Back in December Pope Francis called for an international, ecumenical gathering in Modesto, California, to discuss social justice issues. Since his time as Cardinal in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he has promoted the all important work of grass-roots organizations that seek to foster and further the work of social justice on many levels and to explore the “economy of exclusion.”
As pope, he has supported the convening of three international World Meetings of Popular Movements. Two have been held in Rome and one in Bolivia. These gatherings seek to help those working in the field of social justice throughout the world.
This fourth meeting took place in Modesto last week, Feb. 16-19.
The meeting took place at Central Catholic High School in Modesto and was attended by some 600 international participants. The encounter has been organized with the support of the Vatican’s new Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development (IHD), the U.S. Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the National Network of People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO), an ecumenical and interreligious organization.
When planning this gathering Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the IHD and president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said, “This is a gathering which is being taken out to the regions and to the national levels. The gathering is about the dignity of all people, which we don’t receive from any government; it’s something we are born with. We encourage all grass-roots movements to join us in Modesto.”
Modesto was chosen in part because it is in the Stockton Diocese where Bishop Stephen Blaire has been involved in the work of social justice. Sister Terry Davis, Diocese of Stockton director of communications explained, “Bishop Blaire has been very active in these kinds of issues and groups, really working to improve society for those who have so little. Bishop Blaire is very committed; therefore, I think he became known” to those organizing the gathering. Along with bishops and other religious leaders from other Christian denominations, the attendees included immigrant rights activists, young people involved in Black Lives Matter, indigenous leaders, low-wage workers, formerly incarcerated individuals, small family farmers and members of worker cooperatives.
In the planning phase, Ralph McCloud, director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development at the USCCB, expected Pope Francis to participate in some form, whether “through written testimony or reporting or through video or teleconference.” He said that the pope has made it a point to “accompany” these grass-roots organizations on their journey: to learn from them, to encourage them and to lend his moral authority to their cause. He has called them “social poets” for the way in which they reimagine and reorganize their world to promote greater justice and human dignity for those who have been shut out or discarded by an economy that, in the pope’s words, excludes and kills.”
Pope Francis did indeed address the conference in a letter read alternately in English and in Spanish. He congratulated the 600 representatives for responding with mercy to society’s hurting people. The pope shared his hope that “such constructive energy would spread to all dioceses because it builds bridges between peoples and individuals. These are bridges that can overcome the walls of exclusion, indifference, racism and intolerance.”
He said, “No people is criminal and no religion is terrorist. Christian terrorism does not exist, Jewish terrorism does not exist and Muslim terrorism does not exist. They do not exist. No people is criminal or drug-trafficking or violent. ‘The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet, without equal opportunities, the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and will eventually explode.’ There are fundamentalist and violent individuals in all peoples and religions — and with intolerant generalizations that become stronger because they feed on hate and xenophobia by confronting terror with love, we work for peace.”
He ended his remarks by saying, “I ask you for meekness and resolve to defend these principles. I ask you not to barter them lightly or apply them superficially. Like Saint Francis of Assisi, let us give everything of ourselves: where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, let us sow pardon; where there is discord, let us sow unity; where there is error, let us sow truth.”
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.