WHEELING, W.Va. (CNS) — Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston in a new pastoral letter called attention to poverty in West Virginia and its devastating effects on the state’s children, and urged outreach to the poor as part of the Catholic Church’s new evangelization efforts.

“It is my hope to speak to the grief and anguish of the poor among us, especially the experience of our children and families in poverty, and offer to them a compassionate message of joy and hope,” he said in the letter, “Setting Children Free: Loosening the Bonds of Poverty in West Virginia.”

“At the same time, I want to invite you, dear brothers and sisters, to join me in compassionate care for the poor and continual solicitude on their behalf,” he wrote.

The letter, issued in early November, is his fourth pastoral since he became bishop of the statewide diocese.

The bishop noted that West Virginia has higher incidents of low birth weight and infant mortality than the national average. The child death rate is higher, as is the percentage of children approved for free and reduced-price school meals. The rate of child abuse and neglect is above the national average, as are the number of children with poor oral health, the teen birth rate, and percent of births to unmarried teens.

All of these statistics, taken together, he said, give a clear understanding of the experience of poverty among young people and its consequences for their health.

“To help the children of our state rise from poverty will take a wide variety of approaches,” the bishop wrote. “Extending compassionate care to children means that we should work for policies regarding health — including the effects on children of behavioral health problems of addiction and mental illness — and education which will give these young ones ‘long lives, full of well-being.'”

The bishop also talked about the many issues that causing suffering for the children of poor families in West Virginia, such as parents who are incarcerated and parents who are addicted to drugs.

Education also is a focus of Bishop Bransfield’s letter. All too often, the bishop said, those involved in education in the Mountain State are faced with problems in students’ lives that combine to undermine chances for academic success: stresses because of poverty, addictions, chronic health problems in their families.

The solution, he continued, for low academic achievement in the state requires initiatives outside the schoolhouse walls.

“As your bishop, I have sought to address the most pressing aspects of poverty in our Mountain State,” Bishop Bransfield said. “Concern for the poor, as part of our mission in the new evangelization and as active work on their behalf, continues to be a corporal work of mercy.

“We are committed to feeding the hungry and clothing the naked; we are committed to educating our young people and tending to the physical and spiritual needs of all,” he added. “We do so, motivated by the love of Christ and following the example of Our Lady, Mother of the Poor.”

***

Rowan is editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.