In one of his earliest public addresses, at an audience for journalists, Pope Francis spoke of how, immediately following his election, an old friend and fellow churchman had embraced him, urging, “don’t forget the poor.” The new pope said that he subsequently chose as namesake the saint “who wanted a poor church,” and concluded his remarks by exclaiming, “Ah, how I would like a church that is poor and is for the poor!”
Pope Francis’ words were invoked early on during the Indiana Catholic Poverty Summit at the University of Notre Dame last month, and the paradox of Catholic doctrine — the imperative to alleviate the poverty we encounter in others while trying to become poor ourselves — was appreciable in the gathering.
Hosted and sponsored by the University’s Center for Social Concerns (CSC), the daylong summit brought together all five of Indiana’s Catholic bishops and representatives from Catholic social service, health care and educational institutions across the state and nationwide to explore and recommend new initiatives to reduce poverty in the state. “Five bishops in the same room, and all of them listening,” joked Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin. “Why, that’s practically an ecumenical council.”
As would befit an ecumenical council, the summit began with Mass in Geddes Hall’s Our Lady of Mercy Chapel. Concelebrating with the bishops, Rev. Paul V. Kollman, C.S.C., director of the CSC, gave a homily on the day’s Gospel (John 14:1-6), in which Jesus assures his followers that “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
“This Gospel reminds us that Jesus made room for all,” Father Kollman said, “and our work with the poor of our state should invite the same concern, even as we are mindful of the poverty we all share and ought to embrace.”
Whatever they may have thought of Pope Francis’ desire for a poor church, the nearly 100 summit participants plainly shared a determination not to forget the poor. Had they needed reminding, plenty of assistance was available from David Siler, executive director of Catholic Charities in Indianapolis; Rev. Larry Snyder, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities USA; and Sheila Gilbert, national president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, as well as from social workers active in three Indiana dioceses.
Even without the human stories that many of the summiteers are able to ascribe them, Indiana’s poverty statistics would make any morally sentient person wince: At present, 16 percent of the state’s residents and 20 percent of the state’s children (which means 311,000 children — about four Notre Dame Stadiums full) live under the poverty line. Moreover, those statistics are inadequate, as the outdated “poverty line” is reckoned by the cost of the cheapest three-meal daily diet that the federal government considered nutritionally adequate in 1963.
Having heard nation- and statewide overviews of the worsening plight of the poor and the increasing inadequacy of communal response, the summit participants received more intimate views of urban and rural Indiana poverty from diocesan social workers at work in Evansville, Tell City and South Bend before breaking into five respective diocesan groups to discuss the use of education, advocacy, service and prayer in battling Indiana poverty.
When they had reassembled, Archbishop Tobin spoke, reminding the participants of three conspicuous commitments of Catholic social services: refugee resettlement, disaster relief and the alleviation of poverty. “We need to learn why we have been so successful with refugees and disaster relief,” he said, “but we also need to keep in mind that Meat Loaf was wrong when he sang ‘two out of three ain’t bad.’"
As the summit concluded, Archbishop Tobin said that the Indiana bishops would be meeting again in May to discuss issues raised in the Notre Dame discussions and to consider writing a pastoral letter on poverty.
According to summit organizer William Purcell, associate director of the CSC, it is too early to gauge the effects of the Notre Dame meeting, but the unprecedented event “allowed leaders from around the state to draw attention to the needs of people in poverty, and reflect on concrete ways our Catholic faith calls all of us to respond. From this historical occasion, there were incentives for improved diocesan and statewide communication and coordination of poverty eradication efforts. The Holy Spirit was truly present at the day. There was real listening, deep engagement and a true desire to move further in addressing poverty in Indiana. People were inspired.”
Contact: William Purcell, 574-631-9473, firstname.lastname@example.org