Sunday, September 2
By John Fontana
Labor Day: Our Chicago Catholic Response
Jack Shea in his latest book, To Dare The Our Father, A Transformative Spiritual Practice places “building the Kingdom” as a central mission of the followers of Jesus. He connects the prayer Jesus taught with action (work) for human dignity and the common good. On this Labor Day let us as Catholics attend to our shared vocational call to work/labor for the “building of the kingdom. “
Let us also familiarize ourselves with some touch points from our religious history that speaks to work as a primary expression of our faith journey.
In every age, the question of the work of building the Kingdom takes expression in unique ways. For example, in the fifth century as a church reform effort, St Benedict established monasteries with the intent to build communities to live the Gospels through Ora & Labora, (prayer & work). In the 1890’s with the industrial revolution in full tilt, Pope Leo XIII published Rerum Novarum, the Church’s response to the cry of the industrial worker for justice. The document supported the rights of labor to form unions, while rejecting socialism and unrestricted capitalism. Most recently Pope Francis published Laudato Si exhorting us to be good stewards of our planet.
In this progression of social documents, the Church articulates a rich tradition of defending the worker, the poor, and the planet. These documents are a call to the Church and particularly the laity to “read the signs of the times” and hear and do the work of building the kingdom through our engagements of work, community and family.
While these documents ground Catholic Social Teaching for the Church around the world, their practical application is always local. In the 20th century, it was Monsignor Hillenbrand who animated the Chicago Catholic response to work by teaching a group decision-making model known as “Observe, Judge, Act.” This model was taught at Mundelein Seminary and captured the imagination of young seminarians. The model provided a way of working with the laity as collaborators and animated active local groups such as Young Christian Workers and the Catholic Family Movement while guiding Catholic involvement in the labor and civil rights movements.
Three of Hilendrand’s young seminarians led the Chicago faith expression of building the Kingdom. Monsignor George Higgins represented the best of the “labor priests” supporting the union movement and engaging in public dialogue and advocacy from the United States Catholic Conference in Washington DC. Monsignor Jack Egan was a supporter of young Catholics through the Cana Movement, Catholic Family Movement (CFM), community organizing and the Catholic Committee of Urban Ministry (CCUM).
One seminarian was Old St. Patrick’s own, Monsignor Daniel Cantwell (1911-1996). This unassuming priest with a strong gospel commitment to the work of justice collaborated in the founding of the Chicago Catholic Worker House, and Friendship House, a South Side Catholic interracial center. He was a chaplain to the Chicago Catholic Interracial Council and founding member of the National Catholic Interracial Conference and the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
In the 1940’s, Dan was Chaplain to the Catholic Labor Alliance because Catholic immigrants were in the trades and the unions. Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Catholics moved into management and the Catholic Labor Alliance became The Catholic Council on Working Life, which fostered dialogue between labor and management. In the 1970’s Dan along with lay confreres, Ed Marciniak and Russell Barta, founded the National Center for the Laity, which champions the role of the laity to do the work of justice “through our daily work and regular responsibilities.”
At Jack Wall’s 50th Anniversary, he cited Dan Cantwell’s inspiration, advice, and admonishment to be a priest in service to the work of the laity in their mission to transform the world.
The story of work & labor is complicated and a struggle, AND it is integral to building the Kingdom! Today let us pray for those owners, managers, and entrepreneurs who strive to provide just and thriving workplaces as well as those workers who labor for less than living wages, and for the many who struggle to find work. Then on Monday let us celebrate, rest and remember; for on Tuesday we carry on doing God’s work in the world as we pray “give us this day our daily bread and let your Kingdom come!”
John Fontana was the founder and Director of the Crossroads Center for Faith & Work at Old St. Patrick’s from 1987–1993. He is now the principal of the Fontana Leadership Group.