RELIGION
09/23/2015 11:48 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2015

Meet The Philadelphia Nun Inspired By Pope Francis To Stamp Out Poverty

"Poverty is political whether we admit it or not."

A little over a year ago, Sister Mary Scullion received an unexpected call from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The church, she was told, was making plans for the World Meeting of Families -- the international Catholic festival that Pope Francis will visit in the city this week -- and they needed her help.

While the event would in part champion the church’s views on family issues -- including its stances against same-sex marriage, contraception and abortion -- the archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, wanted to meet with Scullion to discuss another matter.

Margie McDonald adds to the grotto knots installation in Philadelphia, Sept. 16, 2015.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Margie McDonald adds to the grotto knots installation in Philadelphia, Sept. 16, 2015.

“The archbishop wanted to talk about how we could protect the poor and hungry,” said Scullion, who has focused on aiding the homeless since joining the Sisters of Mercy more than four decades ago, and who in 1989 launched Project HOME (Housing, Opportunities for Employment, Medical Care and Education), a Philadelphia-based comprehensive social services organization for the chronically homeless. “But I never imagined we could get so much done in that short time.”

Since launching the World Meeting of Families Committee on Hunger and Homelessness, Scullion has used the pope’s high-profile visit and the convergence this week of the nation’s leading Catholic figures to raise $1.3 million to aid 52 projects and organizations centered on helping people struggling with poverty, mental illness or both.

The money, raised through a combination of corporate and individual donations, is part of a three-pronged effort focused on the downtrodden that Scullion has spearheaded. On the Internet, Project HOME’s Mercy and Justice campaign has solicited names and addresses to organize sending 11,000 letters to members of Congress to ask for bipartisan legislation to end and prevent hunger and homelessness. And in a spiritually evocative art installation along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where more than 1 million people are expected to come to see Francis, the Mercy and Justice campaign has created an igloo-shaped grotto covered in knotted ribbons -- 40,000 of them and counting -- where people of all faiths, including Chaput, have shared their hopes, concerns and prayers for themselves, their families and the world.

“Pope Francis says the greatest virtue is mercy,” said Scullion. “But he also said that concrete works of mercy and spiritual development are not enough. We also need systemic change.”

“'The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty,'” she added, quoting remarks the pope made during a visit to a Rio de Janeiro favela in 2013.

Scullion spoke with The Huffington Post about her Mercy and Justice campaign and Project HOME. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length. 

Sister Mary Scullion speaks during an event for the Mercy and Justice initiative in Philadelphia.
Courtesy of Sister Mary Scullion
Sister Mary Scullion speaks during an event for the Mercy and Justice initiative in Philadelphia.

Your team has worked with the artist Meg Saligman to create the grotto with knotted ribbons by the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, which the pope is due to visit this week. What’s the inspiration for the project?

We took our inspiration from Pope Francis, from his devotion to Mary, Undoer of Knots. When he was young and he was studying in Germany, he was moved by this painting, "Mary, Undoer of Knots." When he went back to Buenos Aires, he commissioned a similar one. It’s asking for the Blessed Mother to help loosen our knot. It’s asking for God’s grace to loosen our knots and in loosening each other, in loosening the knots of hunger, homelessness and mental illness. We went to prisons, to recovery shelters, to food pantries, to the Internet -- everywhere to ask people to submit their knots. We’ve gone to mosques, to synagogues, to all religious communities. We all have our knots and struggles. By sharing those, we all become closer as one human community.

We all have our knots and struggles. By sharing those, we all become closer as one human community. Sister Mary Scullion

On the knots, people talk about being isolated, broken relationships, those who are sick in their families, people they love who are in prison. At least one person talks about having an eating disorder and needing help and grace to get their life back together.

We also had a stole of knots spun for Pope Francis. We hope he will wear it. 

A man places a knot at the grotto in Philadelphia.
Courtesy of Sister Mary Scullion
A man places a knot at the grotto in Philadelphia.

Your goal is to raise $1.5 million to combat homelessness, poverty and mental illness by the time the pope arrives in Philadelphia. You’re just $200,000 shy of that. What kinds of efforts is the money supporting?

We call it the Francis Fund, and you can donate online as little or as much as you want and choose if you want it to go toward food pantries, homelessness and other areas. We’re working with groups of all different faiths, not only in Philadelphia but in our sister city of Camden [New Jersey]. They include projects to make places handicapped-accessible, help women who have been trafficked get housing -- we are giving a group $100,000 to buy a house -- people with special needs such as the mentally ill, as well as one organization, Prevention Point Philadelphia, that wants to install showers for the homeless like the pope did in Rome.

It’s this huge time of civic pride for Philly, but we also wanted to have a lasting impact on the lives of those on the margins.

