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2023 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering a ‘sign of faith, hope and love coming alive’

Attendees listen during a lecture titled "Mental Health: Moving Past the Taboo to a Culture of Acceptance" at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington Jan. 28, 2023. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — Speakers and participants at the 2023 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering explored how social justice ministries of the church are often intertwined, from how the sin of racism impacts housing to how economic and social policies that uplift women and families can save lives from abortion and other forms of violence.

The conference, which took place Jan. 28-31 in Washington, took its theme “Blessed are the Peacemakers” from Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (in Mt. 5:9), which organizers said “recognizes the call to heal in a world broken by conflict, division, and inequality.” More than 500 participants gathered for the conference, which was primarily organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, along with other USCCB departments and 20 national Catholic organizations.

Auxiliary Bishop Bruce A. Lewandowski of Baltimore told participants in his homily at the Jan. 28 opening Mass that Jesus’ friendships “with people on the margins — the outcasts — broke the rules.”

“Jesus calls everyone friend,” Bishop Lewandowski said. “He said there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends. Jesus lived and died for friendship.”

The bishop said “Gospel friendship” is the “centerpiece” of Jesus’ ministry, and it is at the heart of the Catholic Church’s social ministry.

Sister Patricia Chappell, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, said in a Jan. 28 plenary address that seeking peace by working for justice “is a hard road to walk, my brothers and sisters.”

She called for an end to “silo thinking” among Catholics, because all justice issues are connected, from climate change and voting rights to gun violence and the death penalty.

At a plenary session on Jan. 29, USCCB vice president, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, said parishes have to be “beacons of hope,” not just houses of worship, and Catholic schools have to be a “lifeline for kids in need,” not just centers of education.

Ogechi Akalegbere, a community organizer and director of youth and young adult ministry at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Maryland, encouraged people to be “peacemakers for justice” who put their faith in practice and to move beyond just inspiration to concrete action.

“Catholic social teaching is not something that is on the fringes of our faith, but part and parcel to how we live through Christ,” she said.

Interconnected matters of social justice, united in the Catholic faith, were apparent through the conference on a variety of key issues.

A panel at the conference titled “Pro-Worker, Pro-Woman, Pro-Family: Advocating for Policies that Build a Truly Pro-Life Society,” explored the issues that intersect with abortion and how the church could respond in a holistic way.

Speakers frequently referenced the U.S. bishops’ post-Roe call for “radical solidarity” with both mothers and the unborn, citing a letter they sent to Congress laying out the implementation of the expanded child tax credit and paid parental leave as top priorities.

Speakers and conference attendees identified promoting access to quality and affordable childcare as a crucial component of the church’s pro-life work after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June 2022 that overturned the court’s previous abortion-related precedents in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

“You can’t have working moms if moms can’t afford to go to work,” one participant noted.

Another session explored the link between domestic abuse and abortion, and the need to educate Catholics on this scourge at the local level.

Sharon O’Brien, co-founder and director of Catholics for Family Peace, said that domestic violence signifies a pattern of behavior used to control an intimate partner through fear and intimidation. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women reports having experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetimes.

“When you’re in a domestic violence situation,” O’Brien told the audience, “you make some pretty scary decisions in order to keep you and your children safe,” fearing that a pregnancy unwanted by their partner could lead to violence or even murder.

“The church actually has a long history of being crystal clear that domestic violence has no place in any family,” O’Brien said, refuting the misconception a spouse must stay in an abusive marriage. “It has no place in a Catholic family.”

In her plenary address, Sister Chappell explained racism embedded into U.S. social systems and even in the Catholic Church keeps power and privilege in the hands of white dominant groups at the expense of Black Americans and other people of color, as well as those in poverty, those with disabilities, and others on the margins of society. This also leads to difficult challenges for those in social ministry who are working to address the inequities in the U.S. and bring about justice for all using the principles of Catholic social teaching.

“We must do what we can,” Sister Chappell, a Black religious sister, longtime educator and former executive director of Pax Christi USA, told participants.

At a panel discussion featuring speakers from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Catholic Mobilizing Network, Catholic activists said that in order for Catholic ministries to effectively serve some individuals and communities, they should have an understanding of the unique challenges some communities experience tied to historic or ongoing racism.

“If we systemically want to change things, we have to start talking about systemic racism,” said Jack Murphy, national chair of systemic change and advocacy at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul USA.

Murphy called housing, education and employment mutually reinforcing systems where disparities contribute to a racial wealth gap. Murphy pointed out that “redlining” Black neighborhoods in the 1960s prevented Black families from accessing mortgages their white counterparts were obtaining for homeownership and building family wealth, forcing them to rent instead. The racial wealth gap increases as students growing up in these neighborhoods do not have the same educational opportunities as students in schools in wealthier neighborhoods, which may lead to disproportionate employment outcomes.

“That’s in my view one of the major contributors to the racial wealth gap in the United States,” Murphy declared. “Is it over? We’d like to think it’s over. But it still goes on in our communities.”

At the gathering’s “Salt & Light” plenary on Jan. 29, panelists discussed the importance of encountering, listening and accompanying women and children.

Sister Norma Pimentel, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus and executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, talked about the church’s support for women and children through the accompaniment of migrants and refugees at the southern border. “We are restoring human dignity,” she said of the ministry, which has helped tens of thousands of individuals.

At another workshop Jan. 30 on migration, Sister Sharlet Ann Wagner spoke about the hundreds of families Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington worked with when buses of migrants were sent to Union Station from Texas. The Sister of the Holy Cross said migrants had “all kinds of different health needs,” and endured “a lot of trauma” from women who suffered rape and children who saw dead bodies.

“Those seeking asylum who are coming really don’t want a bunch of handouts,” she said. “They want the help to be able to get jobs, to be able to operate on their own, to be able to build something new. And if we can build that network, we can benefit them and we can benefit our country.”

During a Jan. 29 plenary session, the group COPS/Metro, which partners with the Archdiocese of San Antonio, were held up as examples of how community organizations and local dioceses can work together, highlighting their response to the tragedy of May 24, 2022, when a mass shooter killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

“The church became a place for people to come together, to be present with one another through the Eucharist, which was vital in those days,” Josephine Lopez Paul, COPS/Metro lead organizer, said.

At the plenary, Archbishop García-Siller made an impassioned plea to treat all people with dignity and called gun violence a pro-life issue. “It’s hard to reconcile life with guns,” he said. “Only love saves. Only love protects. Not guns. Those weapons that we use in war. We are killing each other for no reason!”

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture showed its 35-minute documentary, “Torture in Our Name,” at the gathering on Jan. 30, sharing the stories of people who experienced solitary confinement while incarcerated, and tracing efforts to restrict the practice in some states.

Pope Francis has described solitary confinement as a form of torture, Johnny Perez, Director of the U.S. Prisons Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture noted in remarks about the film. Perez praised those who participated in the film as “willing to go back into the fire for the sake of others.”

The morning Mass on the final day of the gathering served as a “sending forth” of the attendees, who headed to Capitol Hill later in the day to advocate on a broad swathe of issues related to the church’s social teaching in meetings with lawmakers and other policymakers.

“You are carriers” of the social mission of the church, Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington, celebrant of the Mass told the gathering’s participants in his homily. He said their mission “is a worthy and holy vocation, and a sign of faith, hope and love coming alive.”

“In these difficult days,” he said, “we need to reach out more broadly to make our case more effectively, and call the entire Catholic community in the United States to a renewed and more urgent sense of social mission.”

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Julie Asher, Maria-Pia Chin and Kimberley Heatherington contributed to this report. 

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