Let’s say you’re the top administrator at a small Catholic high school in Modesto. One day the bishop mentions that the Vatican – yes, the Vatican – wants to send about 600 people to spend four days on your campus for meetings literally geared to change the world in terms of social justice.
Oh, and one of the most prominent cardinals from within Pope Francis’s inner circle will be among those attending.
Wait, one more thing: The pope himself might teleconference in, as well.
Tremendous honor or logistical nightmare?
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“Actually, we look forward to it,” chuckled Jim Pecchenino, president of Central Catholic High School, adding that it is, indeed, an honor.
“It” is the World Meeting of Popular Movements (WMPM), a mass gathering of grassroots social justice leaders from all over the world who will converge in Modesto from Thursday through Feb. 19 to discuss, share and learn with and from each other in an effort to combat injustices in their various communities.
Bishop Stephen Blaire from the Diocese of Stockton contacted Pecchenino several months ago about holding the conference at Central Catholic. The campus opened its new Mark Gallo Health and Fitness Center in August, which also was designed as a large event center. The facility made the school a perfect choice.
Pecchenino accepted immediately. “We just thought it was such an honor to have such a gathering here in Modesto,” he said. “It’s important for this conversation to take place.”
That conversation will revolve around three main themes as set by the Vatican, according to Steve Pehanich, director of communications and advocacy with the California Catholic Conference, one of several organizing groups behind the event – “land, labor and lodging.” In addition, organizers got together with some of the grassroots leaders to define additional topics to be discussed; racism and migration were added for the Modesto meeting.
According to its website, the World Meeting of Popular Movements is an initiative of Pope Francis to create an “encounter” between church leadership and grassroots organizations working to address the “economy of exclusion and inequality.”
While the conference is an interfaith gathering, more than 30 U.S. bishops as well as Vatican officials will attend. Most notably among them is Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s department for Integral Human Development. Turkson is among Pope Francis’s senior leaders and president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
While Pope Francis could participate via satellite, there’s been no confirmation, Pehanich said, adding that making a firm commitment would mean a lot of disappointed people if something were to come up and make the pope’s presence impossible.
“The Vatican is very careful about that,” he said. A letter from the pope is on the agenda to be read before the gathering closes Sunday.
Still, the idea of a papal video presence is exciting for those at Central Catholic. “When we heard that, we were kind of in awe that that could take place,” Pecchenino said. “Even if it doesn’t, I’m sure the conversation will find its way back to the pope.”
Pecchenino said his campus has been busy getting ready for the gathering. Amid that preparation, campus chef and food coordinator Marco Cannella is working with Modesto restaurateur John Surla on feeding the 600-plus people over four days – “breakfast to dinner.”
Surla – owner and chef of downtown Modesto restaurant Surla’s – helped design the nutrition center in the new event facility along with Cannella. The two will “tag team all the food support for the entire four days.”
Several student service club members also will help, mainly in food service and cleanup, Pecchenino said.
The campus will be hopping over the course of the conference. Plenary sessions will be held in the event center, with individual workshops in the classrooms.
The goal is for each grassroots member to take what they learn over the four days and use it to implement change and improvement back home, according to Pehanich.
“They’ll meet, share ideas, share strategies and then go back to their home communities to do something with it – ‘Hey, I learned this’ or ‘I have this contact’ or ‘We have this resource now,’ ” he said. “The idea is to energize them and ask them to go back ... and work in their communities.”
The Central Valley of California is a region which starkly reflects the ‘economy of exclusion’: deep poverty and economic inequality, large numbers of undocumented immigrants, high rates of incarceration, and climate change creating economic and health impacts among the most vulnerable.
World Meeting of Popular Movements website
As for those logistics of having hundreds of people converge onto a high school campus, “it’s been fun,” Pehanich said. The first thing organizers did was secure hotel rooms for the participants. Many will come in by bus from the Oakland and Sacramento airports.
One possible logistical problem – a mass of conference participants merging with a mass of teenagers – was nullified: By the time meeting-goers hit the campus at 3 p.m. Thursday, most of the students will be gone, having headed off on a four-day Presidents Day holiday.
“It was providential that this was the one (week) that would be good for us,” Pecchenino said.
And while the meetings are not open to the public, they will be live streamed on the conference website, popularmovements.org.
Organizers say the Central Valley was chosen for the WMPM because its diverse population knows firsthand the economic and social hardships within those main land, work and housing themes.
“The idea behind these (meetings) is to have them in the peripheries. The idea is to go where the people are that the pope is trying to energize,” Pehanich said.
This will be the fourth WMPM, with previous conferences held in 2014 and 2016 in Rome and 2015 in Bolivia. This week’s Modesto gathering marks the first in the United States, according to another of the organizers, PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing, the largest network of faith-based groups in the nation).
The majority of the participants will be from the United States, Pehanich said, with 10 or 11 delegations from other countries. Valley dioceses – Stockton, Fresno and Sacramento – are co-hosts and will send participants.
For his part, Pecchenino said he’ll be there to make sure things go smoothly on the school’s end.
“I’ll be in and out, but not part of conversations in the meetings,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s done first class, making sure we take care of people.”
Pat Clark: 209-578-2312
While the World Meeting of Popular Movements is invitation-only, some of the sessions will be live streamed at popularmovements.org. Some agenda highlights:
Cardinal Peter Turkson’s keynote address is set for Thursday, part of a series of opening remarks to begin at 6 p.m.
- Friday, 8:30 a.m., racism
- Friday, 1:30 p.m, migration
- Saturday, 8:30 a.m., work and housing
- Saturday, 1:30 p.m., land and the environment
Also on Friday, at 7 p.m., there will a session called “Organizing in the Central Valley.”
On Sunday, closing discussions begin at 8 a.m. with a message from Pope Francis at 8:30 a.m., via letter, according to the agenda. The conference is scheduled to conclude at 10 a.m.