Social Justice Convocation explores message of Pope Francis

BRAINTREE -- Taking place almost two years into a global pandemic, the archdiocese's 13th annual Social Justice Convocation was held in a virtual format on Nov. 13 with an emphasis on identifying "signs of the times" and discerning how the Church should respond to them.

Organized by the archdiocese's Social Justice Ministry, the convocation is an opportunity for individuals and organizations concerned about justice to network, share stories and resources, and learn about Catholic social teaching. During the coronavirus pandemic, it has been held as a webinar rather than in person.

The convocation began with a prerecorded Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross celebrated by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley and Father Phong Pham, the pastor of Blessed Andrew Phu-Yen Parish of St. Clement Church in Medford. The lectors read in English, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Portuguese.

In his homily, Cardinal O'Malley talked about the Franciscan spirit of Pope Francis' encyclicals "Laudato Si', On Care for Our Common Home," and "Fratelli tutti," which means "We are all brothers."

"The question we must ask ourselves is: Are we neighbors to one another? What kind of world do we want to live in and pass on to future generations?" he said.

The cardinal went on to add, "It's time to take a long, hard look at the direction that we want to take as a people," and added, "It must be obvious that business as usual will not do."

This theme was echoed by the keynote speaker, British journalist and papal biographer Austen Ivereigh. In his talk, Ivereigh expressed his belief that the pandemic has changed the pope's outlook on the world, even as he maintains principles he demonstrated before his pontificate.

Ivereigh unpacked the themes of the book that he and Pope Francis wrote in 2020, "Let Us Dream." Since the pope had stated multiple times that the world could not come out of the pandemic the same as before, that it would be either better or worse, Ivereigh asked him how the Church could come out of the crisis better. The book is based on Pope Francis' verbal answer to this question.

Ivereigh said that even as a bishop, Pope Francis has always had the capacity "to see beyond the moment."

"What Pope Francis has always been brilliant at, as a leader in the Latin American Church and as pope, is understanding the deep movements of history," Ivereigh said.

He listed several significant moments for Pope Francis in the past two years. The first was when he gave his extraordinary blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) on March 27, 2020. Although the pope was alone in an empty St. Peter's Square, Ivereigh said it might have been one of the most-watched events in history as people around the world tuned in to watch the event.

"He invited us, at that moment, to see that change was coming, that the wheels of history were turning, that we could no longer go back, and assuring us, though, that the Lord was with us," Ivereigh said.

Another important moment took place just last month, when Pope Francis opened the two-year synodal process, subject of which is "the very nature of the Church itself," Ivereigh said. Unlike all previous synods, he said, this one begins with gathering the entire people of God around the world.

"The people of God is no longer just the object of the synod, but called to be its subject. The people of God are called to be discerning subjects of the process of ecclesial discernment that is a synod. We are all called to participate, to have agency, to be missionary disciples," Ivereigh said.

The most recent moment that Ivereigh pointed to was an Oct. 16 video message in which Pope Francis addressed popular movements and appealed to political leaders to listen to their people.

Looking at these different occasions, Ivereigh said he was struck by the "theological locus" from which Pope Francis draws his hope: people awakening to their dignity and becoming agents of change. He said that the pope sees "the hour of the people."

"If Francis sees now an awakening of the people to its dignity, it can only mean one thing: that the people, whether consciously or not, have been visited by God," Ivereigh said.

He spoke about Pope Francis' views on recent social movements, such as the Me Too movement and the Black Lives Matter movement.

"These awakenings, these popular movements, will always be mixed in with other things which are not of the Gospel and which need to be purified," Ivereigh said.

However, he went on, "the important thing for us is to recognize that the Church must walk with these movements because in them something is happening, the spirit is moving, and not to dismiss or condemn them."

Ivereigh closed his talk by listing ways that Pope Francis' outlook can shape the work of justice: recognizing that the world cannot return to the pre-pandemic status quo; opening up to people on the margins and in popular movements, offering them hospitality and opportunities for collaboration; being willing to "think big" about how to reorganize the world, for example in economics; and considering how the Church can be more synodal.

Father J. Bryan Hehir, archdiocesan secretary of health and social services, offered a brief commentary on Ivereigh's talk. Then, MC Sullivan, the archdiocese's chief healthcare ethicist, shared a reflection on lessons learned during the pandemic.

Sullivan spoke about the principle of distributive justice, and pointed to examples of failure during the pandemic. She shared that long-term care facilities are "barely considered" when decisions are made about the distribution of resources. And just earlier that day, the media had reported that, according to the leader of the World Health Organization, the number of coronavirus vaccine booster shots being delivered is exponentially greater than the number of vaccines available in poorer nations.

Sullivan said she thinks that distributive justice "depends on us being more proactive than reactive." She said that people were more reactive during the first year of the pandemic, partly because they were "learning in real time" and could not predict what would happen. Now, however, they have a better sense of what to do if there is a surge in coronavirus cases or a similar kind of crisis.

"We've seen firsthand in COVID that the world in its common suffering is a very small place and there are ways to make a difference if we just focus," Sullivan said.

The challenge for the archdiocese now, she said, is "to take these lessons and to see how we can apply both the approach of solidarity and determination that informed them to the problems and topics that we faced before the pandemic and that still await us as we move beyond it."

Information about the Social Justice Ministry and a recording of the 2021 Social Justice Convocation are available at