Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Tom Ulrich, an expert in parish social justice groups, speaks at the Archdiocese of Portland Pastoral Center.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Tom Ulrich, an expert in parish social justice groups, speaks at the Archdiocese of Portland Pastoral Center.
Catholic work on behalf of social justice is a fundamental part of Catholic parish life.

That was a key message of a retreat and workshop hosted earlier this month by the Archdiocese of Portland.

Almost 60 people from two dozen parishes attended the English-Spanish bilingual session. They came from the pro-life movement, anti-war groups, human trafficking prevention, anti-poverty ministries and economic development projects. The goal was to strengthen social ministry through faith sharing and root the work in prayer.

"Full and effective social ministry starts with a strong faith," said Tom Ulrich, a veteran in parish social justice ministry who teaches on behalf of Catholic Relief Services. "God's love isn't static; it moves us into action. This act of love changes us individually and then we change systems that are evil."

Citing the U.S. bishops' 1993 document "Communities of Salt and Light," Ulrich said the pursuit of justice and peace is as essential to parish life as offering the Eucharist and proclaiming the word.

"The essential nature of social ministry is not fully embraced by parishes," Ulrich told listeners, who then laughed knowingly.

Parish social ministry, Ulrich said, is "not just for the few people parishioners think are crazy," Ulrich explained. "We invite them all."

By way of example, Ulrich explained how his own Baltimore parish has a twin relationship with a parish in El Salvador. The effort gets all kinds of parishioners involved from all over the political spectrum.

Matt Cato, director of the Archdiocese of Portland's Office of Life, Justice and Peace, says social ministry isn't just a committee, but a way of parish life.

That excited the dozens of Catholics who attended.

"It's about relationships," said Pat Montone of St. Pius X Parish in Portland. "The Spirit keeps opening doors in this kind of work. Others help me not to be discouraged."

"I see my mission as getting people together, networking," said Paul Von der Mehden, a member of the peace and justice group at Sacred Heart Parish in Medford.

"This ministry is about learning people's stories and lives," said Maggie Jamieson, who helps teach prospective Catholics at Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego. "It's amazing what people have done." Sounding a theme of the day about prayer sustaining the work, Jamieson explained that she spends hours in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Ulrich taught listeners about the principles of Catholic social teaching, which include dignity of the human person, preferential option for the poor and care for creation. The obligation to aid people who are poor has very strong biblical roots, Ulrich said. The basic principle, he explained, is that everything is a gift from God; we don't truly own anything.

The group learned about social analysis, which includes assessment of a potentially unjust situation followed by a look at what the faith says about the matter. Then comes the question, "What will we do about it?" Participants looked over some case studies, including one about chocolate produced using underpaid labor. That talk was followed by sampling of fair trade chocolates.

During a prayer, images of mothers and children from around the world flashed on a large screen, culminating in an image of Mary and the baby Jesus.

"Mary was called and so are we," Jeannine Boucher Colbert of Catholic Relief Services told participants. "To what is God calling you today?"