As Catholics throughout the United States eagerly anticipate Pope Francis' first visit, people in two parishes of the diocese are preparing for it through a program developed by a faith-based community organizing group.
A Latina working mother told the gathering she feared losing her job at the Philadelphia airport because she was organizing to advocate for the minimum wage for airport workers — which is already the law.
"We ended up going to the airport that night, 300 of us," Father McAleenan said. "It was really powerful."
They also heard from a woman whose husband became ill and they were fighting the bank to save their home; and from a man from Mexico who chronicled the difference between the advantages his daughter who was born in the United States has over her sister, who was born in Mexico.
"Each of these very human stories, the cardinal listened to them and he responded back to each of them with tremendous humanity," Father McAleenan said. "It was really very powerful. He saw them as people and he saw them as children of God. "
That's the whole purpose of the year of encounter, said Father Nieto-Ruiz. "We listen to the other person. We become neighbors, from neighbors we become family. And once we become family, solidarity is there."
The encounters in the program include those suffering because of exclusion because of economics, race, immigration and incarceration, he said.
"This material becomes a tool that will help us really encounter one another, being guided by 'The Joy of Gospel' and by the pope inviting us to have a year of mercy, beginning in Advent. All of this is coming together," said Father Nieto-Ruiz.
The representatives received a strong endorsement from Cardinal Rodriguez, Father Nieto-Ruiz said. "The cardinal urged us to continue to press the policymakers not to leave behind the poor," he said.
Where it leads next, the priests are hopeful. "The Holy Father will be addressing, as a head of state, both houses of congress," Father McAleenan said. "If you ever felt you were close to helping form something collectively, this was it."
"We as a country are like a dysfunctional family. The structures of our society are set up in such a way that the economics, its values, are not humane, not based on the person," said Father Nieto-Ruiz.
"I feel this is going to be a moment when the pope is going to invite to become not ignorant to the other person, to really reach community.
"By recognizing people where they are, as children of God, that gives people so much hope."
Father Nieto-Ruiz was among a dozen U.S. faith leaders who traveled to the Vatican earlier this month to meet with advisers there and tell about those who are excluded by economics, race and the justice system," he said.
"We went to Rome to bring the stories to them and help them see what we went through here in the U.S.," he said. "They welcomed us with their arms open."
The Year of Encounter won't end with Pope Francis' message to Congress. "Our task is to go back to see how we try to respond," Father Nieto-Ruiz said.
(Catholic News Service contributed to this report.)
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