” by which the disability community insists that decisions regarding their members can only be made with their members at the table. This is indeed especially the case for severely disabled people who are the object of pressure on this issue. They may be very reliant on caregivers to perform some of the basic daily functions the rest of us take for granted, but that does not mean a person should consult the caregiver and not the person about what that person wants or needs. She also presented stories and statistics about the horrendous discrimination people with disabilities face in the medical field. I had no idea that some organ transplant centers will not provide a heart for transplantation to a person who is mentally disabled. That is horrifying.
The Social Ministry Gathering is overwhelmingly lay and largely female. The work of the Church, and it is work as well as ministry, has usually been in female hands. As important as the sacraments are, the work of charity, without which the Church would be a liturgical event but not the Church, has often been done by women. But, there is a difference this year. For the first time, the three largest ministerial organizations in the Church in the U.S., Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, and the Catholic Health Association, all are led by women. That may not satisfy those, especially on the left, who simultaneously denounce clericalism and insist on their right to become a cleric, but it is worthy of note.
It is an exciting time in the life of the Church. Pope Francis has called us to become a less self-referential Church, to get out of the sacristies and into the streets, to recognize Christ in the poor as well as in the Blessed Sacrament, to bring the joy of the Gospel to a hurting world, to see the Church as a field hospital not a lecture hall. The people who attend the Social Ministry Gathering have been doing precisely this for most of their lives. But, you can tell they really like having a pope telling them that they and their work are of the very essence of the Gospel and at the heart of the Church.