(Présence-info/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.

The gathering, which drew representatives from nearly every country in North and South America, provided a reminder that church leaders need to work more closely with the neediest groups in their communities, said Cardinal Lacroix.

"We need to not only talk the talk, we need to walk the walk," he said.

It was a sentiment echoed by Bishop Pierre Dumas of Anse-a-Veau and Miragoane, Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. He said testimonies given from participants at the gathering provided a reminder that the church must do more than preach mercy.

"Mercy has to be brought to the streets," he said in a telephone interview. "Mercy has to be seen in the villages in Latin America and around the world."

Participants visited 29 church-led projects in the poorest neighborhoods of Bogota and heard about dozens of other projects being carried out across the region, which provided a reminder of the work church groups are doing on a regular basis, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga said in an interview provided by CELAM, the Latin America bishops' council.

"We didn't just reflect, we saw and heard what mercy has done not only in Colombia, but throughout Latin America," the archbishop of Tegucigalpa said. "Holiness has flourished on the continent."

The projects participants visited ranged from soup kitchens and food banks to homes for the disabled staffed by volunteers. Canadian Bishop Lionel Gendron of Saint-Jean-Longueuil, Quebec, visited a project run by the Sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, who work with prostitutes in a Bogota slum.

"They are trying to connect with these women to help them slowly but surely regain their human dignity,'' he said in a telephone interview Aug. 31. "It was a very deep experience."

"What we are trying to do in this Year of Mercy is be more attentive to the Spirit and where it is leading us," he said. "What is needed in this world is to show how God is love and God is mercy. That was something I will take away from this celebration."