‘What would Francis do?’ Ignatian Volunteers have the answer

Mark Wong, a longtime member of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, helps clients at the Franciscan Center with emergency needs. (Courtesy Ignatian Volunteer Corps)

By Mary K. Tilghman

Special to the Review

After a career in the federal government, Mark Wong wanted something new, so twice a week, he goes to the Franciscan Center in Baltimore to meet people in need.

As a government employee, he says, he used his head. At the Franciscan Center, he uses his heart.

He’s paying attention, he said, to the disenfranchised people “Pope Francis asks us to pay attention to. And to be with them. And to listen to their stories.”

Wong, 70 and a parishioner of St. John the Evangelist in Columbia, is a part of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. Men and women 50 and older, they offer service and come together regularly, for reflection and prayer, to refresh their souls, and gather courage and support from each other.

Wong says he counts on that support.

“It encourages risk,” he said.

Now there’s a new model for this faith in action, what Jesuits call the “contemplative in action” – Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope.

“This is where the heart comes in,” Wong said. “To do this with heart and prayer is part of Ignatian spirituality.”

IVC, founded in Baltimore in 1995, has 28 volunteers locally and more than 325 around the country, according to Steve Eberle, Baltimore regional director, who referenced the Jesuits’ founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, and his concern for the poor.

“You can’t know Jesus without knowing the poor,” Eberle said.

Pope Francis, he said, has made that clear with his life.

“His spirit is inseparable from his relationship with the poor. That is often the place where Jesus is found,” said Eberle, who noted that the pope’s message has resulted in new volunteers. “All of the applications mention in some way Pope Francis.”

Eberle said he and IVC volunteers will be listening when the pope visits the United States for messages about service and the systemic structures that lead to violence and poverty.

“He is comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Eberle said, noting that Pope Francis has met with the poor, imprisoned and others on the fringes of society. “It’s OK to be uncomfortable.”

Kerrie Burch-DeLuca, recently retired from Catholic Charities of Baltimore, is a new IVC volunteer. A parishioner of St. Ignatius Parish on Calvert Street, she was attracted to IVC’s spirituality.

“I loved the concept of the spiritual component,” said Burch-DeLuca, who knew she wanted to serve the Franciscan Center after visiting there. “I really do see Jesus in all people.”

For Wong too, moments with clients at the Franciscan Center are sacred. One man answered his cell phone to learn that his younger cousin had just been shot and killed. In grief, he said to Wong, “This has to stop.”

Another time, a woman mentioned she had published a book. On her next visit, she brought Wong a copy of her memoirs.

A woman mourning the loss of her mother and worried about prescription bills showed gratitude to Wong. “You treat me with dignity and you treat me as a human,” she told him.

“You just never know how you touch individuals,” Wong added. “We are also mightily enriched being with the clients. We learn so much from them.”

And the Franciscan Center is enriched by IVC volunteers, say the center’s staff members.

“If we didn’t have these volunteers, we’d really have to cut back or we couldn’t do all the work we do,” said Judy Dobson, director of responsive services.

Christian Metzger, the center’s executive director, praised Wong’s government experience, which helps him deal with the complicated paperwork of the Fuel Fund of Maryland for clients who need help with their BGE bills. “He was the perfect person,” Metzger said.

“Pope Francis says enjoy the joy,” Wong said. “There is joy in the Gospel. There is joy in service.”

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Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.