Can I relate to you an incident from the history of the Church in our beloved country? Back in the 1880’s, the labor force in our nation, in our railroads, factories, mills, and mines, was made up mostly of Catholic immigrants. Many of these hard workers were active in the earliest attempts by laborers to organize, promote their basic human rights for a living wage, safe and humane working conditions, and protection for themselves, their wives, and their children in case of their own death or injury. These pioneers — our great grandparents — were encouraged by their parishes, priests, and bishops.
In fact, one of the earliest “unions” in our country, the “Knights of Labor,” was almost two-thirds Catholic, with a president, Terrence Powderly, who was a very prominent and serious Catholic lay leader. There was trouble, though: to protect themselves, the Knights of Labor had to be a “secret society,” since news of membership could lead to loss of a job. But, the Catholic Church taught that membership in a secret society was immoral. Thus, the looming question on everyone’s mind: could a Catholic worker in good faith join the Knights of Labor? Following the praxis the bishops themselves had agreed upon, that pivotal question was referred to Rome. What would Rome decide? The Holy See had already condemned membership for Canadians, so there was some trepidation that this early union would be condemned.
The leader of the American hierarchy at the time was James Gibbons, the archbishop of our premier see, Baltimore. It just so happened that, at this very time, in February 1887, he was in the Eternal City to be named a cardinal. While in Rome, Cardinal Gibbons wrote a Memorial to officials of the Holy See who would be considering the question, urging them not to condemn the Knights of Labor. The cardinal was firm in his belief that workers in the United States had the right to organize, to defend their rights, and to protect themselves and their families. He observed how the working class in America looked to the Church as a friend, and that laborers took their faith very seriously. To condemn the Knights of Labor, Cardinal Gibbons warned, could risk alienating them from the Church. Simply put, the Church needed to be on the side of justice.
The appeal was successful: Rome did not condemn the Knights of Labor. The strong alliance between the common working man, and the Church was solidified. Not only that, but four years later, Pope Leo XIII issued his epochal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which defended the rights of the worker.
About twenty years later, the story goes, the same James Cardinal Gibbons visited Pope Pius X at the Vatican. The saintly pontiff expressed admiration for the Church in the United States, and then asked the cardinal, “In America, the worker loves the Church, is active in his parish, takes his faith seriously, and considers the Catholic Church a friend. In Europe, we are losing the working class, and the laborer feels the Church is always on the side of the wealthy. Why?” “Because,” the cardinal replied “the Church has been and is on the side of the worker. And that is where we must be.”
I hold that inspired reply before your eyes as we get ready for Labor Day weekend. I am so proud that the workers of our county look to the Church as an ally, and realize that the Church has been in the lead from the earliest day in protecting and promoting the legitimate rights of the laborer.
And, lest you think such a stance is a thing of the past, I only remind you of less than thirty years ago, when a devoted Catholic husband, father, electrical repairman and labor leader, Lech Walesa, inspired a revolution, with quotes, not from Marx, but from John Paul II, wearing on his lapel not the hammer and sickle, but a medal of Our Lady of Czestochowa.
Today, thank God, Catholics in America are among the best-educated, most prosperous people in the country. However, as 130 years ago, we still are grateful to number among our people those brave workers struggling for a decent wage, job, security, and elementary justice. Our great-grandparents will haunt us if we ignore them.
Happy Labor Day!