Organizers, union leaders seek to influence Francis' US visit through Vatican meetings

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

by Joshua J. McElwee

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A group of some 20 American community organizers and union leaders are holding meetings with Vatican officials this week to sway Pope Francis into addressing a number of lingering national social justice issues in his upcoming visit to the United States.

Organized by the national faith-based action network PICO and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the leaders are meeting with four pontifical councils, the head of two pontifical academies, leadership of two global religious orders, and the executive director of Caritas Internationalis.

Among the key issues they are asking officials to advise the pope to consider discussing with President Barack Obama or during his address to Congress: immigration reform, economic injustice for low-wage workers, pervasive racism in U.S. institutions and society, and mass incarceration.

In an interview Monday at the beginning of their visit, five of the organizers laid out the specific requests they might make to Vatican officials and what brought them to make the trip from various parts of the U.S.

"Pope Francis' words and example really resonate with people," said Joseph Fleming, who helped organize the group as the Catholic engagement coordinator for PICO.

The pope, Fleming said, is "speaking to a spiritual hunger that people feel and a sense that things are out of balance. There's growing economic insecurity and pressures on families that are not being spoken to and addressed."

The group, he said, came to the Vatican "to share the experience of our people and to deliver a message to close advisers to Pope Francis about some of the key themes that we hope he'll address."

A national organizing network first founded under Jesuit leadership, PICO works with approximately 2,000 faith congregations nationwide, including some 500 Catholic parishes.

The pope is to visit the United States in late September after spending a few days in Cuba.

In the United States, the pope will visit Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. He will become the first pope to address a joint session of Congress Sept. 24 and will also address the U.N. on Sept. 25.

Protestant Bishop Dwayne Royster, a Philadelphian who made the trip as the executive director of Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER), said he hopes to influence the pope to speak about economic dignity during the visit to his city for the World Meeting of Families.

Almost 30 percent of Philadelphia's population lives in poverty, and some 12.5 percent there make do with less than $5,000 a year, Royster said.

"We hope the Holy Father is going to address the issue that poverty destroys families," said Royster, who is also the assistant presiding bishop of Higher Ground Christian Fellowship International.

"I think it's incredibly important that when we talk about families and the challenges that families are facing, poverty is a major challenge for families right in Philadelphia," he said. "And we need to talk about how the structures of institutional racism manifest themselves to keep people in poverty over generations."

Scott Washburn, an official with the international staff of SEIU, said the union in its message to Vatican officials wanted to focus particularly on the struggles low-wage workers face in the U.S.

Two U.S. women who are fast-food workers will join the group in its meetings to talk about their lives, Washburn said.

"They want to tell exactly what the experience is of being women of color working in the United States' economy and how what the pope has been saying and doing has just given an energy and enthusiasm and hope to millions of people," Washburn said.

The organizers have meetings this week with officials at the Pontifical Councils for Inter-religious Dialogue and for the Promotion of Christian Unity. They are also meeting with Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

They also have sessions arranged with the director of the peace and justice office for the Order of Friars Minor, one of the main Franciscan orders, and with Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, the superior general of the global Jesuit order.

They are also to meet with Michel Roy, the Caritas Internationalis executive director; Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences; and with officials at the U.S. embassy to the Holy See.

Fleming said the group arranged their meetings on the advice of several U.S. bishops and with the help of Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, the coordinator of Pope Francis' Council of Cardinals.

Rodriguez -- the former Caritas president and archbishop of Tegucigalpa -- addressed a national PICO conference last month, where the group launched a yearlong effort to host reading groups for Francis' apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"). Fleming said the cardinal later offered his thoughts on who organizers might meet with at the Vatican.

Included in those coming to Rome was one Catholic deacon, Allen Stevens, who is a pastoral associate at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in New Orleans.

Stevens, who also works with a PICO affiliate in the city called Micah, said he wanted to stress the impact that mass incarceration and institutional racism is having in the U.S.

"Pope Francis talks about the economy of exclusion," Stevens said. "There are so many people of color who are excluded," he said, mentioning statistics that 1 in 7 African-American men in New Orleans are either on probation, parole or incarcerated.

Sarah Silvafierro, another member of the group who leads the Las Cruces, N.M., PICO affiliate NM CAFe (Comunidades en Accion y de Fe), said any words the pope can give addressing immigration reform could accelerate permanent change on the issue.

"What we want to be doing is continuing to work with our bishops ... but also know that the pope and the larger papal office supports and encourages our work in the U.S.," she said. "We could actually accelerate something permanent around immigration reform with the spirit that the pope will bring and the work that we'll continue to do locally."

The Vatican has yet to announce the official dates of Francis' U.S. trip or exactly in what engagements he might be taking part. Fleming said he and the organizers will attend the pope's weekly audience Wednesday and said they hope they might have an opportunity to speak to the pope personally about his visit.

Washburn, the union leader, said people in the United States are "as divided as we've ever been by race, by economics, by politics, by everything."

Saying that the pope's decision to tie the visit to the U.S. with a visit to Cuba shows that "old wounds can heal," he said he hoped Francis' words in the U.S. highlight reconciliation and show "we're at our best when we're together."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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