By PATRICIA ZAPOR, CNS | Published March 6, 2008
Catholic social ministry is often frustrating, but a handful of speakers made a point of acknowledging the value of the work and thanking participants in an annual gathering of church workers in Washington.
“The church owes you a debt of gratitude,” said Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, Fla., at a Feb. 27 Mass closing the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering. “You make the church look good.”
The annual conference combines several days’ worth of issue briefings and strategy sessions with targeted lobbying on Capitol Hill. This year’s gathering, which was co-sponsored by more than a dozen national Catholic organizations and five different departments of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, drew more than 700 people from dioceses, parishes and various Catholic groups across the country.
Among those in the delegation attending from Atlanta were Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, Susan Stevenot Sullivan, director of parish and social justice ministries for Catholic Charities of Atlanta, Charles Prejean, director of the Office for Black Catholic Ministry, Father Vic Galier, pastor of St. Matthew Church, Tyrone, and a global fellow for Catholic Relief Services, Irene Miranda, director of the HIV/AIDS ministry for the archdiocese, Cullen Larson of the CRS Southeast regional office, and John Berry, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Atlanta Council.
Bishop Wenski, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, quoted several popes, writer G.K. Chesterton and others to emphasize the importance of the church’s work in tending to the needs of all people.
“We must model what life can look like when we live as if God matters,” he said in his homily. And if God matters, then people must also matter because human beings are made in God’s image, he said.
Even within the church, those who advocate for the poor and helpless are often misunderstood and supported too little, Bishop Wenski acknowledged, in thanking the congregation.
Archbishop Gregory addressed the entire group of delegates on day before, prior to their meetings with elected officials. He spoke words of encouragement and challenge to those working in social ministry.
“When we approach the steps of the Capitol, we will bear witness in all we say and do,” Archbishop Gregory said. “Whether we meet with our congressmen or their legislative assistants, we are ambassadors, sharing the love of Christ because we are a community of faith. We are not another lobby, but a community that serves the poor and vulnerable every day. We are not an interest group, nor are we advocating our own narrow interests, but speaking for the voiceless and standing up for the common good. We go not to serve our own needs, but to serve the ‘least of these’ who we believe to be Jesus in their persons.”
He continued, “We believe human rights come from God and do not depend on where you came from, how you got here, or when you arrived.”
He encouraged the delegates to remember they have “a right and a duty” to speak on behalf of those in need.
“We may not know the ins and outs of Washington, who’s up and who’s down, the details of every amendment,” said the archbishop, “but we do know this: the lives of unborn children need protection; poor children need justice; families need affordable health care; immigrants need to be treated as sisters and brothers, not enemies; the hungry of the world need food; those living and dying with HIV/AIDS need compassionate care; the people of the Holy Land need a just peace; and the unending war in Iraq requires a responsible transition.”
“We need for this violent world not only to be safer, but better, more just.”
Three Catholic members of Congress lauded participants for their efforts during events on Feb. 26.
Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., who taught for a year in an inner-city school through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, said at a reception in a Senate office building that the work of the conference participants was “close to my heart.”
He bemoaned a budget proposal being considered in Congress that includes $50 billion in tax cuts to the wealthiest taxpayers. The federal government still doesn’t adequately fund programs such as the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP, he said, which is a commentary on “who we are as a country.”
“The Democrats are not doing enough and neither are the Republicans,” Casey said.
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., told the group that as a one-time refugee from Cuba he particularly appreciates the Catholic Church’s work on human rights. He said he was frustrated that the Senate “let you down” by failing to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill last year.
“There was not enough political courage” in Congress, he said.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., told the conference attendees he empathizes with their frustrations at trying to pass legislation that reflects church teaching. He explained that as a pro-life Democrat he is misunderstood and mistreated by his party as well as by some within the Catholic Church.
“In our society it’s too easy to judge and condemn the way we do in Washington,” Stupak said. “Negative gets the press.”
In an e-mail following the trip, Susan Stevenot Sullivan said that she attended the event to learn from other Catholic organizations. A highlight for her was listening to Archbishop Gregory speak and give a blessing as Catholic activists from across the United States went to speak to senators and representatives in the Capitol.
She said the group urged members of Congress to support bills to help pregnant women and their unborn children and argued for immigration reform, among other issues.
Father Galier said he was encouraged to see the crowd concerned about helping the poor and other social justice issues. Returning from the three-day event left him upbeat knowing that the church is so committed to these efforts, he said. “It’s nice to be in that sort of situation,” he said.
Father Galier attended as part of his work with Catholic Relief Services and as part of the Atlanta Archdiocese team. He said it was thrilling to be lobbying on Capitol Hill and later learn that one of the bills related to AIDS relief in Africa passed a key vote in the House of Representatives.
Sullivan said, “We are called to live our Catholic faith every day of the week and advocating for justice for those who are ‘most vulnerable’ in our society includes public policy. It’s an example of Pope Benedict’s encyclical ‘Deus Caritas Est’ in action.”
Contributing to the story were Andrew Nelson and Mary Anne Castranio.