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.
“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.
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.
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.