News and analysis
September 14, 2015

When Pope Francis Accepts Your Lunch Invitation

Catholic Charities

In anticipation of Pope Francis's visit to Catholic Charities in Washington, the group's president, Monsignor John Enzler, has a life-size cutout in his office.

A life-size cutout of a white-clad Pope Francis is a new addition to Msgr. John Enzler’s office in downtown Washington. It is one example of the playful paraphernalia popping up everywhere from the capital city to New York in the run-up to the pontiff’s first visit to the United States.

But unlike the hundreds of thousands of people expected to crowd the streets, Monsignor Enzler won’t have to make do with a passing glimpse or a cardboard facsimile. The chief executive of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, his board, and his staff will receive the live version on September 24 in their workplace. Following close behind will be a phalanx of international media.

"We are the luckiest people in the entire world," says Monsignor Enzler. "How many nonprofits are there in the Washington area? And the pope is coming to our agency."

The stop at Catholic Charities is the last during the pontiff's 48 hours in Washington. Preceding it on the schedule is a meeting with President Obama at the White House, the canonization of a new saint, and an address to a joint session of Congress, the first ever for a pope.

It is from the U.S. Capitol that the 78-year-old Argentine will make his way to Monsignor Enzler.

With 47 sites, 65 programs, and 9,000 volunteers, Catholic Charities is the largest nongovernmental service provider in the city. Its mission of serving marginalized populations aligns closely with the pope's own teachings on caring for the poor and vulnerable.

"We have him going to the hall of the most powerful people in our country and leaving there and coming to the most vulnerable people in the country," Monsignor Enzler says. "You go from the rich, the powerful, the mighty, the decision makers to the people who have no decision-making power."

No Sure Thing

Still, in a city packed with nonprofits, Catholic and non, there was no guarantee of making the pope’s calendar. So just how did a midsize organization go about securing a visit from one of the world's most prominent leaders?

Preliminary conversations about the itinerary began early in the year, shortly after the Vatican confirmed the stop in Washington in addition to Philadelphia and New York. Lobbying is too strong a word to describe the process, Monsignor Enzler says, but he does acknowledge that his board has the talent. For months, individuals with ties to both Catholic Charities and Cardinal Donald Wuerl advocated the charity be part of the visit.

"Everybody thought it was a very good fit, and it was certainly something that was going to be well received by the Vatican," says Mr. Pastrick, who heads Washington lobbying firm Prime Policy Group and who is slated to become chairman of the board of Catholic Charities later this month. Final say on a recommended itinerary to be submitted to Rome lay in the hands the archdiocese and Cardinal Wuerl.

By May, the visit was a lock.

Since then, there have been visits from Secret Service officials and debates about how many people should be allowed on the premises, says Monsignor Enzler, who has held his current position for four years. Surrounding streets will be closed. He worries about exposing the charity’s clients to gawking. And he has left it up to his managers to select which ones will be in attendance.

During what is supposed to be a one-hour visit, Pope Francis will meet first in Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church, adjacent to the charity’s headquarters, with about 250 people served by the charity.

"My guess is this is where he will go off script," Monsignor Enzler said in a tone of hopeful expectation. "This is where he is going to feel most comfortable. It is what he loves."

Pope Francis will then meet with a few dozen staff members in Catholic Charities’ tiny chapel before moving outside to spend time with about 300 clients to whom the charity will feed lunch.

Strong Growth

The pope's pastoral visit is not being promoted as a fundraising effort. While some may perceive that as a missed opportunity, Monsignor Enzler and board members are confident the pope’s visit will pay off down the road. The trend at the charity has been one of growth, with donations increasing from $2.5 million in 2009 to $10.5 million last year.

"I’m convinced there is going to be a whole groundswell of support," Monsignor Enzler says. "While there has been no fundraising done, I am convinced that once he comes, we can use this as a steppingstone toward saying, ‘Would you like to support our work? Would you like to be part of our mission? Would you like to help us do a better job?’ It will be a philanthropy opportunity for sure."

More than anything else, Monsignor Enzler and his colleagues say, the pope’s presence will affirm the mission of Catholic Charities and the value of the people it serves.

"This pope, because of his visibility, because of his inclusiveness, because of his big-tent approach, I think he has really lifted a lot of boats," Mr. Pastrick says.

So what does a charity leader say when meeting the pope? It will fall to incoming chairman Mr. Pastrick and outgoing chairman Doug Donatelli to greet Pope Francis when he first arrives on site.

For his part, Mr. Donatelli is still working out how he will go about it. His Italian is rusty. His Spanish, terrible, he says.

"My hope is to simply welcome him to Catholic Charities, thank him very much for his visit, tell him how much his visit means, and then point him in the direction of the homeless clients that we will be serving that day."

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.