Let us pray that the biggest impact from Pope Francis' visit doesn't come from selling commemorative T-shirts, candles, mugs, and photo albums. The pope may not mind all the tchotchkes with his image being prepared for sale in anticipation of his arrival. But the World Meeting of Families he is hosting wants to give the city a more important keepsake: a reduction in its homeless and hungry populations.
Leading that effort is Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME, and Anne Healy Ayella, associate director of the Philadelphia Archdiocese's nutrition program. Ayella and Scullion worked on hunger and homeless issues when they were seniors at St. Joseph's University in 1976.
With a poverty rate nearing 27 percent, Philadelphia is considered the poorest of America's big cities, with a homeless population to match. Project HOME counted more than 5,700 homeless people in Philadelphia last year, which includes people living on the street and in shelters. It found that nearly 150 died while on the streets. Those numbers scream for attention.
So do figures from the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, which found that one in four city residents did not know where they would get their next meal at some point over the past year. Meanwhile, according to the coalition, nine out of every 10 food pantries, soup kitchens, and other organizations feeding the city's hungry either ran out of food or had to give away less at some point during that period.
The World Meeting of Families' Hunger and Homelessness Committee, chaired by Scullion and Ayella, is attempting to raise $1.5 million for a Francis Fund to make grants, mostly of $2,500 to $10,000, to reduce homelessness and hunger in Philadelphia, Camden, and nearby communities. It has received proposals from a number of religious and secular organizations and has already issued some grants.
The World Meeting will also include an Act for Justice Campaign to urge Congress to do more to fight poverty. "The papal visit has to be more than a multimillion-dollar spectacle of pomp and civic pride," Scullion wrote in a Daily News commentary. "Our committee has created concrete ways for the local community to respond to the plight of poor and homeless persons in our midst."
It's all about charity, a very important tenet of many religions - from the Hindu tradition of dana, or showing compassion, to the Muslim belief that giving the poor zakat, or alms, is pleasing to God. It makes sense that a pope inspired by St. Francis of Assisi would make charity his preoccupation.