Ten Ways to Practice Mercy During the Jubilee Year

In late November, custodian Jose Moran set up the Christmas manger at Holy Jesus Child Church in Queens, NY. He took a lunch break and then returned to the church. What he found there was surprising, to say the least: a newborn baby was crying in the manger – so young, his umbilical cord was still attached. The parish has accepted the infant with open arms, with multiple families volunteering to adopt him.

Fr. Christopher Heanue is an administrator at the parish. “I think it’s beautiful. A church is a home for those in need, and she felt, in this stable — a place where Jesus will find his home — a home for her child,” he told the New York Times. “Pope Francis has called this a year of mercy in the church…What better way to be merciful than to find a home for those in need.”

The Jubilee of Mercy started on December 8. Inspired by the example of Holy Jesus Child Church, here are just 10 ways you might try to practice that type of mercy during the year ahead.

1. Pray for those who are hungry before every meal.

Prayer changes things – including the heart and mind of the one who prays. Working on this simple habit unites us to those who are hungry should lead to fruitful action, like wasting less and giving more to organizations that fight hunger, for instance

2. Get to know someone living on the margins.

There are number of social service agencies in our region that facilitate encounters with those living on society’s peripheries: the poor, the homeless, the lonely. Connect with one of these organizations and spend time with someone the agency serves. Get to know his or her name and a bit about their story, and share of yourself. As we see in parables like the Good Samaritan, mercy involves physically moving toward those who suffer – not just writing a check or dropping some old clothes in a donation box.

3. Learn more about a pressing social issue.

What makes you say, “The world shouldn’t be this way”? Pick an urgent issue threatening human dignity in the world right now. Learn more about it and research what Church leaders have said about it. Then, learn about how you can be involved in possible solutions to the problem, in a small or large way.

Pope Francis opens a Holy Door to kick off the Jubilee.

4. Memorize the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Memorization is big for us Catholics – we memorize prayers, Mass responses, the dates of particular feast days, the pattern of the rosary, and more. We don’t memorize just to be able to repeat things in a rote way, but so these key ingredients of our faith become fully integrated into our lives. They become part of us. I know I still don’t have the works of mercy memorized. Maybe I’d be better at living them if they were more fully present on my mind and in my heart.

5. Read Mercy in the City by Kerry Weber.

Speaking of integrating the works of mercy into our everyday lives – journalist Kerry Weber committed to practicing all the corporal works of mercy during a Lenten season a few years ago and recorded her experiences in this book. Her authentic witness is inspiring and makes for a great read. Perhaps it’ll spark some good ideas in you.

6. Visit a sick or elderly friend or relative.

When Pope Francis talks about people who are often forgotten or even discarded as part of our “Throwaway Culture,” he almost always mentions the elderly. Loneliness is a real epidemic in our culture. If you don’t have someone close you to you who you can visit, connect with the activities department at a local nursing home and see how you might be able to get involved.

7. Advocate for more just public policy at a lawmaker’s office.

Mercy involves spending time with those who are suffering. It also includes raising your voice on their behalf. One powerful way to make your voice heard is to visit local lawmakers’ offices to advocate for more just legislation. To learn about pertinent legislative issues that affect those on the margins of society, and how the Church suggests you respond to them, visit the website for the movement Catholics Confront Global Poverty at www.confrontglobalpoverty.org.

8. Buy Fair Trade.

Here’s another less-obvious way to practice mercy – in your role as a consumer. Fair Trade products – which range from coffee and tea to clothing and jewelry – are produced by fairly-paid adults around the world. By buying Fair Trade, you can help give a hand-up to those living in poverty in developing countries. Find Fair Trade coffee in your local grocery store. Your parish can even host a Fair Trade sale through a partnership with Catholic Relief Services; visit www.crsfairtrade.org to learn how.

9. Watch you language.

The words we use shape how we view the world. When it comes to mercy, it’s easy to see its practice as a top-down thing in which the more-fortunate generously reach down to give something to the less-fortunate. But in God’s eyes, we are all equally valuable and loved. So, here are some words I’d suggest steering clear of when talking about the practice of mercy: give back; helping the less fortunate; make a difference. Instead, try things like: build relationships; mutuality; kinship.

