Catholic San Francisco


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Father J. Cletus Kiley, a priest from the Archdiocese of Chicago, is pictured in the lobby of the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington July 5.

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The labor priest, a once-familiar Catholic figure, rises anew
August 22nd, 2012
By George Raine

It’s going to come as a surprise to some – but certainly not to those who know Catholic social justice teaching – that the church long ago sided with labor.

In the 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” or “On the New Things,” Pope Leo XIII supported the rights of labor to form unions, and called for ameliorating “the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.”

In 1919, the U.S. Catholic bishops offered President Woodrow Wilson their ideas about re-ordering American society following the Great War. It was called the Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction and one of its themes was support for labor, while, at the same time, it became a blueprint for the New Deal and also later would influence federal labor law and worker protection.

That’s the historical context for a new coalition of American priests that is forming, to comfort the many working people and poor people in their parishes, letting them know that the church supports their campaigns, including organizing, to give them a better life.

“We’re not coming at this out of thin air,” said Father Richard Vega, the outgoing president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils in Chicago, helping to form a group of priests advocating for workers. “We are talking about what our principles have always been. From Leo XIII to Benedict XVI there is a consistency. There is no break.”

Father Vega and Father J. Cletus Kiley, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago who is on leave while working as director of immigration policy for UNITE HERE, the hotel, restaurant and textile workers’ union, in Washington, D.C., in May brought together about 30 priests from around the nation to talk about their common concerns for the plight of today’s working class, particularly poor immigrants, many of whom are Catholic.

It’s a movement so nascent it doesn’t have a name – call it labor priests or the priests’ labor initiative – and is housed at the National Federation of Priests’ Councils in Chicago.

“So many of our immigrant workers are our own people and they don’t know this history with labor,” said Father Kiley. “When we sit down with them and share with them what the church has been teaching for the last century or more about their rights they have this look like the cavalry has just arrived. We say, ‘Yes, you are on high moral ground.’”

You can find Father Kiley on YouTube, giving the invocation at a Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association conference in 2011, asking God to back workers’ righteous anger: “Something has gone awry in this land, and guided by you, we must speak, we must act,” he said. “There was a time in this country when a man who worked hard could count on a fair day’s pay, but not today … For the working people of this country the stakes have never been higher … We are the sheet metal workers and in your name, Lord, we are going to do our part to make change happen and to put things back on track, so help us God. Amen.”

Father Kiley was approached by UNITE HERE two years about the staff job – immigration is a keen interest of the U.S. bishops, of course – and Cardinal Francis George of Chicago approved.

He and Father Vega, the pastor of St. Francis of Rome Church in Azusa (Los Angeles County), met with the initial group of labor-friendly priests in Chicago and heard a group of workers, mostly immigrants, some organized, some not, tell stories about their working conditions. They told stories about wage theft, disrespect of culture, pressure, unsafe environments and more. “It was rather stunning,” said Father Kiley. “This is going on in America?”

Interestingly, it was people like those immigrant workers who the Catholic church evangelized in the 1930s and 1940s, said Father Kiley, but knowledge of the historic connection between church and labor faded as the children of that earlier generation “became more wealthy, stable and filled the ranks of managers and owners, as Catholics rose up the ranks,” said Father Jon Pedigo, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in San Jose, who was at the Chicago session and who has a long history of involvement with the United Farm Workers and other labor and environmental issues.

A mentor at St. Patrick’s Seminary, the late Father Frank Norris, “helped me make the connection between the Eucharist and social justice,” said Father Pedigo, whose congregation is 98 percent Latino, working class, mostly poor. Many of them are attempting, unsuccessfully so far, to form a union at a San Jose grocery store where they’re employed.

Father Pedigo, who a decade or more ago brought a group of priests to Watsonville to support UFW efforts to organize strawberry workers, said what drives him is hearing the stories of economic hardships of parishioners. “I hear stories about the lack of upward mobility for so many people,” he said. “The only thing that really allows for any kind of stability is the capacity of people to form into these worker associations. Hearing the stories in your parish really motivates us to get involved and engaged,” he added.

Father Pedigo added, “What we are looking for is to have a better life. And many of the immigrant workers directly benefit from unionized jobs.”


From August 24, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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