Philly nurtures Pope’s seeds of mercy and justice

'The work of mercy and justice is ongoing. It is our work."

This oip-ed by Sister Mary Scullion was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer September 26, 2016, to mark the one-year anniversary of Pope Francis' visit to Philadelphia.

 
One year ago, the city of Philadelphia was in the throes of the historical visit of Pope Francis. For two days, hundreds of thousands of people experienced spiritual uplift and hope in the glow of this remarkable global religious leader. Many people expressed a sense that the Holy Father’s visit as a transformational moment for our city.  It is worth looking a back, a year later, to see what transformation has occurred.

Project HOME and many of our partners marked the papal visit by spearheading the Mercy and Justice campaign, to give concrete expression to the Pope’s global challenge that we reach out to those on the margins in compassion and justice.  The campaign raised over $1.4 million for the special Francis Fund to address the concrete needs of those struggling in the Philadelphia region and Camden.  It also generated over 20,000 messages to Congress to end hunger and homelessness in our nation.

Those efforts culminated in the Pope’s personal visit to the Knotted Grotto, the public art installation in which over 150,000 people had written their “knots” – their struggles, prayers, and hopes.  In blessing the knots, Pope Francis affirmed that this public sharing of our struggles and yearnings are a taproot of real power for transformation.

The concrete artifacts of that remarkable moment live on.  The original wooden structure of the Knotted Grotto now has a permanent home in the “Garden of Peace” courtyard outside Francis House of Peace, new permanent housing residence for formerly homeless persons that was named in honor of the Pope.  The 150,000 cloth knots that were attached to the Grotto will be included in the insulation of Project HOME’s next residence, currently under construction at 2415 North Broad Street.

Other tangible fruit was borne of the papal visit. Over sixty organizations and ministries that received support from the Francis Fund have been able to expand urgently needed services. Dawn’s Place, a refuge for women escaping trafficking, doubled its residential space. Cathedral Kitchen in Camden has been able to expand workforce development and job training programs for many of the city’s unemployed.  KleinLife was able to expand its meal program to homebound seniors.

While it is certainly harder to track, we believe the outreach to Congress, in tandem with the Holy Father’s speech at Capitol Hill, also planted seeds of new possibilities.  Just a few weeks after the Pope’s visit, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey came to town to tout new legislation to meet the needs of your people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.  Earlier this summer, Republican Leader of the House Paul Ryan introduced a series of proposals to provide support and opportunity for Americans in poverty – and it displayed significantly greater understanding and empathy than his previous rhetoric and policy ideas.

Locally, we see the sprouting of seeds of mercy and justice. We are grateful for renewed energy and commitment from local leaders, including the Kenney administration’s 100-Day Street Homelessness Challenge, with intensified outreach efforts and greater community involvement to foster new and effective approaches. More schools are seeking opportunities for education and service experiences. More civic leaders are acknowledging the need for community investment and seeking ways to be part of the solution. Local leaders are seeking justice for immigrants, embracing our Muslim citizens, and calling for criminal justice system reform.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that the political climate in our nation has soured in almost unimaginable ways.  We are seeing the ugly re-emergence of our nation’s nascent xenophobia and crude nationalism, fueled in part by economic anxieties and global violence.  On a daily basis, we hear rhetoric and witness actions that are in stark contrast to the spirit of mercy and justice preached by Pope Francis. 

Clearly, we must continue our efforts to meet the needs of our sisters and brothers struggling with poverty, homelessness, addiction, and social marginalization.  Just as clearly, we need to engage in serious social dialogue, countering the negative and dehumanizing rhetoric, instead putting forth a vision of human dignity, community, hospitality, and strength in our diversity.  As with the Knotted Grotto which the Holy Father blessed, we must recognize that we all share struggles – but these struggles carry the possibility of a more authentic and whole humanity for all of us.

It is one thing to plant seeds.  But those seeds must be watered and fragile sprouts tended to if we desire a real harvest.  Those two remarkable days last September planted seeds of mercy and justice – and we have seen green shoots emerge from the soil.  But the work of mercy and justice is ongoing.  It is our work.  When we are gifted by experiences of hope – such as Pope Francis’s visit last year – our task is to turn that hope into reality.