 10. Start or strengthen a Life & Justice Coordinating Team at your parish.

In a document called Communities of Salt and Light, the bishops of the United States write, “The local parish is the most important ecclesial setting for sharing and acting on our Catholic social heritage.” What does this mean? We can’t leave the work of mercy to Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic healthcare, and other similar organizations. These are all great and essential institutions, of course. But as the parish is where faith is meant to be lived in entirety, the parish must be engaged in organized, efficient, widespread works of mercy. A well-formed coordinating team is the best way to empower the faithful to get involved. My office offers training sessions to help get you up and running. Email (michael.laskey@camdendiocese.org) or call me (856.583.2910) to learn more.

To Protect Life and Promote Justice, Laws Matter

In a recent column for Religion News Service, Marcia Pally, who describes herself as “emphatically pro-life,” argues that all of the legal efforts to regulate or ban abortion over the past 40 years are “hokum.” She writes “Laws limiting abortion don’t pay for sonograms or day care, and they don’t feed or educate children.”

If the most important pro-life goal is to reduce the number of abortions, she writes, it’s better to focus on and address the host of complex issues that help drive up the abortion rate, such as poverty, an overly complicated adoption process, and the lack of access to things like paid parental leave and quality healthcare. We should abandon the pursuit of legal restrictions on abortion because they don’t work — not until we’ve had a big cultural shift, anyway.

Pally’s column reminds me of an argument I’ve heard from those who oppose stricter gun control measures. Some gun control opponents say that tighter restrictions on gun rights won’t work because there are already lots of guns out there and those bent on doing harm will find a way to arm themselves. Better to focus instead on improving mental health services, or keeping violent video games from kids. We should abandon the pursuit of legal restrictions on gun ownership because they don’t work — not until we’ve had a big cultural shift, anyway.

Don’t get me wrong — focusing on root causes and the web of related issues that contribute to abortion and gun violence is essential. But not at the expense of addressing the issue head-on with targeted legislation. Laws restricting abortion access and gun ownership do reduce abortions and gun violence. They’re not silver bullets, but they’re important pieces of the puzzle.

protests

Whenever I think about the role of narrow, limited legislation within a broader movement for social change, I remember this quote from a speech Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at Western Michigan University in 1963:

Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.

As all pro-life and social justice advocates discern how to best spend our time, we shouldn’t make an “either/or” decision about broad social change vs. targeted legislation. Instead, as is so often the best option for Catholics, we should choose “both/and.”

Diocese of Camden Mercy Ministry Gathering: Don’t Miss It!

mercy ministry snip

I’m excited to announce a special event coming up in the diocese this October. It’s called Mercy Ministry: Best Practices for Reaching Out to a Wounded World. The gathering will bring together people from Catholic parishes, schools, and other organizations across the diocese for a day of education, prayer, and networking. It’s meant to help parishes and schools more effectively engage in respect life and social justice ministries. It’d be great if you could join us.

  • If you’re already convinced and you want to attend, you can register online by clicking here and filling out the form.
  • If you want to know more about the event before signing up, read on! Here’s some information in a fun Q&A format.

Q: Who’s this gathering for?

A: Anyone with a heart for our faith’s call to protect human life and promote social justice! More specifically, the gathering is for:

  • Respect Life and Social Justice volunteers at parishes or schools, whether working already or aspiring to get started
  • Directors of Religious Education
  • Youth/Campus Ministers
  • Pastoral Associates
  • Clergy and religious

 Q: Why is it happening?

A: The gathering is meant to help parishes and schools start or deepen their commitment to respect life and social justice ministries. It’ll be a practical day and provide you with tools you can use with your own ministry context. The gathering is being called “Mercy Ministry” because it’s inspired by the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy, which Pope Francis announced a few months ago. The Jubilee is set to begin in December. As the Holy Father is calling us to recommit ourselves and our faith communities to acting with mercy, especially reaching out to those living on society’s margins, this theme is timely!

 Q: So what will happen during the gathering?

A: The day will have three main parts:

  1. Keynote address
  2. A display hall featuring community social service organizations that your parish/school could connect with.
  3. Two rounds of educational workshops.

We’ll also have communal prayer and breakfast and lunch together.

Q: Who’s the keynote speaker?
A: Her name is Kerry Weber, author of the great book Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job. She’s also the managing editor of America Magazine. The Jesuit author Fr. Jim Martin has called Kerry “one of the liveliest, brightest, most provocative and most articulate voices on the Catholic scene today.”

She’ll be talking about her own story of living out mercy – in particular, when she spent one Lent trying to participate in all the Corporal Works of Mercy.

Get to know the wonderful Kerry a bit with this two-minute YouTube video:

And take a look at her most recent article for America, on why Pope Francis’ new encyclical is perfect for Millennials.

