Sister Mary Scullion is Executive Director of Project HOME, a nationally recognized nonprofit in Philadelphia. She co-chairs the Hunger and Homelessness Committee of the World Meeting of Families.
With a little less than a month left before the visit of Pope Francis, it seems that our civic anticipation is devolving into anxiety over the potential nightmare of security and traffic logistics. Or into burgeoning commercialism and cheap profiteering from sometimes tawdry papal memorabilia.
We cannot afford to lose sight of the importance of this event – and the historic opportunity it represents.
Sam Vasquez hasn’t lost sight.
Sam spent many years homeless on the streets of Philadelphia. Now a resident at Project HOME’s JBJ Soul Homes at Broad and Fairmount, he is giving back. In anticipation of the Pope’s visit, Sam is part of a special outreach team, including several formerly homeless persons, who have been going out in Center City, engaging in dialogue with the men and women currently living on our streets.
“I’ve been going out on the Parkway, talking with the people out there,” Sam says. “Many of them want to know if the Pope is going to be able to actually help homeless people out there.” Sam and his fellow outreach workers are trying to keep those on the streets informed about security issues related to the event, and talking to them about how they can be included or what options are available to them during those two days when more than one million visitors are expected.
Sam is hopeful that while he is here, Pope Francis “is going to do his best to help the community of people who are homeless and who are hungry.” He believes the Pope will deliver “a powerful message” that will be good news not only to folks who make the Parkway their home, but to the tens of thousands of Philadelphians who struggle daily with poverty, hunger, homelessness, addiction and abuse.
In the two years since he was named head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has consistently made that a central part of his mission and his message to the world: the need for compassion, mercy, justice and real dignity for persons on the margins, persons who are suffering, who are vulnerable and powerless. It’s a challenge he will bring to these shores, not only in his time in Philadelphia, but in his address to Congress.
It’s a powerful message – and we need to find concrete ways to turn that message into reality. That is why the World Meeting of Families Hunger and Homelessness Committee launched the Mercy and Justice Campaign. We have created opportunities for people in our region to use the papal visit to act in mercy and justice – and people of all faiths and non-faiths throughout the area are responding, because they understand the urgency of this moment.
Already, thousands of people in the greater Philadelphia region have contributed almost $1 million to the Francis Fund. This incredible support will help almost 60 great organizations provided critically needed services to people working to break the cycle of homelessness, poverty and oppression. That’s a start – but the need is vast.
Already, people from around the country have sent almost 7,000 messages to Congress, urging our elected officials to respond to Pope Francis’s call for justice by developing concrete, bipartisan legislation to combat poverty in America. You can send your message to our elected officials here. That’s encouraging – but given the ideological gridlock of Washington, much more public pressure will be needed.
We can’t afford to stop. In the coming weeks, we will continue to take our “Mercy and Justice” message out into the streets. We will continue mobilizing online, going out to parishes and congregations. We will continue to urge more people to donate and to advocate – and to commit to a deeper long-haul commitment to making this a more just and compassionate community for all our citizens.
Will the papal visit be merely a multi-million dollar civic spectacle? Or will it truly be transformative in ways that matter? The answer to those questions is up to us. Let’s join together to act with mercy and seek justice.