VATICAN CITY (CNS) — In a written greeting to members of the U.S.-based Papal Foundation, Pope Francis said he was “deeply grateful” for their work against poverty and on behalf of peace.

“The needs of God’s people throughout the world are great, and your efforts to advance the church’s mission are helping to fight the many forms of material and spiritual poverty present in our human family, and to contribute to the growth of fraternity and peace,” Pope Francis said.

He made his comments in a message distributed April 11 during a private audience with about 120 members of the foundation and their families, including Cardinals Donald W. Wuerl of Washington; Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington; and Justin Rigali, retired archbishop of Philadelphia.

Instead of reading his speech, Pope Francis personally greeted each of the participants, which was “a great experience,” said William Canny, chief operating officer of the foundation that is based in Bala Cynwyd, Montgomery County. “This year, we were especially blessed to have a private audience with Pope Francis as he sets the course for his papacy. These are exciting, hope-filled days for the church, and for a world in need.”

In a written statement released after the audience, Cardinal Wuerl said, “from the first day of his election, Pope Francis has reminded us of the church’s fundamental responsibility to the poor and marginalized.”

In his message, the pope noted that April 11 marked the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris” (“Peace on Earth”). Pope Francis asked that the document “serve as an incentive for your commitment to promoting reconciliation and peace at every level.”

The Easter season also offers people an opportunity “to give thanks for God’s mercy and the new life we have received from the risen Christ,” he said, adding “I pray that you will experience the joy born of gratitude for the Lord’s many gifts, and seek to serve him in the least of his brothers and sisters.”

This year, the foundation gave an $8.6-million donation that will be used to fund scholarships and Catholic projects around the world.

The Papal Foundation was established 25 years ago by Philadelphia Cardinal John Krol and, in the name of the pope, has given close to $85 million in grants for the building of churches, seminaries, schools, hospitals and other projects for the care of the poor around the world.

The many projects they funded last year included the restoration of a Carmelite convent in Argentina.

The pope said the foundation has helped “the Successor of St. Peter by supporting a number of apostolates and charities especially close to his heart. In these years, you have contributed significantly to the growth of local churches in developing countries by supporting, among other things, the continuing formation of their clergy and religious, the provision of shelter, medical assistance and care to the poor and needy, and the creation of much-needed educational and employment opportunities.”

The pope said the work of the foundation reflects its “spiritual solidarity with the Successor of Peter.”

“I ask you, then, to continue to pray for my ministry, for the needs of the church, and in a particular way for the conversion of minds and hearts to the beauty, goodness and truth of the Gospel,” he said.