In this issue, we introduce you to three new alumni-written books that share the theme of social justice.
Whereas Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist challenging a mostly Protestant nation, César Chávez was a Catholic appealing to the predominantly Catholic growers of California who employed Hispanic farmworkers. By the mid-1970s, Chávez and his United Farm Workers had won a 70 percent increase in wages for California’s migrant farmworkers as well as such simple benefits as rest breaks and the provision of potable water.
As shown in the pages of César Chávez, the Catholic Bishops, and the Farmworkers’ Struggle for Social Justice (University of Arizona Press) by Marco Prouty, Ph.D. 2005, the Catholic Church played a decisive role in the movement’s success, entering the fray as a neutral mediator in the union’s 1965–1970 Delano Grape Strike, and then as an outright advocate of the farmworkers from 1970 to 1977.
A hero of this civil rights struggle was one of Catholic University’s own: the late Monsignor George Higgins, M.A. 1942, Ph.D. 1944, a lecturer in CUA’s School of Religious Studies who was “America’s foremost labor priest for half a century,” according to the Catholic News Service. As leading members of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Farm Labor, he and two other CUA alumni — Monsignor Roger Mahony (now the cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles) and the late Bishop Joseph Donnelly — were crucial to the union’s success in securing labor contracts and to the passage of pro-labor legislation.
Before César Chávez and the priests who aided him, there was Rev. Charles Philipps (1881–1958), a salty French-born priest who ministered in California parishes, protested abuse of Hispanic farmworkers, hid union organizers in his home, and ran a summer camp for poor children that influenced many of the seminarians who worked there to become social activists. He was derided as a “pinko priest,” and one rancher said of him, “If he wasn’t a Catholic priest, he would have been tarred and feathered a long time ago.”
Father Philipps mentored Rev. Don McDonnell, the priest who formed César Chávez’s social consciousness by encouraging him to study papal social justice encyclicals, the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi and the biography of Gandhi.
“In northern California in the 1930s and ’40s, Father Philipps was the Church’s lone voice for rural social justice,” says Gerald F. Cox, M.S.W. 1957, whose biography of the priest is entitled The Radical Peasant (Trafford Publishing).
When St. Catherine of Siena (1347–1380) cried bitterly to the Lord about having to leave her life of prayerful seclusion to interact with others, she heard God say she must walk “on the two feet of love … love of me and love of neighbor.” This twin emphasis is the focus of a new book for those who seek balance in their life: Great Mystics & Social Justice: Walking on the Two Feet of Love (Paulist Press), by Sister Susan Rakoczy, Ph.D. 1980.
Although the book tells the stories of famous “mystic-activists” such as Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, its focus is on a balance that all Christians are called to.
“Two temptations are enticing,” writes Sister Rakoczy. “One is to plunge into activism without a spiritual grounding. The other, especially insidious, is to take a deep breath, close the doors of the churches on the problems of society, and focus on a private experience of religion.”
She advises people to start small by finding one issue in their local community that bothers them and doing something to address it, and also by slowing down for a time each day to try to engage God in a personal way. — R.W.
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