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Advocates focus on social justice ahead of papal trip

May 15, 2015
Matthew Gambino
Catholic News Service

PHILADELPHIA – As Catholics and non-Catholics alike prepare for Pope Francis’ visit to the United States in September, the pontiff’s message of greater solidarity with poor people is resonating with a wide-ranging group of faith-based social justice advocates.

Almost 300 representatives of parishes and organizations from 50 dioceses across the United States aligned with the PICO National Network gathered at St. Joseph’s University April 30 and May 1 to launch a yearlong effort of faith formation and social action on poverty to take advantage of the momentum building around the papal trip.

The Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States is partnering with the PICO National Network, a coalition of faith-based advocacy organizations, in the effort.

Event organizers cited the pope’s apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) and its searing critique of social and economic injustices as motivation for the initiative.

Joseph Fleming, executive director of PICO New Jersey, said the yearlong faith formation project was developed because “Catholic parishioners are hungering to connect peace and justice.”

Catholic organizations make up one-third of PICO’s 1.2 million members nationally, making them a prime audience for the effort, he added.

While specific programs will be developed locally, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, president of Caritas Internationalis and one of the pope’s advisers on Council of Cardinals, provided those gathered with a Gospel-based explanation of why it is important to engage with and advocate on behalf of poor people.

Cardinal Rodriguez urged the gathering to continue pressing policymakers to assure that the rights and lives of poor people are not ignored.

Many in the packed conference room cheered the cardinal’s comments on the theme, “Year of Encounter: Confronting the Economy of Exclusion.”

“There is money to rescue the banks but no money to rescue the poor. This is unjust!” he told the faith-based advocates, which included clergy and women religious. “People who have lost their homes (to foreclosure) were victims of an unjust system. Foreclosure is a crime against the poor.

“The poor person is the victim of entrepreneurs (who give) work but without paying a minimum wage. They are thieves!” Cardinal Rodriguez said.

The economy, he explained, “is a system that is ill from the inside and needs healing” because it “is centered in money and markets, not the human person.”

He identified the problem of economic inequality as stemming from the root of the biblical question that Cain, after murdering his brother Abel, put to God, which Cardinal Rodriguez called “the terrible syndrome of Cain.”

“Am I the guardian of my brother? Yes!” the cardinal said, implying that everyone is the guardian of one’s brother and sister.

The failure to recognize another person as a child of God equal in rights and to whom respect is due, and focusing only on oneself, leads to injustice, Cardinal Rodriguez suggested.

Where there is no justice, there is no peace, he said, pointing to the eruptions of violence in the United States over the killings of poor black men by police in the last year, most recently in Baltimore.

Only when people recognize the equality of one another, “that we have the same rights, we will have respect for each other and love each other,” he said.

While Cardinal Rodriguez might have been preaching to the choir of social justice advocates in the room, he also challenged them to get to know poor people.

In the Holy Year of Mercy that Pope Francis has proclaimed beginning in Advent, the cardinal urged his listeners to “take your heart to suffering people. How the Year of Mercy will be bearing fruit is to convert to the suffering of concrete people.”

He also encouraged the mostly Catholic and Christian participants to work to convince politicians not to seek their own self-interest but the greater common good for society.

“Be united in forming communities of faith and take concrete actions,” he told the attendees. “We are community. You as organic communities are working for the common good. Do not be tired. Never become discouraged.”

Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton also participated in the kickoff events.

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