An article the National Catholic Reporter describes St. Vincent’s Parish in Germantown, Philadelphia as “the social justice parish.” The article is part of a regular series drawing inspiration from Pope Francis’ concept of the church as “Field Hospital.”
The parish embraces Pope Francis’ focus on the church as a field hospital through binding the wounds and being open to all. “We are trying to live what Pope Francis says. We reach out to the margins, not just to the center,” said the Vincentian pastor, Fr. Sy Peterka, CM. It also lives the many of the dimensions of collaborative ministry and working toward systemic change. The Vincentian Family fosters these theme especially in this 400th Anniversary Year of Welcoming the Stranger.
Vincentian Fr. Sy Peterka, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in the Germantown section here, likes how people describe his congregation.
“That’s the social justice parish,” Philadelphia Catholics will tell him.
If one equates social justice with efforts to reach the poor and the threatened, Peterka can build a good case for the label. St. Vincent offers:
- An emergency food pantry;
- Participation in the “New Sanctuary” movement, assisting immigrants to gain legal status;
- Welcoming to gay, lesbian and transgendered Catholics;
- A twinning relationship with a parish in El Salvador;
- A program focused on racial reconciliation;
- Assistance to poor parents who send their children to Catholic schools;
- Shelters for the long-term homeless, those transitioning to work, and for former convicts;
- A Catholic school whose enrollment has increased from 225 students to 425 over the past four years, drawing parents — many non-Catholics — seeking an alternative to the hard-pressed Philadelphia public schools;
- Active membership in Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER), an ecumenical organization devoted to social justice concerns, such as minimum wage legislation and racial justice.
And that is just a partial list.
“There is a sense of ownership among the parishioners,” said Sharon Browning, a self-described “Germantown Catholic” with a long affiliation with the parish.
Creative ministry is in part a response to the parish’s location. It is the last of what were once 12 parishes in Germantown, a section of Philadelphia that features older restored houses, spacious parks and some of the most difficult poverty in the city. The Philadelphia archdiocese has closed scores of parishes in recent years, both in the city and in nearby suburbs.
[Peter Feuerherd is a correspondent for NCR‘s Field Hospital series on parish life and a professor of journalism at St. John’s University, New York.]
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