May 3, 2013

Notre Dame hosts groundbreaking conference aiming to end poverty

Sheila Gilbert, president of the National Council Society of St. Vincent de Paul, speaks about poverty at the Indiana Catholic Poverty Summit on Friday, April 26, at the University of Notre Dame. Gilbert was one of the national speakers, as well as Father Larry Snyder of Catholic Charities USA, who spoke about issues of poverty in the U.S. and Indiana. (Photo from Today's Catholic)

Sheila Gilbert, president of the National Council Society of St. Vincent de Paul, speaks about poverty at the Indiana Catholic Poverty Summit on Friday, April 26, at the University of Notre Dame. Gilbert was one of the national speakers, as well as Father Larry Snyder of Catholic Charities USA, who spoke about issues of poverty in the U.S. and Indiana. (Photo from Today's Catholic)

By Trish Linner (Special to The Criterion)

NOTRE DAME, Ind.—Bishops representing all five of Indiana’s dioceses participated in a historic conference at the University of Notre Dame on April 26 to discuss some of the symptoms of poverty and how Catholic organizations in Indiana can reduce the plight of the poor in the state.

The Indiana Catholic Poverty Summit was sponsored by and took place at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns.

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend served as host and spoke on the importance of the group’s mission.

“As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to have a spirit of concern and love for the poor,” Bishop Rhoades said. “We must see the living Christ in every person, and live the principle of human dignity. This summit will give a renewed commitment to this mission.”

The summit was inspired by the Catholic Charities’ national “Campaign to Reduce Poverty in America” and the new initiative by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called “PovertyUSA.” Each diocese has its own Catholic Charities chapter, and all directors were in attendance.

David Siler, executive director of the Secretariat for Catholic Charities and Family Ministries in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, was instrumental in putting the summit together. He told the crowd a story about the opening of Becky’s Place, a Catholic Charities homeless shelter for women and children in Bedford.

“We were really proud of our efforts, and it is humbling to serve so many people,” he said, “but I started thinking to myself that I’d like to stop serving so many people. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have to close the doors because we had no one left to serve?’ ”

The conference was partly planned as an opportunity to bring the various Catholic charitable organizations together to work mutually toward their goals.

“We all do amazing things, but our organizations are disconnected,” Siler noted. “We need to talk more, collaborate and lead the way. If we do this, we can truly make a difference to reduce poverty in our state.”

In addition to representatives from across the state, several national leaders also were in attendance.

Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, updated the group on the latest poverty statistics.

“Over 46 million Americans live in poverty, over 15 percent of the population,” Father Snyder said. “That is one in every five children across our country.”

In Indiana, Father Snyder noted, closer to 20 percent of Hoosiers live in poverty. He commented on businesses that prey on the poor which he called the “Poverty Pimps,” including pay day loan businesses, pawn shops and slum lords.

“These businesses only perpetuate the poverty cycle,” he said.

Father Snyder also spoke about some of the initiatives that Catholic Charities USA has implemented, including working with businesses on market-based components and a focus on outcomes versus how many people are currently being served.

“We need to become a results-based organization with program evaluation and accountability,” Father Snyder said. “We need to do better.”

Shelia Gilbert, president of the national council of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul, also addressed the crowd. She spoke about engaging more parishioners in serving the poor.

“The Catholic Church by itself cannot end poverty, but we can be a catalyst for our communities to make a real difference in people’s lives,” said Gilbert, a member of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus (Little Flower) Parish in Indianapolis.

She also commented about a lack of hope felt by some of the people that St. Vincent de Paul serves. “There is often a lack of belief that the future can be any better. We must spread hope, and help them make the journey out of poverty.”

Active service to the poor was a major theme of the day. Catholic high schools are already working toward several statewide goals for student service to their communities.

According to Harry Plummer, executive director of the Secretariat for Catholic Education and Faith Formation in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, “Catholic schools are moving together on an accreditation model for all schools. We want to put in place a service standard that will really help our communities, and also help our students answer the social call of the Eucharist.”

After meeting together in the morning, the group divided up by dioceses to talk about specific concerns and create possible solutions for better collaborations between statewide agencies to address the poverty problem.

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin began the session for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis by noting that “there is no shortcut to this problem. We must invite people to rethink what they know about poverty and connect our faith and spiritual relationship with God to how we deal with others.”

Father John McCaslin, pastor of St. Anthony and Holy Trinity parishes in Indianapolis, also challenged the archdiocese’s delegation to reflect on poverty, not only in the worldly sense but also those who are poor in spirit.

“So many people we serve are in need of more than just food or shelter. They are lacking in love and acceptance,” he said. “We must welcome them into our hearts and pray for them. We must create an encounter that invites them in so they see in us the love of Christ.”

The conference concluded with all the diocesan groups meeting together again to discuss potential ways for collaboration, and to draw some conclusions about the day.

“I know we are more united and connected now than when we came in,” said Annette “Mickey” Lentz, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

“Short term, we need to capitalize on some of the ideas shared today and regroup again to revisit and explore further ideas and concepts. This has been a great learning day for all of us,” she said.

Archbishop Tobin shared her sentiments, saying, “I suspect that what brought people here today was the excitement of what it could mean if all five dioceses were working together, connected by the essentials of our Catholic teachings and united in our mission to serve the poor.

“I believe what we found was the deep feeling of connection between these people of faith and a renewed sense of urgency to implement new solutions to an old problem.”

The ideas generated by the summit will determine the next steps. Each of the attendees will receive a follow-up report highlighting the discussions and possible solutions.

The hope of organizers is that the Indiana Catholic Conference and the bishops will take the ideas of the conference and create new initiatives statewide to help end poverty in the state.
 

(Trish Linner is a freelance writer in South Bend, Ind.)

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