Taking its lead from Pope Francis and the World Meeting of Families that will convene next month in Philadelphia, the Catholic Diocese of Camden on Monday announced a 40-day campaign to raise awareness of the profound poverty that pervades its six counties.
Francis' arrival in Philadelphia on Sept. 26 "gives us the opportunity to focus on the poor . . . and to take action," Bishop Dennis Sullivan told a news conference.
He noted that the diocese includes not only the state's poorest city, Camden, but its poorest county, Cumberland.
Instead of simply launching a food drive, however, the diocese is seeking to awaken the Catholic faithful, political leaders, and all "people of goodwill" to the nature and scope of unemployment and hunger in South Jersey.
To that end, the diocese announced it would conduct open houses starting Aug. 24 at its eight Catholic Charities centers, where visitors may learn more about the work of the diocesan social services network and the people it serves.
The diocese's six high schools will also host a food drive in mid-September, and the diocese will host a "Justice for All" awards dinner on Sept. 17.
The 40 days of the campaign, Sullivan said, alludes to the 40 days of Lent that Catholics mark in advance of Easter, the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, and the 40 years the Israelites spent on their journey to the promised land.
More information about the campaign is available online at CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/40days.
Upon his election as pope in March 2013, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, took the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century monk renowned for his devotion to the poor and all earthly creation.
A hallmark of Francis' pontificate has been his commitment to the poor and a harsh critique of unfettered capitalism and the pursuit of wealth. In June he released an encyclical, Laudato Si', which asserted that contemporary global warming is real, mostly of human origin, and especially onerous for the very poor.
"His words are a challenge and a call to conversion of heart and mind and understanding," Sullivan said Monday.
While the morning news conference marked the official launch of the "40 Days of Pope Francis" campaign, the diocese gave the program a boost at Masses on Sunday by handing out 40,000 cards designed to raise awareness about the campaign.
Each card was pierced by a length of coarse string tied in a knot and bore one of 11 short messages about the nature of poverty in South Jersey. The cards invited each holder to "untie" the knot by making a commitment to those who struggle.
One reads, "8 percent of the population of the Diocese of Camden is unemployed. An estimated 58,000 working New Jerseyans earn less than minimum wage."
Another reads, "19 percent of children living in the Diocese of Camden live below the federal poverty line. 12 percent of the diocese's total population lives in poverty."
Kevin Hickey, executive director of Catholic Charities in the Camden Diocese, said the idea for the knots came from the Mercy and Justice campaign launched recently by the World Meeting of Families, Project HOME, and the Mobile Giving Foundation.
The Mercy and Justice campaign, which features a Francis Fund collection for the poor of the Philadelphia Archdiocese and the Camden Diocese, will mount a public art installation next week at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.
To be called "Untying the Knots," the installation is the creation of artist Meg Saligman, and is based on Francis' devotion to an image of Mary known as "Our Lady Undoer of Knots."
Francis discovered the relatively little-known devotional image, which represents Jesus' mother as the solver of problems, while studying as a Jesuit priest in Germany in the 1980s.
Sullivan also used the news conference to present tickets to the congress of the World Meeting of Families to eight families of the diocese.
To be held starting Sept. 22 at the Convention Center, the four-day congress will feature speakers and workshops that celebrate the importance of family and hold forth the Catholic Church's teachings on life and family issues.
Francis will visit Philadelphia on Sept. 26 and 27 to make a major address at Independence Mall, celebrate a public Mass, greet the crowds, and meet with several families during a massive street fair on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Asked if he believed the 500,000 Catholic residents of his diocese might find it too difficult to see the pope in Philadelphia, Sullivan shook his head. "I don't think it's going to be as complicated as the press is making it," he said of the road closings and walking distances.
He urged residents of South Jersey to make an effort to attend Francis' public events and "take advantage of his presence," which he called a "teaching opportunity that will open hearts and minds."
For complete coverage
of Pope Francis' visit, go to www.philly.com/pope