And finally, check out this recent profile of her from NJ.com.

Q: Tell me more about the display hall. What’s that going to be like?

A: Have you ever been to an open-air market with a lot of different stalls offering different items? Or have you attended a convention with a big exhibition area? Well, then you have a sense of what our display hall will be like.

A bunch of different community organizations from all over South Jersey will be there. You’ll have time set apart to visit them and learn about how your parish or school might connect with them. Each organization invited to the event offers life & justice volunteer and educational opportunities. Who knows – maybe some neat new relationships will be sparked! Here’s a list of organizations that have RSVP-d so far, with several more from Cumberland, Gloucester, and Atlantic Counties in the works:

  • Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden (all counties)
  • 40 Days for Life prayer vigil (Cherry Hill)
  • Joseph’s House of Camden (Camden)
  • Atlantic City Rescue Mission (Atlantic City)
  • Romero Center Ministries (Camden)
  • Community FoodBank of New Jersey (Egg Harbor Township)
  • Food Bank of South Jersey (Pennsauken)
  • Cathedral Kitchen (Camden)
  • Catholic Relief Services (official humanitarian relief organization of US Catholic Church)
  • Center for Environmental Transformation (Camden)
  • Spirit and Truth soup kitchen (Vineland)

Q: Sounds good. How about the workshops? What will they be about?

A: There will be two rounds of workshops, and five total workshops offered. They’ll all be offered in both rounds. So you’ll be able to pick two that sound most interesting to you. A quick rundown of the subject matter:

  1. Doing effective respect life ministry
    1. Presenter: Jennifer Ruggiero, director of respect life ministries for the Diocese of Metuchen
  2. How to engage your parish/school in learning about and acting on international issues and poverty relief efforts
    1. Presenter: Katie Kernich, Catholic Relief Services
  3. Preparing for and reflecting on community service experiences
    1. Presenter: Patrick Cashio, Romero Center Ministries
  4. Life & Justice legislative update and how your faith community can effectively advocate for the poor and vulnerable
    1. Presenter: James King, New Jersey Catholic Conference
  5. Social justice tips from a Diocese of Camden parish
    1. Presenter: Pat Slater, pastoral associate for justice and community outreach, Catholic Community of Christ Our Light.

A: Fantastic. Anything else I should know?

Q: That’s more than enough to get you started! Space is limited, so be sure to register soon. You can sign up by clicking here. Looking forward to seeing you!

Event flyer:

Mercy Ministry event flyer-page-001

Three Lessons from the Diocese of Camden Pilgrimage to West Virginia

Last winter, a friend of mine in West Virginia invited me to speak at a social ministries conference there. “Sounds good,” I said to her,” but instead of just me, how about I get a group of South Jerseyans together and we come down for a few extra days?”

“Why not?” she replied.

So I reached out to some Catholics from around the diocese and invited them to join me for a “solidarity pilgrimage” – a trip to Appalachia designed to introduce us to the region’s gifts and challenges and to facilitate relationship-building across state lines.

For five days in May, eight of us from the Diocese of Camden traveled around West Virginia in minivans and connected with different Catholic ministries there. The pilgrimage was a series of incredible experiences. Here are three of the many lessons our group learned on the trip, which I’ve pulled from reflections several of our pilgrims wrote when returned home.

Diocese of Camden pilgrims to West Virginia worked with local resident Ron Hutson (fifth from right) on a repair project during their stay at Nazareth Farm. From left to right: Nazareth Farm staff member Annika Darby; pilgrims Mike Jordan Laskey, Yanelis Fernandez, Donna Mills and Steve Mills; Ron Hutson; and pilgrims Jim Steintz, Amanda Dupras, Roger Asselta, and Geneva O’Brien.

Diocese of Camden pilgrims to West Virginia worked with local resident Ron Hutson (fifth from right) on a repair project during their stay at Nazareth Farm. From left to right: Nazareth Farm staff member Annika Darby; pilgrims Mike Jordan Laskey, Yanelis Fernandez, Donna Mills and Steve Mills; Ron Hutson; and pilgrims Jim Steintz, Amanda Dupras, Roger Asselta, and Geneva O’Brien.

1) Take risks.

The opportunity to take part in the pilgrimage came out of left field for the participants. “With little understanding of what to expect, six others and I said, ‘We’re in,’” writes Roger Asselta, a pilgrim from the Catholic Community of the Holy Spirit (Mullica Hill/Woodstown).

