Philadelphia — Launching a "Year of Encounter with Pope Francis," social justice activists from around the country gathered here April 30-May 1, attempting to harness the momentum of a religious leader who, again and again, has focused attention on the poor and marginalized.
When they departed, the 270 participants from 21 states and 46 dioceses had in hand a book of "lesson plans" tailored for use in Catholic parishes. The study guide, also called Year of Encounter with Pope Francis, is based on Francis' 2013 apostolic exhortation, "The Joy of the Gospel," and focuses on ways in which communities and individuals experience exclusion. The guide includes chapters on immigration, the criminal justice system, and racism, and is designed to move participants from study to reflection to action.
"Our goal over the next year is to engage over 1,000 Catholic parishes in 75 dioceses. There's a hunger and an opportunity here," said Joe Fleming, executive director of PICO New Jersey, part of a national faith-based action network.
"This is a kairos moment within the American Catholic church and society, and with the pope's visit imminent, a moment of grace," he added.
The conference and the parish-based study guide are a response to what seems to be a deep hunger for meaning, community and justice expressed to organizers nationally and locally, Fleming said. "We listened to that and asked people, 'How are we reflecting on this?' What we heard was that people didn't have a vehicle, so we began to talk about what kind of a tool people could use to go deeper around 'The Joy of the Gospel.' "
The conference was held at St. Joseph's University and was sponsored by the school, PICO National Network, POWER (the local PICO affiliate) and the U.S. Jesuit Conference. PICO was founded in 1972 by Jesuit Fr. John Baumann. Committed to a model of faith-based community organizing, PICO now has 50 federations spanning 18 states and numbers 500 Catholic parishes among its members.
One of the high points of the first day of the Philadelphia conference, according to participants, was the chance to hear from Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, chair of Francis' nine-member Council of Cardinals. Leavened with humor, his remarks were in part a response to the previous panel of participants who had recounted their own experiences of exclusion.
"He came to listen, and he came to encourage," said Ellie Hidalgo, a conference planner and pastoral associate at the Dolores Mission Parish and School in Los Angeles. Hidalgo said Rodriguez was part of a "wonderful day of mutual back-and-forth conversation."
Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., said, "Cardinal Rodriguez being here gave us a very close view of someone close to the pope in terms of love and care for people who are hurting and suffering." Blaire, a member of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said he was attending the conference at the invitation of a Stockton PICO organizer and two priests from his diocese.
Afterward, a bus took conference attendees to the ethnically diverse Our Lady of Hope Parish in North Philadelphia, where they met parishioners and students from Cristo Rey, the independent Catholic school next door for academically talented students who could not otherwise afford a private education.
Philadelphia-based social justice educator and consultant Mary Laver said, "Over lunch, we engaged in challenging table dialogues with each other about the impact of our 'culture of exclusion' on each one of us, in our personal lives and in our faith journeys."
Honoring St. Joseph the Worker on the night before his feast day, participants then ventured out to the Philadelphia International Airport, where they prayed with airport workers and anointed their hands, Laver said. POWER has been working to improve the workers' wages and benefits.
While the first full conference day drew participants out into various parts of the city, the second focused on how to take insights and strategies back into the setting of the local parish and diocese.
Many parish representatives, like the women of St. Malachy in Philadelphia, huddled around tables mapping out how to report back to their parishes, enlist clergy support, and recruit small group participants representing varied congregational constituencies.
Ben Anderson, who works full time with ISAIAH, the PICO affiliate in Minnesota, said his delegation is committed not only to instituting the small group studies in their parishes, but to return in large numbers in the fall for the PICO event planned around the time of the pope's September visit.
"What we need to do in 2016 [is to ask] how do we move to change the debate and really confront the politicians ... to make them accountable to the real needs of the community," said Anderson, who is in Jesuit formation. "We need to change the dialogue to be about an economy of inclusion and of racial diversity."
The issues ISAIAH is currently addressing include driver's licenses for immigrants, restoration of voting rights for ex-felons, and paid family leave and sick time, Anderson said.
"We're really going to push this concept of engagement," said the Rev. Juard Barnes, pastor of a nondenominational Protestant church on the northwest side of Indianapolis and an organizer with IndyCAN, part of the PICO organizational umbrella.
Of the 18 Philadelphia-area parishes that participated in the conference, only two are officially members of POWER, said Laver. All, however, are committed to participating in the discernment process rooted in the study guide.
She said all of the parishes are enthused by the chance Francis is providing "to see our faith in a new and more vibrant way, deeply rooted in the love of God, but also flowing outward. ... Here we were gathering to celebrate that, and committed to channeling that excitement in ways that bring down that wall of exclusion."
The conference ended with participants viewing a collage of the past few days of activism and reflection, speakers and testimonies. The hum of a Gospel-tinged "amen" and clapping hands filled the room, ending with a burst of energetic applause.
"There was a lot of hope in that room," said Barnes, who said he works in a zip code in which 235 out of 1,000 black males can expect to do prison time. "People believe ... that we can do something better than what we have done and that it can actually happen. People were excited, raring to go home and share with their communities and their priests. I've never seen anything like that."
The study, conversation, witness and action shared by participants at the conference "were our mountaintop experience," Fleming said. "Now we're going to go back home and make it real."
[Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans is a religion columnist for LNP Media Inc., as well as a regular contributor to Global Sisters Report.]