By now all have heard the news: Pope Francis is coming to the United States. And not just anywhere in the United States; he is coming to our very backyard, Philadelphia. His visit will draw people from all over the country, from around the world.
Few — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — can fail to have noticed the overwhelming attention to the poor this Pope has paid since his election as the Successor of Saint Peter in just a little over two years. This is a Pope of and for the poor; a Pope who visits the imprisoned, who goes into the streets of Rome to talk with the homeless, and who calls on the world to remember those on the outskirts of society.
“Poverty in the world is a scandal,” he has said. “In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry.”
In Southern New Jersey that cry is pervasive. It lurks beneath the surface of so many of our families who struggle to afford housing and food.
In 2014, New Jersey was ranked the fifth most expensive in the nation for housing by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Tens of thousands of individuals in South Jersey lack access to reliable food and the rates of food insecurity (those not sure if they will have food for the next meal) in our area are among some of the highest in the State.
In our diocese Cape May, Atlantic and Cumberland Counties have the three highest unemployment rates in the State, upwards of 11 percent and as high as 16 percent in some places. In Camden County, communities mere miles apart could well be separated by oceans for the vast inequities in economic opportunity, education, even food resources that exist between them.
All around us in South Jersey, families are faced daily with impossible decisions between paying rent, paying utilities, or buying food to feed their children. Children and their mothers are among the most unfortunate victims of poverty.
However, Pope Francis’ vision does not end with raising up the cry of the poor.
“Poverty,” he has said, “calls us to sow hope.”
As much as the Pope’s upcoming visit calls our attention to the quiet cry of poverty that surrounds us in South Jersey, it should also inspire us to become the sowers of hope our region needs. We can start by learning more about the needs of our brothers and sisters and the structural causes of poverty in our region.
We can advocate on behalf of the poor to our elected officials in government, urging them to enact policies that build a society where adequate housing and food are accessible to all.
And we can give of our time or treasure to the many agencies that serve the needs of the homeless and hungry in our communities.
One such agency is Catholic Charities, the Diocese of Camden’s social services agency serving all six of the southernmost New Jersey counties. Each year, the agency serves thousands of individuals and families who struggle with housing and hunger. The agency provides food pantry services and financial assistance for rent and utility bills; but it does much more. It walks with clients along the road to stability, providing case management services that seek to meet the needs of the whole person and produce lasting change in the lives of families.
On Thursday, September 17, one week before the visit of the Holy Father, Catholic Charities will host its annual Justice For All dinner. Contributing to this dinner as a sponsor or by attending or by making a donation to the work of Catholic Charities are fitting ways to make an impact in the lives of families struggling with poverty.
This month, the Hunger and Homelessness Committee designated by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to take action around issues of poverty in advance of the Pope’s visit is launching two initiatives. The first is an advocacy campaign that will provide opportunities for all to encourage our elected officials to remember the poor and vulnerable in their public policies.
The second is the establishment of the “Francis Fund” which will be used to enhance the work of organizations that fight hunger and homelessness in the city of Camden and throughout the Philadelphia region. Catholic Charities, along with six other agencies based in Camden, will be the beneficiaries of this fund, which will enable them to strengthen their services to the poor in the Camden area.
Pope Francis has said, “The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty.”
Let us prepare to welcome the visit of the Vicar of Christ to our area by following his teaching to respond in Christ’s name to the least among us. I pray that you will be inspired by our Holy Father’s vision for a more just society and that you will hear the cry of the poor in our region, and respond as a sower of hope.
You can learn more about Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden at www.CatholicCharitiesCamden.org and about the Hunger and Homelessness Committee of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at www.MercyandJustice.org.