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9/24/2015 9:00:00 AM
Catholic Charities head greets pope at White House
Some Catholics might be eager to experience Pope Francis' U.S. stops because he's popular and personable. Vincent Colonno, executive director of Catholic Charities for the Albany Diocese, has a serious message: Can the Holy Father help stop hunger in America?

The issue of hunger "really bothers me," he told The Evangelist. When people claim the U.S. economy is improving and Americans are living well, "I say, 'If that's true, then why am I averaging 135 meals'" per day at the Sister Maureen Joyce Center soup kitchen in Albany?

St. John's/St. Ann's Center in Albany is also hitting the 100-meal mark with people in need of food, said Mr. Colonno.

When Pope Francis addresses the U.S. Congress and the United Nations during his visit, "this is the one piece we need to concentrate on," Mr. Colonno said. "If the nutrition is there, that's fuel for the fire to do other things."

Along with Catholic Charities colleagues from across the country, Mr. Colonno attended the Sept. 23 welcoming ceremony for Pope Francis on the White House lawn in Washington, D.C., as well as the Mass later that day at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at which Blessed Junipero Serra, an 18th-century Franciscan missionary, was canonized by the pope.

"To say I'm excited would be an understatement," Mr. Colonno remarked before he left Albany for the event. Pope Francis "amazes me. He presents an energy I've never seen. It's contagious."

The director remembered lobbying at the New York State Legislature and meeting several students from The College of Saint Rose and The University at Albany who spontaneously started talking about Pope Francis: "One guy said, 'That pope's pretty cool.' 'Oh, you like him?' I said. He said, 'Yeah, I've started going to Mass again.'"

Mr. Colonno, too, has felt what he called an "automatic link" to Pope Francis since the pope's election in 2013 "because of his emphasis on care for the poor. That's what we [at Catholic Charities] do every day." At a national conference of Catholic Charities leaders last year, Mr. Colonno said, a message from the Holy Father was broadcast on a giant monitor. The pope began by stating, "Good morning, my brothers and sisters of Catholic Charities."

When the pope spoke to those gathered on the White House lawn, Mr. Colonno hoped he'd reemphasize that need for America to take care of its poorest and most vulnerable citizens -- that the Holy Father would push for advocacy on behalf of the needy and for a focus on the common good.

Immigration and the Syrian refugee crisis were also on Mr. Colonno's mind. Domestically, he'd like to see unaccompanied minors cared for and the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) bill passed; globally, he wants to see Mideast migrants taken in by host countries.

In both of those hopes, the director knows there's support from Pope Francis: "His key [concern] is open arms."

Mr. Colonno also had a simpler, more lighthearted request for the pope: "Could he reach up to God and ask Him if the [New York] Giants could have a good year?"

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