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As we approach Labor Day 2002, we face many challenges as a nation and
as a Church. We are a nation at war with terrorism and still
recovering from the attacks of a year ago. Widely reported instances of
corporate dishonesty and misconduct have shaken consumer confidence in
business and threaten to undermine the financial security of investors
and workers. Meanwhile, government leaders continue to operate in a
context of partisan conflict, ideological disputes, and special interest
demands. Our Church also faces major challenges, seeking to address
the pain, hurt, and loss of trust resulting from the clerical abuse
In tough times like these, we look to people of courage and candor, fidelity and wisdom. Last May, we lost just such a person in Monsignor George G. Higgins. After 62 years of service to the Church and several months of illness, he died at home in Illinois bringing to an end decades of principled service and faithful ministry to his Church and the labor movement.
For decades he was the author of our Conference's "Labor Day Statement." I am both awed and honored to continue this tradition. At a memorial service in his honor, sponsored by our Bishops Conference and the AFL-CIO, I called him a "giant," and quoted Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, the former President of the Bishops' Conference, who referred to him as "the most respected priest in America." While consistently loyal, he challenged the two institutions he cared most about—the Catholic Church and the American Labor Movement—to be faithful to their ideals and values. His work continues to be a source of wisdom and guidance for all of us, especially in these tough times.
In his priestly ministry, Msgr. Higgins built bridges between the Catholic Church and the labor movement in the United States. He developed and maintained communication between Catholics and Jews. He helped field hands and farmworkers to join together to improve their lot. He shared and interpreted the words and vision of the Second Vatican Council. He spoke truth to power. He was a man of conviction, humor, and humility. His example should guide us as we approach Labor Day this year.
Long remembered for his ministry with working men and women, Monsignor Higgins died, most fittingly, on the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Our yearly commemoration of workers should remind us of his insistence that most people fulfill their vocation, their calling, by the work they do day in and day out.
As he said so plainly:
"...The overwhelming majority of lay people... will exercise their ministry, their calling or vocation, not behind the altar rail or within the sanctuary but in and through their respective occupations, be they workers, employers, bankers, professionals, or what have you.
Some may think this is much ado about nothing. I do not agree. At a time when the church puts so much emphasis on the work of catechetical, liturgical, and other ministries within the church--and rightly so--we must pay attention also to those who work as Christians in what are sometimes denigrated as purely ‘secular' tasks…."1
Msgr. Higgins' life and words remind us of the connection between work and holiness, between what most people do for a living, our employment, and fulfilling God's purpose, our call to holiness. All of us must continue to resist what the bishops of the Second Vatican Council called: "one of the gravest errors of our time ... the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and their day-to-day conduct."2 In our lives, we live our faith as worker, spouse, parent, coach, priest, church volunteer, housekeeper, business owner, labor leader, student, professor, stockbroker and in so many other ways. The Church needs to help each of us understand that what we do in our everyday life has moral purpose, that our work contributes to God's creation and the common good.
Whatever our work or status, each one of us is called by faith to shape the world in which we live and labor. Each of us must live out what our faith teaches us about human life and dignity, about economic and social justice, about reconciliation and peace. We are called to apply our values and our moral principles in our lives and in our work.
Work has a special place in our Catholic tradition. It is much more than just a job. While it is the way most people meet their material needs and provide for their families, it is also a way to contribute to the community. As we participate in our own small way in God's continuing creation, our work promotes the common good and reflects our human dignity.
For too many Americans, especially those at the bottom of the economic ladder, decent work is not available or does not meet their family's basic needs. A worker with two children, earning the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour has to work more than 53 hours per week to live just above the poverty line. Unfortunately, many workers can find no more than part-time work, so they take two jobs, at significant cost to their family's well-being and their own.
For some other Americans, those moving up the economic ladder, meeting their own economic aspirations can consume so much of their time and energy that they may neglect other essential parts of their lives. Many workers, often encouraged by employer's expectations, spend so much time and energy at work, away from their family, away from their home, that raising children and contributing to community life are neglected or secondary pursuits.
This is not the way it should be. Work should strengthen our family life, providing resources and respect, benefits and health care for families. Work should enhance our family, community, and spiritual lives. Work should allow a family to live in dignity.
As we perform our work, our contribution to the continuation of God's creation, we need to recognize that even the simplest thing we do can be a contribution to the common good. The decisions we make at work can in small ways help shape the fabric and ethics of our society.
Workers need each other. As Msgr. Higgins teaches us, workers often choose to join together to form associations—unions—to make their voices heard and their work respected. Msgr. Higgins believed that unions help workers not only get more, but be more—seeking greater participation and a real voice in both the workplace and the larger society.
Catholic social teaching has long supported the right of workers to make this choice. And there was no stronger and more consistent voice in the Church in the United States on this subject than Msgr. Higgins:
"Wages and benefits are not the only reasons why many people feel the need and desire to say ‘Union Yes.' A few years ago, in Washington, D.C., hotel workers and management were in accord on bread-and-butter issues and close to settlement. But there was one hitch. The workers, whose first name appeared on the hotel uniforms, wanted to see their full names on the uniforms. Management balked at this, saying ‘Maria' and ‘Clarence' or whatever name was good enough. Yet for the workers, it was a matter of simple dignity. ‘What are we? The house slaves?' the mostly black and Hispanic work force wanted to know. The contract negotiations almost broke down. But in due time, the members of the Hotel and Restaurant workers' union got their wish; they celebrated the victory in a downtown African-American church. Without a union, it is almost unthinkable that they would have been granted this simple request."3
Catholic teaching recognizes that human beings are profoundly social and organize into groups naturally. We join together to put bread on the table, to defend ourselves, to develop technology, and to enjoy each other's company. Employers can and should do the right things for their employees and lawmakers can and should make laws to protect workers. But, it was Msgr. Higgins' deep conviction that in many situations "only strong and independent organizations can give employees a genuine say in their economic lives, like the hotel workers in Washington, D.C., workers of all kinds do not want to be treated like house slaves; they want dignity."4
As we approach Labor Day, we should reflect on how we bring holiness and wholeness to the work we do. Let us remember the lessons of Msgr. George Higgins and the rich legacy he left us. Let us continue his efforts to secure a living wage and greater respect for the dignity and rights of workers. In telling the truth, in building bridges among peoples, in standing with the poor, and in solidarity with Church's teaching on the importance of the labor movement, Msgr. Higgins calls us to reform and renewal, to leadership and service.
No one can fill Monsignor Higgins' shoes, but all of us are called to carry forward his legacy by sharing and acting on the Church's teaching on work and workers' rights. This Labor Day, let us remember the work of an extraordinary priest and commit ourselves, each in our own way, to continue his mission and share his message.
1 Msgr. George G. Higgins with William Bole, Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a "Labor Priest." (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1993), p. 210.
2 Vatican II, pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), no. 43.
3 Higgins, 182.
4 Higgins, 185.
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