Dennis Sullivan was born in the Bronx on St. Patrick’s Day, 1945, and has spent much of his religious life -- he is currently bishop of the diocese of Camden, New Jersey -- tending to the needs of the poor. Given his own Irish heritage, perhaps it’s also not surprising that Bishop Sullivan has also made a point of serving heavily-immigrant communities.
Last month, Bishop Sullivan launched an initiative entitled 40 Days of Francis, which will culminate in the Pope’s visit to the U.S., which begins September 22 with a series of events in Washington, D.C.
From the nation’s capital, where Pope Francis will huddle with President Obama and then address both houses of Congress, the spiritual leader of the world’s Catholics will move on to New York City, then Philadelphia.
So, no, Camden, New Jersey, is not technically on the Pope’s itinerary. Nevertheless, Camden is right across the river from Philly. Which is why Bishop Sullivan as well as local Catholic Charities organizations are hoping to use the papal visit to shine a light on Pope Francis’ challenge to hear the “cry of the poor.”
This week, of course, has brought searing images of migrants fleeing the civil war in Syria. Pope Francis has reportedly opened the doors of Vatican City parishes to several refugee families, and has called upon Catholics across Europe to show mercy to those in need.
"May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe host a family, starting from my diocese of Rome," Francis said. "The two parishes in the Vatican these days will welcome two families of refugees.”
Camden’s Bishop Sullivan doesn’t need to listen very closely to hear the “cry of the poor.” Just stroll across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from Philly and you're in Camden.
And yet, it is light years away from the Liberty Bell and other famous tourist sites. Camden has been dubbed “the murder capital of the world,” and it has experienced decades of social and political upheaval.
Two years ago, acclaimed author and journalist Matt Taibbi wrote a long article for Rolling Stone magazine entitled “Apocalypse, New Jersey: A Dispatch From America's Most Desperate Town.”
“The first thing you notice about Camden, New Jersey, is that pretty much everyone you talk to has just gotten his or her ass kicked,” Taibbi wrote, later adding that Camden is “a major metropolitan area run by armed teenagers with no access to jobs or healthy food,” where “fires raged, violent crime spiked and the murder rate soared so high that on a per-capita basis, it ‘put us somewhere between Honduras and Somalia,’ says Police Chief J. Scott Thomson.”
And while the migrant crisis in Europe might ebb by the time Francis visits America, the crisis facing poor communities in America will remain. Francis has issued a challenge to Catholics.
The question now, with a presidential race looming in 2016, is this: Do the majority of Catholics in the U.S. still have the mercy Pope Francis so often speaks of? Or are they more comfortable with the mercy-less types (many of them Irish American) who fill the screens on Fox News?
Nobody should pretend the political solutions to poverty are simple and easy, or even that such solutions exist. Nevertheless, to ignore poverty, or to be content believing the vast majority of the poor have only themselves to blame for their condition, is both simplistic and delusional.
The Catholic Church has a lot of problems these days. But its work in impoverished areas is not one of them.
Just as it did back in the days of Ireland’s Great Hunger, Catholics such as Bishop Sullivan continue to make the world a slightly less brutal and miserable place for so many.
And Irish Catholics, in particular, should be sensitive to those in need. It was not so long ago that the desperate migrants flooding into cities were from Ireland.
In case you forget that, take a look at the name for Camden Catholic High School sports teams, which just so happens to be the Fighting Irish.
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