The story is told of a conversation between the legendary Archbishop of Baltimore, Cardinal James Gibbons, and Pope Leo XIII. The pontiff had written Rerum Novarum in 1891, his epochal encyclical defending the dignity of labor and calling everyone— governments, employers, workers, and citizens—to the “common good” where the poor and vulnerable were protected. The cardinal had himself defended the rights of the worker in successfully urging Rome not to condemn an early version of the union, the Knights of Labor, which was led by a Catholic and had attracted an extensive following among Catholic workers here in the United States.
Pope Leo, the story goes, was lamenting the fact that, in Europe, “the working class” felt alienated from their Church, considering their religion, sadly, to be on the side of the wealthy, powerful, prestigious leaders in society. The Holy Father looked at the American cardinal and commented, “But, in the United States, the Church is the home of the ‘common man,’ and those in need—the laborer, the newly arrived, the poor, the struggling—look to their Church as an ally, an advocate, a champion, a protector. That’s why you have the people loyal to their Catholic faith. Never lose that!”
That high compliment from the successor of St. Peter made the Archbishop of Baltimore beam. As it should us...as it also compels us to examine our consciences to make sure we as Catholics still deserve such credit!
I think of this in light of last week’s moving commemoration of that prophetic Baptist minister’s ringing speech at the Lincoln monument 50 years ago, “I have a dream”;
I recall that story as we just celebrated Labor Day, and as, at my 7 a.m. Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I see dozens of laborers, all union members, in their work clothes and hard hats, praying before they “get to work” on the repair, restoration, and renewal of our beloved St. Patrick’s Cathedral, built beginning 155 years ago, “with the pennies and nickels of our poor” as Archbishop John Hughes noted;
I remember that conversation between Pope Leo and Cardinal Gibbons as I reminisce about my time in Ireland last month, where I met dozens of people who still are grateful because “the United States welcomed our starving, impoverished and near-desperate great-grandparents who had nowhere to go.”
My first pastor—himself the son of an Irishman from Co. Tipperary, saved by his parish priest from arrest by the British because he had committed the “crime” of teaching the catechism to his students after school—was conscious that, while he was pastor of one of the most wealthy and prestigious parishes in St. Louis, the Church “was not a country club for the rich, but a refuge for the poor, sick, struggling, and searching,” as he put it.
Never can we lose our radiant heritage as Catholic Americans to be friends and advocates for those in need. We’re “on their side,” not just because that’s a high point of the teaching of the Bible, Jesus, and His Church, but because our ancestors were welcomed and befriended by their parishes, priests, sisters, bishops, and Catholic neighbors when nobody else gave a hoot.
That’s why Cardinal Gibbons could beam; that’s why priests, sisters, and lay Catholic leaders walked with Reverend King in Selma; that’s why bishops and priests stood with Cesar Chavez; that’s why we’re proposing a Haitian slave, buried in St. Patrick’s, Pierre Toussaint, and Dorothy Day, for sainthood; that’s why we speak up for the baby in the womb; that’s why we help poor kids attend our schools; that’s why we have such a massive and respected Catholic Charities; that’s why we bug our elected leaders about drastic budget cuts on programs assisting the hungry, homeless, sick, and mentally ill...
...and that’s why we are on the side of fair immigration reform. Congress returns soon, and the House of Representatives, please God, will pass the bill already approved by the Senate.
We Catholics have felt the sting of racial and religious slurs in the past, when Nativists and “Know-Nothings,” as they were called, shouted out that the arrival of “inferior stock” from Ireland, Poland, Italy, and central and southern Europe was “contaminating” America, and that Catholics were un-American. Now we hear some nastiness against our newcomers from Latin America and Asia.
We’re for fair and comprehensive immigration reform because we’re loyal patriots who know that welcome to refugees is part of our heritage, and actually good for our economy and our culture— good for our nation.
We’re behind the bill because we’re people with a memory, who realize that we were all once “just getting off the boat.”
And we’re promoting reform because we’re people of faith, attentive to the mandate of the Bible to welcome the exile, and conscious that we Catholics have always been on the side of those in need.
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