BINGHAMTON — Only a couple of seats were vacant in the Catholic Charities conference room on a recent Tuesday afternoon as a discussion series in advance of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States next month began.
“It’s a great teachable moment because of the excitement of not only the pope coming, but who he is,” said facilitator Amy Fleming.
“I’ve never heard so many non-Catholics talking about the pope,” she added. “We are having some non-Catholics come to this series.” Some 56 people have signed up; nearly 30 were at the afternoon session.
“There’s the impetus for people wanting to know more about him [Pope Francis], get a little closer to him, encounter him in a deeper way,” said facilitator Andrea Schaeffer. “Hopefully we can encourage them to encounter one another in a loving way.”
“The Year of Encounter with Pope Francis: The Vision and the Journey” focuses on the themes of solidarity, encounter and inclusion. The six-week series comes from PICO, People Improving Communities through Organizing. The organization was founded by a Jesuit priest in Chicago in 1972.
Father Tim Taugher, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, attended a PICO conference earlier this year and picked up the idea of holding the sessions before Pope Francis arrives.
“It’s taking on the themes that have been very much in his teachings and his writings,” Father Taugher said. “And then connecting them with the themes that he’s been addressing: income equality, immigration, criminal justice and racism.”
The series draws from “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation released in 2013.
“We’re going to bring a lot out of it. I think it’s anticipation that he’s going to address some of this stuff, themes when he’s here in the States,” Taugher said.
Father Taugher said it’s possible the groups could continue several more weeks, with more emphasis on “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis’ recently released encyclical on care for creation, after the pope leaves the U.S.
The first session, “A Journey with Pope Francis,” opened with words from Luke, the passage where Jesus spoke of scripture being fulfilled in his coming. Participants seemed eager to comment on the reading.
One woman took note of giving sight to the blind, questioning, “How many of us are blind to our neighbor’s needs?” Another remarked that, “God cares for those who have been marginalized.” A man added that he “would have loved to have been there.”
A slide show followed. There were various images of Pope Francis — among crowds, holding children, and kissing a man’s feet after washing them.
Quotes were interspersed with the photos: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting…” “God is in everyone’s life.” “Solidarity understood in its most profound sense is a way of making history.”
Small group discussion followed, then a lesson on social action and “private and public encounter.” The session concluded with prayer.
Future meetings will explore how the economy, immigration and criminal justice systems exclude people. Another week will concentrate on racism.
“What’s going on around the nation and in these relatively small cities,” said Schaffer, “it could happen here in any moment. And we need to be in touch with that. We need to encounter others in a loving way.”
There will be local speakers along with the prepared material for the various topics. Father Taugher said it will bring “local faces” to the sessions.
“It impacts their lives here in the Southern Tier,” he said. “It’s not just something that is happening in the Midwest, or in the South, these issues are pertinent to our area as well.”
“We’re talking about one out of two children in Binghamton living in poverty or the $15 an hour living wage. It’s in the news,” said Fleming. “The food pantries are trying to keep up with it. And people are starting to raise their voices to say, ‘Maybe I can do something about this,’”
Fleming said hearing those voices is important.
“They’re going to encounter each other here and hopefully go out and encounter others with the same attitude that ‘You’re here to listen,’” she said.
The six-week program began Aug. 11 and will continue each Tuesday through Sept. 15 at Catholic Charities of Broome County, 232 Main St., Binghamton. Afternoon and evening sessions will be held each Tuesday. Afternoon sessions will run from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.; evening sessions will run from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The program is free of charge. The program is also available for people to take back to their own congregations. Those interested in participating can register by calling Catholic Charities of Broome County at (607) 729-9166 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deacon Tom Picciano is a longtime contributing writer to the Sun. A professional journalist by trade, he currently serves at St. Vincent de Paul Blessed Sacrament Church in Vestal.