Modesto, Calif. — When hundreds of community organizers, clergy, immigrants, Black Lives Matter activists, and more than a dozen bishops packed into Central Catholic High School here for a three-day meeting in February, the eclectic gathering offered a window into the opportunities and tensions roiling the U.S. church four years after the election of Pope Francis. Young progressive activists unafraid to challenge church leaders mingled with tattooed men who spent years in jail, while the Catholic priests and bishops who brought them together were both intrigued and cautious about the mix of such varied and volatile voices. For three days, all this made the Central Valley the epicenter of a unique exercise in movement building inspired by a pope using his global pulpit to light a holy fire under grassroots organizing.
For a pope challenging cautious clerics to leave the comfort of the cathedral and get their shoes dirty organizing with the poor, Francis’s most tangible expression of his emphasis on bringing the peripheries to the center is the World Meeting of Popular Movements. The Modesto meeting was the first of its kind ever held in the United States. This city is not a high-profile spot on the media, financial, or political maps. The lead organizers of the gathering—PICO National Network, the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Vatican’s department for Integral Human Development—chose the location because Modesto brings into sharp focus core themes on the meeting’s agenda: economic inequality, high rates of incarceration for young people of color, the disproportionate impact environmental degradation has on the poor, and the myriad challenges faced by a large population of undocumented immigrants.
Once known as “the bishop of the slums,” Pope Francis was shaped by learning from and mobilizing with the poor in the villas miserias (“misery villages”) of Buenos Aires. His vision for these popular movements meetings is rooted in what defines his ministry: a gritty theology of the streets, a bottom-up perspective befitting his role as the first pope from the global South. The pope called the first popular movements meeting in 2014. Held in Rome, the gathering included social justice activists from five continents, migrants, landless peasants, indigenous leaders and representatives from trade unions and human rights organizations. Tierra, trabajo, and techo (land, labor, and housing) served as the thematic focus, and has remained so for every subsequent meeting. When Pope Francis addressed the second popular movements event in Bolivia in 2015, he sounded like an activist ready to lead a rally. “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites,” he told those gathered in the poorest country in South America. “It is fundamentally in the hands of people and in their ability to organize.”
It’s hard to know what the Modesto meeting portends for the future of the U.S. church. The pope’s clear desire to recalibrate Catholic identity away from the culture wars—part of his distaste for a hunkered down, fortress Catholicism—still leaves some vocal American church leaders and lay faithful more jittery than energized. Many wealthy Catholic donors who wield clout in dioceses, universities, and political circles are wary of how the pope has made climate change and inequality central issues. Some of them seem quite willing to give Donald Trump a pass on his administration’s assaults on undocumented immigrants and proposals that would eviscerate critical social safety nets in the hopes that he will help overturn Roe v. Wade and champion religious liberty. At the same time, a network of Catholic activists on the right that has attacked the church’s commitment to community organizing for decades remains well-mobilized and relentless.
The center of gravity in the U.S. church is clearly shifting as Pope Francis appoints bishops that reflect his pastoral style and priorities. But institutional change is always an uneven, plodding process, and entrenched resistance should not be underestimated. Whether the social-justice energy and sense of purpose found at this gathering in Modesto can be a catalyst for broader scale religious activism depends on whether skeptical priests, bishops, and parish leaders start to buy into the idea of a “poor church for the poor,” organizing from below. Converting those naysayers may be the biggest organizing challenge of all.