Camden Bishop Dennis Sullivan delivered an impassioned homily Friday evening at a Vineland church, telling a crowd of more than 1,500 that the Catholic Church was pushing for immigration reform in Congress with "a moral urgency we have not had in the last decade."
The sermon, at Divine Mercy Parish, came as Congress appears to be on the cusp of changes that have eluded lawmakers in recent years. Given the new opportunity, Sullivan urged parishioners to contact their members of Congress and ask them to move legislation forward.
People from across the Diocese of Camden attended Friday's standing-room-only service, which kicked off a weekend of church services focused on immigration reform.
Many arrived in the Cumberland County city on diocese buses, coming from as far as the Shore. The turnout was so high that outside the church, a half-dozen people directed traffic in the parking lot.
"It's a topic that is very sensitive to the community right now," said Andres Arango, the bishop's delegate for Hispanic ministry. "Not just the immigrant community, but for all Catholics."
President Obama has made immigration reform a cornerstone of his second-term agenda. In April, the Senate introduced a bill that would tighten border security and create a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally. Legislation is likely to be trickier in the Republican-controlled House, where some conservatives denounce legalization as amnesty.
Sullivan, who became bishop in February, called on Congress to pass laws that are enforceable, to secure the nation's borders, and to create a clear path to citizenship. The Catholic Church has long supported progressive immigration policies.
"Sisters and brothers, what I say is not new: The system is broken," he said in his homily, alternately speaking in English and Spanish to a mostly Hispanic congregation.
"But now, ahora, we have an opportunity to fix it. And we accept that opportunity as our Christ-given mission so that the Kingdom of God can be strengthened and extended, especially among our immigrant sisters and brothers."
God, Sullivan said, "teaches us to welcome the strangers, to care for the least among us."
"We are keepers of our sisters and brothers. We pray, we beg that this message is heard outside these doors."
At the end of the service, diocese staff handed out letters with information in Spanish about how people can contact their members of Congress. That information will also be available at each parish in the diocese, which spans six counties.
Sullivan's sermon was highly anticipated in the diocese. Many came to seek inspiration from the bishop. For others, the subject was intensely personal.
One couple, married for 10 years, soon will be separated, perhaps for good.
The husband, a truck driver who wears a GPS ankle bracelet, installed by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, obtained a visa when he arrived in the United States on a crew ship 11 years ago.
But he has been denied a permanent green card and is set to be deported to India. And because of a blood disorder, the wife, a U.S. citizen, has been advised by her doctors not to leave the country.
The couple, who asked not to be identified because the wife feared his illegal status could affect her job, said they came to the service to seek relief. "My husband is being deported. Nobody cares," the wife said. "Maybe God will."
Sullivan's sermon ended to a round of applause.
"To have this here, the turnout is very inspiring," said Melanie Tirello, 59, of Wildwood. Of immigrants, she said: "They're here anyway, and they're here to stay."
Added Phyllis Visalli, also of Wildwood: "He speaks good Spanish."