BOGOTA, Colombia (CNS) — Pope Francis’ call for Catholics throughout the Americas “to treat one another with mercy” should reinforce the church’s commitment to come together to work with the neediest, Catholic leaders said at the start of a regional gathering in Colombia.

“The message of the pope is a call for every person as individuals, but also to us as a church, as communities and dioceses on this enormous continent, from the north of Canada to Patagonia,” Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, president of the Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, one of the organizers, told a news conference Aug. 28.

Cardinal Ouellet, who celebrated Mass following a procession through Bogota to the Our Lady of Lourdes Basilica Aug. 28, said societal problems persist throughout the hemisphere that require the church’s attention.


“I think that when we want to change society, we should start with our own hearts,” he said.

That was a sentiment echoed by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as he delivered the homily Aug. 28.

“We are invited to accompany those who are deeply in need of mercy, but only after having allowed Jesus into our hearts with his mercy,” he said.

At the news conference, Haitian Bishop Pierre Dumas said idea of mercy should be met with action by the church.

“When we talk about mercy we shouldn’t think about it as something conceptual,” said Bishop Dumas, who heads the Diocese of Anse-a-Veau and Miragoane, Haiti. “For us, it should be something experiential.”

The extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy on the American continent, Aug. 27-30 in Bogota, drew Catholics from 22 Latin American countries, the Caribbean, the U.S. and Canada. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos attended some of the sessions.

On Aug. 29, participants were scheduled to tour poor neighborhoods in Bogota, where the church is carrying out acts of mercy, said Cardinal Ruben Salazar Gomez of Bogota, president of the Latin American bishops’ council, known by its Spanish acronym CELAM.

“It will be an important experience because it will open eyes to the possibilities of acts of mercy in different parts of the continent,” he said. In Bogota, “the number of homeless people has multiplied due to many factors, above all due to drug addiction and alcoholism. The archdiocese is working to address this.”

In a 28-minute video message to the conference, Pope Francis told participants that all of their work — in religious education programs, seminaries, parishes, bishops’ conferences, clergy meetings and even theology — should be “about learning to show mercy.”

“We live in a society that is bleeding, and the price of its wounds normally ends up being paid by the most vulnerable. But it is precisely to this society, to this culture, that the Lord sends us,” Pope Francis told them.

“He sends us with one program alone: to treat one another with mercy. To become neighbors to those thousands of defenseless people who walk in our beloved American land by proposing a different way of treating them,” the pope said.

The importance of the church’s work with poor communities has been heightened by an economic downturn that has thrown some of the largest countries, like Venezuela and Brazil, into recession. As a regional economy, Latin America and the Caribbean is forecast to contract by 1.3 percent this year after seeing a 0.7 percent drop last year, according to the World Bank. That has forced governments to cut services to the most vulnerable in places like Puerto Rico.

In a testimonial provided by CELAM, Carmelite Sister Iris Rivera Cintron, president of the Puerto Rico Conference of Religious, who attended the jubilee, said: “For me, personally, the act of mercy in my community is picking up children from a public housing project who are not cared for and teaching them and instilling in them values.

“Mercy has to start with yourself, opening up your heart to work with others, especially children, the sick, and the neediest,” she said.