By Jennifer Reyes Lay
The weekend of January 23rd-26th I traveled to Washington D.C. to attend the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering on behalf of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. The theme for the conference was “Called To Live Mercy in Our Common Home,” drawing on both the Year of Mercy and Pope Francis’ encyclical Ladato Si’. It just so happened that Blizzard Jonas was also visiting Washington D.C. that same weekend, but that didn’t stop the 200 or so of us from attending, and thanks to technology we were still able to connect and hear from most of the major keynote speakers!
The Conference brought together various social ministries throughout the United States, some national organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities, and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and other smaller, local groups like state Catholic Caucuses, justice coordinators, campus ministers, and students from Catholic Universities.
A major part of the first two days were Keynote presentations. The opening keynote was given by Bishop Nelson Perez, a member of the USCCB subcommittee for Hispanic Affairs and subcommittee for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). Bishop Perez talked about the power of encounter, how Christ doesn’t make appointments but just shows up in our lives in unexpected ways in the form of our brothers and sisters, in the form of the poor. We are called to be the living Mercy of God, and there is transformational power in these encounters we are invited to have during this Year of Mercy.
The following day Sr. Kathleen McManus, OP, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Portland gave the Slat and Light Plenary on the Global Suffering of Women as an Ethical Imperative for the Church. She used the Scripture story of the bent over woman in Luke who is healed and can stand straight as an example of encounter on the periphery with those who are suffering, and the transformative journey to freedom and liberation. She offered some powerful and challenging testimony on how the patriarchal theologies of the Church function to reinforce the global suffering of women. She also shared about the power present in acts of resistance which is the power of the resurrection, of life saying no to death. After her talk there was a powerful panel of women witnesses who shared about their own experiences as women, particularly through the lens of their other identities as women of color, immigrants, or differently abled.
There were various workshops to choose from and I attended one on Living the Jubilee year of mercy and Global Solidarity presented by Fr. David Garcia (from San Antonio!) and Laudato Si in Action presented by Eli McCarthy and Joan Rosenhauer. Fr. Garcia gave a wonderful presentation on the context for declaring a Jubilee Year of Mercy and global solidarity as a response to what Pope Francis has called the globalization of indifference. Eli and Joan talked about the work being done in Catholic communities throughout the U.S. to implement Laudato Si. Participants in the workshop also shared about their own experiences sharing Laudato Si in their parishes, schools, and congregations, including what has worked well and what challenges have come. I was able to share about the community conversations we have been having throughout the CCVI Congregation and Institutions in the U.S., Mexico, and Peru. There are many opportunities and resources to implement the call of Laudato Si in our lives, and it was wonderful to hear about what others around the country are doing.
A big focus of this conference was on advocacy, and putting our faith into action through political participation, advocating for policies that support our Catholic values. Most of Monday was spent on political education preparing for Congressional visits the following day. Unfortunately the Congressional visits were cancelled due to the blizzard, but we still received good information to take home for local congressional visits. Some of the main topics identified were relating to immigration, climate change, criminal justice reform, and the budget. This was an important part of the conference that was a good reminder about the power of our collective action and appealing to values over partisan politics. I learned that the number of Catholics in the Democratic party and the Republican party are very similar in both the House and the Senate. This shows that Catholic values could be a unifying bridge, appealing to their common values, in what is currently a very divided Congress. We were also reminded that you don’t have to be an expert to contact your representative or senator and tell them what you care about and why you want them to vote a certain way. Our elected officials need to hear from us, and value what we have to say, even if at the end of the day they don’t vote how we want them to.
Overall despite the blizzard raging outside, we kept warm and fired up inside with engaging discussions and challenging presentations, motivated to carry what we learned with us back into our communities and also back into our local and national politics. I am grateful for the opportunity to have participated in this Conference, and was able to make a lot of wonderful contacts with potential future partners whose organizations are also working to incarnate the love of God in the world by responding to the suffering of the poor and most vulnerable throughout our world.