Church’s Glory in America

At least I gave him credit for being honest. Several weeks ago I watched a televised town hall meeting from a community in which tax increases were under advisement. Nobody likes taxes, but I assumed that, if any taxes would be tolerated more willingly, it would be taxes used to pay for public schools.

I was wrong. One man rose and denounced the very thought of raising more public money for public schools. He said that he had the obligation to educate his own children, but he had no duty whatsoever to see that strangers’ children received schooling.

His protest actually was nothing new in this country, albeit the reality that Americans in Maine help to fund the expressways in Honolulu, and Americans in Idaho furnish some of the funds needed to pave the runways at the airport in Jacksonville, Fla.

Still, the needs of others, especially persons unknown or with circumstances unknown or only presumed, do not generate quick responses. Behind some of it is an obvious worry. How can I meet my own personal responsibilities if my money is expected, or in effect taken, for services and facilities that indeed I will never even see? It may be just plain indifference to the needs of others — or worse.

Our Church’s glory is in its historic, and vast, outreach to the needy, nothing requested in return save the reward of God. We priests rarely preach about this fact of life. We should.

Two years ago, the bishop of my own diocese in Nashville, Tenn., asked me to devote a day during the Christmas holidays to acquaint the diocesan seminarians with the older, and enduring, institutions in the diocese.

Our first stop was at St. Thomas Hospital, founded well over a century ago by the Daughters of Charity. A sister greeted us, escorted us into a conference room and told the hospital’s story. They had come to nurse the sick poor.

After also telling us about the Daughters’ initial arrival in this country in New Orleans to care for the poor, sick and orphans almost three centuries ago, she gave a brief history of Carville, La., another great story of U.S. Catholicism.

Modern medicine has defeated Hansen’s disease, but it long was chronic and progressive. People assumed that it was communicable if not contagious. On diagnosis, therefore, patients were separated from all that was familiar and removed to hospitals in operation just for lepers, to use the now medically unsophisticated term.

In 1894, Louisiana built a large facility in Carville, not far from Baton Rouge, strictly for victims of Hansen’s disease. The federal government took charge in 1921. At the start a problem arose. Few, if any, including physicians and nurses, wanted to work at Carville for fear of contracting the disease.

Into this vacuum stepped the Daughters of Charity from New Orleans. Disregarding the presumed danger, the sisters went to Carville and cared for the patients for generations. (It now is a museum.)

Five thousand miles away, on Molokai in Hawaii, St. Damien de Veuster and St. Marianne Cope wrote their own wondrous stories of serving in the name of the gentle Good Shepherd.

Neither unique, nor spinoffs in Catholic history, these stories are at the root of Catholicism, and always have been venerated as such, because they so directly model the Lord Jesus.

We priests are obliged to create and nourish this attitude among the people whom we serve, or we are not complete in our call to people to follow Christ in every way.

It is that crisp, and it is that blunt.

Attention to the corporal needs of people has been a distinct mark of American Catholic history on the part of bishops, priests, deacons and religious, of course, but also of laypeople.

A certain collective, public dimension is involved. Once upon a time, the plight of workers was quite bleak in this country. In New York an important artistic attraction is the Frick Museum, in which is housed the art collection of Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919). He was one of the great industrialists and financiers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose earnings enabled him to acquire these priceless works of art.

All across the country, towns great and small have a Carnegie Library, named for Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), the impoverished Scottish immigrant who came to the United States and made untold millions in industry. His wealth built, and endowed, all these libraries.

It all is quite nice, but workers in the Frick and Carnegie enterprises virtually had no rights and little consideration. Wages were very low, and no law controlled what had to be paid. Hours were long, 12 hours a day, six days a week, no overtime pay. No vacations were provided, nor pensions. If a worker took sick, then most likely he would lose his job. If a worker did not like something, he or she knew where the exit was.

Blasting these conditions onto the public mind, in great measure, was the catastrophic fire in 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. Killed were 146 victims, including 123 females, mostly immigrants, some as young as 14. The public was horrified, and many were infuriated, by the total lack of precautions and emergency provisions at the factory. The Triangle factory was hardly the only place without proper precautions.

From the outrage came forward a young, devoutly Catholic, New York state legislator, Alfred E. Smith (1873-1944). His indignation, and his determined efforts to enact laws to safeguard workers in working places, launched a national career. After three highly commendable terms as New York governor, he was the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 1928. For him, and for many Catholics at the time, but also before and after, human rights was more than theory.

Al Smith was a man of principle. When he died, President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally composed a public statement describing Smith as “honest as the noonday sun” and said that his death removed from American life a “patriot,” the likes of whom this country rarely has seen.

In Our Sunday Visitor’s files is an old black-and-white photograph showing then- New York Archbishop Francis J. Spellman welcoming First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to Smith’s Solemn Pontifical Requiem High Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. She said that she came to represent her husband, to acknowledge a longstanding friendship, but also to pay homage to Al Smith’s values.

Smith, and others like him, formed the Catholic heritage in this country — regard and uncompromised respect for the person wherever they were on the totem pole.

Pope Francis, in one year, has magnificently reasserted, and reaffirmed, this heritage. By no means, however, has Pope Francis returned to thinking that slipped from Catholic thought. The encyclicals of Pope Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI are as profound as any written by Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI many decades ago on the subject of social justice.

Again, this is our legacy.

True, alliances that were once very strong have weakened or collapsed for Catholics working for social justice. Compatriots of two generations past have embraced causes simply not acceptable to Catholics.

On average, American Catholics do rather well economically. Far back now in history are the days when Catholic women would have had to subject themselves to the deadly conditions at the Triangle factory or Catholic men would have been little better than slaves in the Carnegie steel mills.

Social ills and the reasons for persistent disadvantage can be complex and tangled. Yet none of these factors excuse aloofness in the face of reparable human need.

For priests, the Catholic Charities USA website is a good beginning to learn about poverty present today in our country. The website links to a regular bulletin that is always filled with interesting information.

Ultimately, the words of Christ challenge us priests, all Catholics and indeed every person of good will. What does it profit to have the whole world and suffer the loss of one’s soul? Love others as you love yourself.

MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.