“Truthfully, none of us really knew what to expect or why we were going,” writes Jim Steinitz, who’s from Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish (Collingswood/Westmont). “But every one of us just knew we were being called by the Spirit to an encounter with others. My encountering began immediately as we gathered in Cherry Hill because I had previously met only one other person of our group.”

I’m not sure what convinced my seven co-pilgrims that traveling to West Virginia for five days with a relative stranger leading the way was a good idea, but they jumped in headfirst. Their courage and openness inspired me throughout our journey.

2) West Virginia is a beautiful place with some big-time challenges.

Our first stop on the pilgrimage was Nazareth Farm, an intentional community of young adults that welcomes groups like ours from around the country throughout the year for community service-based retreats. The afternoon we arrived, the farm’s director, Brian, led us on a hike.  “I don’t think any of us expected to go up a mountain a few hundred feet for our hike to the tallest point on the farm’s property, but once we got there, the view was breathtaking,” writes Geneva O’Brien, a pilgrim from Stockton University’s Catholic Campus Ministry program. “We were asked to close our eyes to pray and reflect in silence, and when I opened my eyes, I felt this overwhelming sense of peace and saw the beauty of God in the bright green trees and rocky earth.”

West Virginia is the only state that is entirely located in Appalachia – it’s nicknamed “The Mountain State” after all. Getting to know the state’s land was an essential part of our journey. Against this beautiful backdrop, though, we learned about the poverty and environmental degradation that have plagued much of the region.

We spent one morning of the pilgrimage at one of Catholic Charities West Virginia’s mobile food pantries, which sets up once a month in different communities. Roger sat in with a caseworker at the pantry who walked new clients through an intake process. “This involves a very close and personal interview revealing details of sad and sometimes desperate stories,” Roger writes. “I heard the words ‘I am hungry’ with a poignancy I never experienced before. It took all I had to keep it together.”

The next day, we toured Kayford Mountain with an attorney and advocate named Elise Keaton. Kayford is a piece of land that has been protected from the ravages of mountaintop removal coal mining. The late Larry Gibson, who grew up on the mountain, refused to sell it to mining companies. He started an organization called “Keeper of the Mountains” that advocates for an end to mountaintop removal mining. From Kayford, you could look out over a barren, leveled landscape that had once been a tree-covered mountain. The experience had a profound impact on Donna Mills, a pilgrim from the Catholic Community of the Holy Spirit. “The destruction of mountaintop removal mining affects just about every part of the population by ripple effect. The vegetation has been destroyed – resulting in catastrophic flooding in the valley villages below,” she writes. “Businesses close, people can’t find employment, poverty takes over. And most disturbing to me as a mother is the fact that families must consider whether it is safe enough to bear children considering the toxic water supply.”

Elise Keaton from the Keeper of the Mountains organization describes the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. The barren landscape in the background was a lush mountain before it was mined.

Elise Keaton from the Keeper of the Mountains organization describes the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. The barren landscape in the background was a lush mountain before it was mined.

3) It’s OK to be unsettled and confused in the face of the world’s problems. But respond to the unsettling with education and action.

 Donna and her husband Steve, who was also on the pilgrimage, describe feeling almost helpless in the face of so many challenges. “Tucked away in my little corner of New Jersey, I had little knowledge of the challenges confronting the people of this region on a daily basis. That this level of poverty can be found in our country seems unconscionable,” Steve writes. “For the first few days after returning home I felt what I can only describe as an unsettled spirit, and it persists even now.”

And Donna shares, “The needs of this world can seem overwhelming. We can’t possibly fix everything. We might be inclined to think there is nothing one person could possibly do. It became very clear to me that God does expect each and every one of us to do something. Whether it is taking on the big industries that are destroying God’s creation (man and planet), being kind to the elderly person at the grocery store, or feeding a hungry child, we all have a the ability and responsibility to be His representatives and caretakers of this great earth and its inhabitants.”

We encountered so many examples of individuals and communities in West Virginia who recognize the size of the challenges they face and act with hope and love anyway. From the Nazareth Farm volunteers to the Catholic Charities staff we met to the Keeper of the Mountains organization, we met inspiring people whose witness compels us to continue our work for justice no matter the obstacle.

