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By Peter Novecosky, OSB
Abbot Peter Novokosky‘Francis effect’ in America

The “Francis effect” is having an impact on papal visits.

Pope Francis is visiting the United States this September and concerned citizens, both Catholic and non-Catholic involved in faith-based social justice organizations, are capitalizing on the pope’s program to become a church for the poor.

Almost 300 representatives from 50 dioceses across the United States aligned with the PICO National Network gathered at St. Joseph’s University recently to launch a yearlong effort of faith formation and social action on poverty to take advantage of the momentum building around the papal trip. The Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States is partnering with the PICO network, a coalition of faith-based advocacy organizations.

Joseph Fleming, executive director of PICO New Jersey, said the yearlong faith formation project was developed because “Catholic parishioners are hungering to connect peace and justice.” The program will be based on the pope’s apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, and its strong critique of social and economic injustices. The PICO network counts 1.2 million members, with one-third of them being Catholic.

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, president of Caritas Internationalis, gave the university gathering a Gospel-based explanation of why it is important to engage with and advocate on behalf of poor people. Commenting on the theme, Year of Encounter: Confronting the Economy of Exclusion, he urged them to continue pressing policymakers to assure that the rights and lives of poor people are not ignored.

“There is money to rescue the banks but no money to rescue the poor. This is unjust!” he told the faith-based advocates, which included clergy and women religious. “People who have lost their homes (to foreclosure) were victims of an unjust system. Foreclosure is a crime against the poor.”

“The poor person is the victim of entrepreneurs (who give) work but without paying a minimum wage,” Rodriguez said. “They are thieves!” The economy today “is a system that is ill from the inside and needs healing” because it “is centred in money and markets, not the human person.”

He identified the problem of economic inequality as stemming from the root of the biblical question that Cain, after murdering his brother Abel, put to God. Rodriguez called it the terrible syndrome of Cain. “Am I the guardian of my brother? Yes!” the cardinal said, implying that everyone is the guardian of one’s brother and sister.

A papal visit is more than a celebrity event. It is more than a political event. It is encouraging to see that citizens are gearing up to “hear” Pope Francis’ message and to put it into action.