Friday, December 21, 2012

The Return of the Labor Priest - a Christmas gift for Msgr. Rice

Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, the legendary labor priest from Pittsburgh, once wrote that as a young man he “held labor to be not just a worthy cause, but virtually a holy one. Unions were not merely something that would make life better for working people but they could lead to the reform of society.”

Father Rice fought a long lifetime—he died seven years ago last month at the ripe old age of 96—for working people. He fought with his pen in the pages of the Pittsburgh Catholic and on the streets protesting steel magnates and the other forces arrayed against workers.

Yet in his last decades, he watched his fellow Catholics grow increasingly conservative and removed from their immigrant roots. It was “another cross in my old age,” and he didn’t take it lying down. “What we really need in this country is a healthy and vigorous conviction in the bosoms of the lower class that the upper class is their enemy and is out to fleece and suppress them. We need working class solidarity and a sturdy recognition that the poor and almost poor have to stick together.”

He was 80 when he wrote those words.

The ghost of the old Irishman may be smiling from heaven, however. After a steady decline to what fellow warrior Msgr. George Higgins once lamented as a “vanishing point” in the number of labor priests in the country, a resurgence is taking shape.

In April of 2013, dozens of labor priests of a new era will converge in Reno, Nev., to share ideas and work out strategies to help the working stiff in a nation where 46 million live in poverty, including 16 million children.

This new generation of labor priesthood, which has received backing from the National Federation of Priests’ Councils and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, continues to carry the banner of Catholic social justice teaching that goes back to the words of Jesus, to the Biblical exhortation to “be doers of the word and not hearers only,” and even to the Old Testament, too. That teaching was upheld in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 with its inspired defense of workers, their rights, and their unions.

As described in an August-September cover story in the National Catholic Reporter,  Father Clete Kiley of Washington, Father Ty Hullinger of Baltimore, Father Patrick Besel of Baltimore, and others stood side-by-side with workers in July in a global boycott of the Hyatt Hotels chain to force the company to recognize the need for fair wages and safe working conditions.

Father Les Schmidt, a still-active labor priest from the earlier Rice-Higgins era, took part in the cross-country bus trip that brought undocumented workers to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., in September to highlight their own human rights issues.

(Father Jeremy Tobin at the Norbertine Priory of St. Moses the Black near Jackson, Miss.)

Immigration and immigrant workers are very important issues in the social ministry of this newer generation of labor priests, and they have also been a major focus of the energies of Mississippi’s own leading labor priest, Father Jeremy Tobin of Raymond, himself the grandson of Irish immigrants and the subject of an earlier column by this writer.

Tobin, who grew up in Chicago, lights up the pages of the Mississippi Catholic with his columns just as Rice did at the Pittsburgh Catholic years ago. Here’s a taste from Tobin’s December column: “Labor laws exempt agricultural workers from minimum wage. Compound this with current visa policies for immigrant workers sets up a system of cheap labor and high profits. This accounts for the longstanding exploitation of immigrant farm labor. … We have the opportunity and the will to correct these imbalances.”

Like Rice before him, Tobin can breathe fire from his newsprint pulpit.  Here’s his take on references to undocumented workers as “illegal”: “The very symbols and hallowed buildings of America were built by slave labor. … What is legal? Slavery was legal, but it was an abomination that split this country, and we still live with its curse. … People are not illegal. Things are illegal.”

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus this Christmas season, let’s remember his message and his messengers, including priests like Rice, Higgins, Tobin and the others who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with working people and remind us of the words from Isaiah in the Old Testament: “Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the skies drop it down.”

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