To read each pilgrim’s reflections in full, click the links below:

Roger Asselta
Jim Steinitz
Donna Mills
Steve Mills
Geneva O’Brien

Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation

camosyCharles Camosy, PhD, is a professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University in the Bronx and author of the brand-new book Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation. He will be the featured speaker at the first Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Lecture (Monday, May 11, 7:00 pm, Catholic Community of the Holy Spirit, Mullica Hill, free admission), where he will discuss the Catholic vision of justice that extends protection to all human beings, from the moment of conception until natural death, including every moment in between.

A fabulous teacher, Dr. Camosy makes complex theological concepts accessible to all, and he has contributed essays to USA Today, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and other publications.

He took the time to answer a few questions for The Ampersand. Learn more about the lecture and register to attend here.

MJL: In a Wall Street Journal op-ed written just after the 2013 verdict against abortion-provider Kermit Gosnell, Dan Henninger wrote, “No other public policy has divided the people of the United States for so long and so deeply. Abortion is America’s second civil war.” Why do you think this is true?

CC: It radically divides everything from our families, to our parishes, to our political process. It and goes to the heart of two very fundamental values in our culture: (1) the equal standing of women in our culture and (2) the protecting of vulnerable prenatal children from death.  When the stakes are understand to be so high, one can see why the debate turns out this way.

MJL: In another interview you did, you said this: “I think every prenatal child, regardless of how she was conceived, is a person with a right to life and deserves equal protection of the law. Period. That’s simply what justice requires.” Many people would disagree with you on that, obviously, and digging in to the argument would take far more space than we have. But can you lay out the core reasoning behind your argument that every prenatal child has a right to life?

CC: Well, before going to the prenatal child, I like to think about intuitions about the neonatal child — the newborn. Should the newborn child, “regardless of how she was conceived, [also be considered] a person with a right to life and deserves equal protection of the law”?  Absolutely. We would think someone a monster who thought differently.

But notice that it is really difficult to explain why a newborn child is a person without saying that a prenatal child is also a person. Both are living organisms, members of the Homo sapiens family. Both are neither actually rational, self-aware, capable of moral choice, or anything else that makes humans more significant than pigs or dogs. But both have the potential for such things that other animals do not have.

Indeed, sometimes when a baby is born prematurely she is less developed than a baby who is still inside her mother. (Interestingly, secular philosophers like Peter Singer are increasingly more confident in arguing that the right to abortion also implies the right to infanticide because they too see the connection between reasoning about prenatal and neonatal human life.) What we say of one we ought to say about the other, and if newborn children have a right to life as a matter of justice, then so do unborn children.

MJL: Some critics say that pro-life advocates don’t do enough to support mothers, fathers, and children after birth. What can Catholics do to respond to those who say that pro-lifers are only “pro-birth” and not really pro-life? 

CC: The first response is that such critics are correct. We don’t do enough. Many people do great things, but we absolutely don’t do enough. Every parish with a pro-life ministry, for instance, should also have a ministry to pregnant women and single mothers in difficult circumstances. That same organization should be putting hard core pressure on local politicians to increase social supports for women. Jesus commands Christians not only to be nonviolent, but to actively support those most vulnerable and least among us.

MJL: In your just-released book, you discuss statistics that surprise some people: In many surveys, women are more likely than men to support abortion restrictions. Why do you think that is?

CC: It is complex, but part of the reason is that women understand better than men that abortion does not lead to women’s social equality. In fact, paradoxically, it could lead to more inequality. One reason why our culture doesn’t give women mandatory paid maternity leave and other supports for having children is, frankly, because we believe they could have had an abortion. Our patriarchal culture insists that equality for women means that they basically have to remain non-pregnant; that is, they have to be like men. Pro-lifers know that true social equality for women means–not abortion–but giving women the resources necessary to choose to not kill their child.

MJL: Often in the Church, one can find painful divides between “pro-life Catholics” and “social justice Catholics.” You suggest a both/and approach. What are some signs of hope for you that progress toward the both/and can be made?Life and Justice Logo & only

CC: Fifty percent of Millennials refuse to identify as either Republican or Democrat. They support “liberal” causes like health care reform and paid maternity leave, but they also support the “conservative” pro-life position in favor of protecting prenatal children. This is true also of Hispanics. Both demographics are the future of this country, and this future looks to be a very different and more hopeful one.

MJL: As a scholar, what interests you most about coming out to a parish and sharing your work with a non-academic audience?

