Poverty, in particular understanding its root causes and finding innovative ways to reduce it, was the focus of Catholic Charities USA's annual national gathering Oct. 4-7 in Charlotte.
Discussions had extra urgency given the stagnating number of Americans living at or below the poverty line.
"This is our opportunity to come together as providers of critical life services to nearly 10 million of our economically poor sisters and brothers throughout this nation," said Gerard Carter, executive director of Catholic Charities Diocese of Charlotte, which hosted the event.
A message from Pope Francis could not have been more fitting for the 500-plus people from Catholic Charities agencies and partners across the United States as they opened their proceedings.
"Be merciful," the pope said, speaking in his native Spanish in a personalized video message. "I ask you to place the poor ahead of yourselves in everything you do."
"I send a warm greeting to all of you gathered in Charlotte, North Carolina, to celebrate the works of Catholic Charities in the USA," he said.
He commented on the NASCAR-tinged theme, "Setting the Pace, Changing the Course." Charlotte is home to one of the auto racing association's main offices.
"I really like the theme ... because it's really fitting with what I wanted to share with you," Pope Francis said.
"You are the very hands of Jesus in the world. Your witness helps change the course of many people, many families and many communities," he continued. "You are the engine of the church that's responsible for the church's love, or caritas. You set the pace for the church to be present in the world, day in and day out."
He said he was grateful to God "for the work each and every one of you do on a daily basis." He reminded them that since day one of his papacy, he has been telling the whole church that "going out in the street could get you bruised, staying in your home behind locked doors is safe."
"I would rather have a wounded and stained church that's out in the street, rather than having a church that's ill because of staying behind locked doors, comfortable and clinging to the safety of the status quo," he said.
The church's charitable outreach efforts must help people not only survive but thrive, said Father Larry Snyder, the outgoing president of Catholic Charities USA. This was his 10th and last annual gathering as head of the national network of local agencies.
Catholic Charities' goal always has been and always will be serving the poor, marginalized and most vulnerable in society, he said in his final keynote address.
"We know that we are called upon to do more than just help people survive, but to help them thrive," he said, and that means continual improvements in the work that member agencies do, measurable outcomes and accountability standards, and partnerships with the corporate world to harness the creativity of the marketplace.
Forty-five million Americans today are living at or below the poverty line, Father Snyder said, citing the latest Census Bureau statistics released Sept. 16.
In addition to addresses and sessions on the causes of poverty and anti-poverty programs, workshop topics also covered immigrant integration, domestic terrorism, case management with veterans and military families, job creation, social media and a refugee camp simulation.
Among the keynote speakers were Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik, who is episcopal liaison to Catholic Charities USA; professors William Evans and James Sullivan, co-directors of the University of Notre Dame's Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities; and Father Ragan Shriver, assistant professor of practice at the University of Tennessee's College of Social Work.
Attendees also attended a multilingual Mass Oct. 5 at St. Joseph Vietnamese Catholic Church in Charlotte. The main celebrant was Bishop Peter J. Jugis of Charlotte, with Bishop Zubik concelebrating.
In his homily, Bishop Jugis welcomed the group and echoed the words of Pope Francis to go out into the world and promote a "culture of encounter," which is exactly what Catholic Charities agencies do so ably around the United States, he said.
"A 'culture of encounter' -- going out to meet others, to encounter them, especially the marginalized and those who are on the peripheries, to be with them, paying attention to each person's human dignity - a 'culture of encounter' to counteract the broader secular 'culture of waste,' as the Holy Father refers to it, in which some people are deemed to be expendable," he said.
We must respond with "a serious infusion" of Christian charity to counteract this culture of waste, fostering "a cult of communion and solidarity," Bishop Jugis said. "Catholic Charities promotes this 'culture of encounter' so well in its service to human beings."
"Let us tend the vineyard that the Lord has entrusted to us," he continued, referring to that Sunday's Gospel reading from the Gospel of St. Matthew, "and encounter the poor, the elderly, individuals and families in crisis, the unborn, the youth, the wounded and sorrowing and hurting, immigrants and refugees.
"And in this encounter with them in Christian charity, let us bring them to know the love of Christ which has touched our lives."