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Justice Convocation explores themes of justice and mercy

By Mark Labbe Pilot Staff
Posted: 11/11/2016

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Participants browse exhibitor booths at the Archdiocesan Justice Convocation, held Nov. 5 at B.C. High. Pilot photo/Mark Labbe

DORCHESTER -- Themed "Justice in the World, Mercy in the Church," the eighth annual Archdiocesan Justice Convocation payed special attention to the ministry of Pope Francis, as well as the plight of the homeless.

This year's Justice Convocation was held Nov. 5 at Boston College High School, after it outgrew the archdiocese's Pastoral Center in Braintree, where it had been held for the last several years.

Organizers estimated that around 400 people attended the event, as well as exhibitors from 32 different organizations aimed at promoting social justice.

Highlights of the convocation included keynotes by the president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program Dr. James O'Connell and Father J. Bryan Hehir, cabinet secretary for Health and Social Services of the archdiocese, and a greeting by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley.

Attendees were also invited to network with each other, as well as participate in faith-sharing sessions led by associate director of RENEW International Sister Honora Nolty, OP.

In his keynote, O'Connell recalled the stories of the countless men, women, and children the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program has assisted since it was first established in 1985.

Among those stories was the story of Constance, who came to the program's Barbara McInnis House, a 104-bed medical respite facility, after years of heavy drinking led to severe cirrhosis of the liver.

Needing a new liver, she was placed on a transplant list and stayed at the facility for months to get off the streets and demonstrate she was sober, a requirement before the transplant could go forward.

As she neared the top of the list, she approached O'Connell and asked him to take her photograph. He showed that photo to the convocation attendees, and in it a middle-aged woman could be seen in a dress, with make-up on and flowers on a table next to her.

O'Connell said it was the first time he had ever seen her in something other than "just torn clothing."

Thinking she might need end of life counseling, he asked her if she was afraid of dying. No, she said, saying that she had been living on the streets for years and death had always been close by.

But, she said, she had two daughters, and she hadn't seen either of them since they were toddlers decades ago.

O'Connell recalled that she said, "If I die, I just wanted to be sure that should they decide they want to go find who their mother might have been, that there was a picture of me looking like someone they can be proud of."

"I kind of lost it on that," said O'Connell, "because you start to realize that experience of illness and suffering and dying, facing dying when you're alone, completely alone... I had not quite appreciated it until I saw that."

Established in 1985 after Boston received funds for a homeless health care pilot program, the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program's mission is to provide or assure access to quality health care to homeless men, women, and children in the greater Boston area.

O'Connell, the president of the program, is also its founding physician, and has been there for over 30 years. Recently, he wrote a book about his experiences there, entitled "Stories from the Shadows."

Over the years, he said in his keynote, he has come to realize the immense courage and strength people like Constance have.

"I used to jump to conclusions about who I was taking care of, but after I got to know them for six months or a year or three years or five years, I started to realize that I was completely wrong in my first judgement," he said.

"Most of the stories of the people we take care of are incredibly complicated, and what they have lived through is something that would probably break you or me, and that in fact, they're living with a huge amount of courage in trying to get through each day. And that I've come to respect and kind of admire," O'Connell continued.

He ended his keynote by asking people to view the homeless as human beings, even if that means doing something as simple as "just looking people in the eyes."

Try to recognize that "we are all the same, you know?" concluded O'Connell. "We all have the brokenness; we all have the desire to be better."

Following O'Connell's talk, Cardinal O'Malley presented him with a donation for the program, as well as a replica of the sculpture by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz, "Homeless Jesus," a copy of which was installed this year at the Vatican.

In his own keynote, Father Hehir spoke on Pope Francis' ministry, saying that the pope is trying to build a "practical ecclesiology" that is attempting to "shape a Church in concrete ways."

"In the end, his legacy will be not simply what he does, what he embodies, what he is, as fascinating as that is. In the end, the legacy of Francis will be the Church that he builds," he said.

Father Hehir said that Pope Francis is trying to shape the Church through both his deeds and his words, but said his deeds typically come first.

"The deeds of shaping a practical ecclesiology began to come clear in the way he spent his time," he said, citing as examples the pope's trip to the Italian island of Lampedusa and visits to prisons.

"He goes to some of the characteristic places, the big churches... but he goes to other places. He goes to central Asia, where there are very few Catholics, and very poor and conflicted society. He reaches out to places where you wouldn't expect to find him. He's building a Church, he's saying something about lifting up those at the edge of the circle," said Father Hehir.

"So then, after the deeds come the words. After the deeds come the Joy of the Gospel. After the deeds come 'Laudato Si' -- 'On the Environment.' After the deeds come the wonderful talks that he gave here in the United States. That masterful address to the congress," he continued, recalling Pope Francis' historic trip to the United States in 2015.

Father Hehir said that in Pope Francis' papacy, he has chosen to address three major issues: inequality within nations and between nations, immigration, and the environment. These issues "touch everyone," he said.

Pope Francis wants us to "preach mercy, practice (mercy) in the Church, and to embody it in the world. He wants each of us to feel the mercy of God as part of our community of faith, and having been touched by God's mercy ourselves, we are to be agents of God's mercy in a conflicted, complicated world," he said.

He closed with a line that he said he has repeated many times before; "Francis has called the world's attention to what it means to be Catholic, so we ought not to underestimate how often people are looking at us."

Convocation attendee Deacon Michael Charchaflian said that, as someone who works in prison and hospital ministry, the theme of this year's Justice Convocation "is like the center ... of my daily practice."

"It's very important to come to gatherings like this so you can be nourished by the many experiences that people are having in the field," he said.

"It's an encouragement for us to be with fellow workers who are laboring where justice needs to be addressed and where mercy needs to be provided," he added.