There has been ongoing debate over the mission of the pope’s trip. Some church officials say it's strictly pastoral and that he’s here to meet the American Catholic people. But he’s also speaking to two of the most powerful political institutions, the U.S. Congress and the United Nations. Your campaign also has a political component, in that it wants better laws to help the poor. What’s your take on the relationship between faith and politics?

It’s this huge time of civic pride for Philly, but we also wanted to have a lasting impact on the lives of those on the margins. Sister Mary Scullion

There are many vehicles to mercy and justice. We just hope people choose one of them. And we’re offering them ways to join our work via donations, prayer, letters to Congress and more. The pope’s gestures, like washing the feet of women and Muslims, like visiting the prison in Philadelphia, like sharing a meal with the homeless in D.C. -- they are pastoral. But they are also political.

We have 24 hours a day and our actions represent what we think are important. The pope’s actions certainly point to the issues of hunger and homelessness. He doesn’t do it from one political party or ideological standpoint, but it is certainly political. Poverty is political whether we admit it or not.

His pastoral message and gestures have political implications, social implications and spiritual implications.

  • Goodbye Pope Francis!
    Pope Francis looks out the window of his plane before departing Philadelphia on September 27, 2015 at the end of his six-day
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    Pope Francis looks out the window of his plane before departing Philadelphia on September 27, 2015 at the end of his six-day visit to the US. 
  • People pray during a mass celebrated by Pope Francis.
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    People pray during a mass celebrated by Pope Francis.
  • A family watches a Mass on a large screen with Pope Francis in downtown Philadelphia.
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    A family watches a Mass on a large screen with Pope Francis in downtown Philadelphia.
  • A family prays as they watch a Mass on a large screen.
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    A family prays as they watch a Mass on a large screen.
  • A family watches a Mass on a large screen with Pope Francis in downtown Philadelphia.
    ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS via Getty Images
    A family watches a Mass on a large screen with Pope Francis in downtown Philadelphia.
  • Catholic devotees sing as they watch Pope Francis' Mass.
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    Catholic devotees sing as they watch Pope Francis' Mass.
  • Women pray as they watch the Mass.
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    Women pray as they watch the Mass.
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     A U.S. Army serviceman receives communion during a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
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    Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli (C) walks to receive communion.
  • Catholic devotees watch a Mass on a large screen with Pope Francis in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 27, 20
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    Catholic devotees watch a Mass on a large screen with Pope Francis in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO/ ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (Photo credit should read Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
  • A woman does the sign of the cross as she take part in a Mass with Pope Francis in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Sep
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    A woman does the sign of the cross as she take part in a Mass with Pope Francis in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO/ ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (Photo credit should read Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
  • People pray during a mass celebrated by Pope Francis for the World Meeting of Families on Benjamin Franklin Parkway September
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    People pray during a mass celebrated by Pope Francis for the World Meeting of Families on Benjamin Franklin Parkway September 27, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Pope Francis is in the United State for the last of 6 days during his first trip as the leader of the Catholic Church. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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    Priests offer the crowd communion at Mass along Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sept. 27, 2015.
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    PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 27: Pope Francis celebrates mass during the World Meeting of Families on September 27, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 
  • PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 27: Pope Francis delivers the homily as he celebrates mass at the World Meeting of Families at B
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    PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 27: Pope Francis delivers the homily as he celebrates mass at the World Meeting of Families at Benjamin Franklin Parkway on September 27, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 
  • Pope Francis celebrates Mass at Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 27, 2015. 
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    Pope Francis celebrates Mass at Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 27, 2015. 
  • Chalices for communion are set during a mass celebrated by Pope Francis at Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, Pennsyl
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    Chalices for communion are set during a mass celebrated by Pope Francis at Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 27, 2015. 
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    PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 27: Pope Francis greets corrections officers during a visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correction Facility September 27, 015 in in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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    Pope Francis waves to the audience after speaking at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary, September 27, 2015 in Wynnewwod, Pennsylvania. After visiting Washington and New York City, Pope Francis concludes his tour of the U.S. with events in Philadelphia on Saturday and Sunday. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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    Pope Francis presents an image of Our Lady of Charity from Cuba to Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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    Pope Francis met privately with survivors of sexual abuse at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary on Sunday morning. 

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  • PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 26: Pope Francis attends the Festival of Families along Benjamin Franklin Parkway on September 2
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    PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 26: Pope Francis attends the Festival of Families along Benjamin Franklin Parkway on September 26, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Pope Francis wraps up his trip to the United States with two days in Philadelphia, attending the Festival of Families and meeting with prisoners at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. (Photo by Eric Thayer-Pool/Getty Images)
  • Pope Francis arrives for the Festival of Families in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 26, 2015.  AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO
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    Pope Francis arrives for the Festival of Families in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 26, 2015. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
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