CC: Far too often, academics are interested in having inside baseball conversations among themselves, but my work in bioethics and moral theology really does connect with the concerns of people outside the ivory tower. Indeed, if it didn’t, I’m not sure I could justify my time in working on these issues. Theologians are working for the Church, not just the academy, and this means reaching outside ourselves and engaging with other audiences. Indeed, my experience is that these audiences have just as much to teach us as we have to teach them.

Learn more about Dr. Camosy’s lecture and register to attend here.

The Encounter Series: Seeking Christ in the Poor and Vulnerable

In his modern spiritual classic Tattoos on the Heart, Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, writes about the gang-intervention ministry he runs in Los Angeles called Homeboy Industries.

Frequently, Fr. Greg says Mass at juvenile detention camps, and he shares the story of a meeting with one of the teenagers there. After Mass one day, a kid walks over to Fr. Greg, “all swagger and pose,” with a scowl fixed on his face.

Fr. Greg and the homeboys.

“What’s your name?” Fr. Greg asks.

“SNIPER,” the kid replies.

Fr. Greg pushes back – there’s no way the kid’s mom named him Sniper.

“What’s your name?” he asks again.

“Gonzalez,” the kid says, easing up a little.

But Fr. Greg wants to know what the kid’s mother calls him. The replies with a Spanish word that loosely translates as “blockhead.”

Fr. Greg tells the kid he doesn’t doubt it. “But, son, I’m looking for birth certificate here.”

Softening right before Fr. Greg’s eyes, the kid squeaks out his full first name: “Napoleón.”

What a historic, noble name, Fr. Greg tells the kid. But there’s no way your mom uses the whole thing. What does she call you?

Fr. Greg writes: “Then I watch him go to some far, distant place – a location he has not visited in some time. His voice, body language, and whole being are taking on a new shape – right before my eyes.”

Speaking just above a whisper, the kids says, “Sometimes, when my mom’s not mad at me…she calls me…Napito.”

“I watched this kid move, transformed, from Sniper to Gonzalez to [Blockhead] to Napoleón to Napito,” Fr. Greg writes. “We all just want to be called by the name our mom uses when she’s not [ticked] off at us.”

Names are powerful things. By digging down through Napito’s five layers of names, Fr. Greg started to build a relationship with the teenager. Napito felt valued and cared for. He felt important.

I think names might be one key part of building what Pope Francis calls “a culture of encounter.” In the Holy Father’s native Spanish, the word encuentro means much more than a mere run-in. Instead, it implies the sort of mutuality and kinship present in Fr. Greg’s meeting with Napito.

Pope Francis talks about encounter as an antidote to what he calls a “throwaway culture,” in which people who are seen as useless – the unborn, the elderly, the poor and homeless – are pushed to the margins or even literally discarded. However, if we encounter individuals and communities that are usually pushed aside – if we get to know their names – the throwaway culture begins to crumble. You don’t throw a friend away.

The importance of building a “culture of encounter” has found a new emphasis during the papacy of Pope Francis, but it’s not a new idea. Indeed, Christ himself spent so much of his earthly ministry building a culture of encounter, as he dined and conversed with tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, the poor and hungry, and other people who were usually excluded. Pope Francis’ call is the same as Jesus’ call.

Reflecting on Fr. Greg’s story makes me think about how we might deepen our commitment to building a name-based culture of encounter here in the Diocese of Camden. Here’s one question that I keep mulling over: How might the Church be different if every Catholic knew at least one person by name who had been threatened by the throwaway culture? What would it take to make that goal a real possibility?

To get this “culture of encounter” momentum going, I’m excited about an upcoming initiative called The Encounter Series: Seeking Christ in the Poor and Vulnerable, a three-part experience set for this May.

Co-sponsored by Life & Justice Ministries and the Office of Lay Ministry Formation, The Encounter Series is designed to engage your whole self: open your heart to encountering Christ in the poor on a daylong retreat; open your mind to at an informative lecture by a leading young moral theologian; and open your hands to those living on the margins at a day of service in the city of Camden.

Participate in one, two, or all three experiences, and join us as we strive to live the Holy Father’s call to encounter.

The Encounter Series: Seeking Christ in the Poor and Vulnerable

The series includes a retreat day (Tuesday, May 5; Holy Family, Sewell), an informative lecture (Monday, May 11; Catholic Community of the Holy Spirit, Mullica Hill), and a day of hands-on community service in Camden (May 16; Romero Center Ministries). All adults welcome. For more information and to register for one, two, or all three experiences, visit www.camdendiocese.org/encounter or contact Colleen Mayhew at 856.583.6118.