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From Feb. 16-19, Oscar Castellanos, director of Intercultural Ministry in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, and nine others representing the Church in central and southern Indiana and local grass-roots organizations participated in the Vatican co-sponsored regional World Meeting of Popular Movements (WMPM) in Modesto, Calif.
But it was no mere workshop, says Castellanos.
“This was no conference, no meeting—this was a call to action,” he says.
According to the WMPM website, the series of meetings called for by Pope Francis are intended to “create an ‘encounter’ between Church leadership and grass-roots organizations working to address the ‘economy of exclusion and inequality’ (“The Joy of the Gospel,” #53-54) by working for structural changes that promote social, economic and racial justice.”
The site goes on to explain that popular movements are “grass-roots organizations and social movements established around the world by people whose inalienable rights to decent work, decent housing, and fertile land and food are undermined, threatened or denied outright,” including in areas such as labor, poverty, creation care and more.
The U.S. regional meeting, held at Central Catholic High School in Modesto, focused on topics similar to two past meetings in Rome and one in Bolivia, with an added regional focus on the issues of immigration and race relations.
Deacon Michael Braun, director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Pastoral Ministries, says he attended the meeting because “social, economic and racial justice is our work as the Church.”
He says he was impressed by the Church leadership present, including Cardinal Peter Turkson, who serves at the Vatican as prefect for its Dicastery for Integral Human Development, and bishops leading each of the discussion panels.
“I gained a lot of insights,” particularly on race relations, says Deacon Braun. “Racism today is not so vocal or violent. It’s more subtle. We maintain white privilege, preventing African-Americans from having the same opportunities.”
Castellanos was moved by the faith sharing that occurred in small group sessions held throughout the four-day gathering.
“I wasn’t prepared to hear some of the stories,” he admits. “It was a very intense four days.”
His feelings were shared by the local delegation organizer, Providence Sister Tracey Horan, who works as a community organizer for Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCAN).
“It was so energizing,” she says. “I felt like everyone I spoke with was eager to build relationships. Strangers became friends quickly because there was a sense of common mission, common purpose.”
The small groups did more than share stories. At the end of the meeting, the work of the small groups resulted in a document to be delivered to the Vatican providing recommendations for Catholic responses to the issues raised.
Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin was one of the meeting planners. Although he could not be present for the meeting, he delivered a pre-recorded message that was delivered on the first day of the event.
“The work of building community and calling all of us to truly see one another is needed now more than ever,” he said.
“In his apostolic exhortation ‘The Joy of the Gospel,’ Pope Francis denounced an ‘economy of exclusion,’ one that puts profits over people, and considers people only as consumers of goods and works as cogs in a profit making machine. … The resulting concentration of wealth in our country in the hands of a few has created an historic level of economic inequality, which has placed a great burden on working families and the poor. And let us not forget that many families are both working and poor.”
He noted a modern trend in American society to “place our anger and frustration and fear onto the backs of scapegoats of our day: immigrants, Muslims, young people of color; and to build walls: border walls and prison walls that will keep them out of our communities.
“The only way we can overcome fear and alienation and indifference is through the powerful actions of encounter and dialogue. Through the intentional choice to engage with one another, sharing our experiences and listening for common ground, we discover and activate our own capacity for compassion, the ability to feel with another person the core emotions that make us human and bind us together.”
Cardinal Tobin warned against indifference rendering people “incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as if all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. Friends, it is our responsibility to respond to the pain and anxiety of our brothers and sisters.”
Just how to mobilize others through the actions of popular movements is now the focus of the members from IndyCAN, the archdiocese and other local grass-roots organizations that comprised the local delegation.
“Who is going to head the initiative, and how will it be organized?” Castellanos asks. “There’s no ‘Office of Social Justice.’ ”
Deacon Braun said that the group will meet to discuss next steps, and to determine who will lead the efforts.
But one thing became clear to him as result of the gathering of grass-roots organizations with different causes: “We all need to be in this together. Working separately for justice is not going to help us. We can be far more effective by working together,” he says.
Sister Tracey agrees.
“I left with a deeper sense of how all the issues of inequality we’re fighting are interconnected,” she says. “I look forward to guiding our delegation as we discern how best to continue this process at a local level.”
(All sessions from the World Meeting of Popular Movements can be viewed online at popularmovements.org/live-stream.) †