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Scouring the skyways for chances to minister

NCR Staff

When Chicago’s National Center for the Laity polled its 5,000 members a year ago, the “resounding call” was for forums to “help lay people link their faith to their daily work.”

The center’s response was “Monday into Sunday,” an April 15-18 conference that invited people from 80 nationwide groups in a dozen states, each with a stake in making social justice and other Christian concerns a constitutive part of the individual’s working life.

As the meeting began, the power failed in the basement of Chicago’s Old St. Patrick’s Church. But as the candles were lit, the stories came pouring out.

Chicago lawyers and Boston labor leaders, Texas campus ministers, downtown parish pastors and seminary faculty grappled with what Laity Center director Bill Droel called the need to “explore themes and ideas for a Catholic faith-and-work movement.”

The criteria for the invitation-only conference was that each organization was already spending time, money and energy each year specifically on programs designed to link faith and work. The idea, said Droel, was to swap stories and plot a way ahead.

Typical of the participants was Fr. John Forliti of St. Olaf’s Parish in downtown Minneapolis. St Olaf’s spent $350,000 to building a stairway and escalator connection to the city’s five-miles of enclosed “skyways.”

Office and retail workers, passersby and daily communicants, have access not just to four Masses daily and a 15-minute daily centering-prayer session, but programs from Ignatian retreats to a faith-and-breakfast session in which speakers explain their attempts to bring their faith to the workplace.

St. Olaf’s attracts 2,500 mainly younger people to its eight weekend Masses. Forliti told NCR they usually are “really hungry about what it means to be Catholic. Somewhere along the way they either missed the catechesis or they are young recruits. Others want to find meaning or to be socially involved. Or they’re young lawyers weighing their Christian commitment.”

Marianist Sr. Grace Walle -- one of the speakers -- knows lawyers like them. She’s a chaplain at St. Mary’s University Law School, San Antonio. At the conference, “I networked with people [from groups] like Bread for the World, and with a lawyer for a pro bono legal clinic in Chicago,” she said.

“What the center needs now,” Walle suggested, “is a process step -- on what to do as a group and not just as individuals. I think the center’s not known at all -- not down here in San Antonio. But I felt empowered. The witness of the people present made me come back and write [to Droel], ‘I’m willing to help.’ ” Added Walle, “that’s the sign of a good conference.”

Walle was impressed by speakers like consultant Susan Mlot, who helps companies establish labor-management partnerships. Mlot’s examples for NCR: at Unilever and General Mills plants, labor and management jointly devised new work, pay and governance systems.

At Kaiser Permanente, California, Mlot said, the partnership worked together when new hospitals were built. Unions, management and physicians were equally involved in designing how the hospitals would develop and operate.

Sr. Donna Ryan of the Cathedral Center for Faith and Work in downtown Kansas City, Mo., said she had attended a similar gathering five years ago where participants were mostly priests and nuns. “This year they were mostly business men and women,” she said. “That shows they are taking ownership of the movement.”

One contentious issue was raised by broker Mike McGilliguddy at the “Monday to Sunday” gathering, said organizer Droel: What is the Christian’s responsibility as the rich-get-richer and the poor-get-poorer.

St. Mary’s chaplain Walle agreed that McGilliguddy sparked vigorous discussion by the mainly middle and upper-middle class attendees, especially when he frankly admitted that his job required he sometimes compromise his ideals. McGilliguddy said exploring the tension between those ideals and workaday reality was the job of theology.

Opening speaker Jesuit Fr. William Byron, a writer and Georgetown professor, also tackles business ethics topics as a member of the Woodstock Business Conference. Byron said that Mass-going Catholics ought to take the the “Monday to Sunday” conference title to heart.

“Sunday’s offertory procession begins on Monday.” It “reminds us,” Byron told NCR, “that while Christians are to bring their Sunday faith to their Monday work, it’s also true they are to bring their Monday work to their Sunday faith.”

Droel said that one way ahead for a faith and work movement is to further “network those lay information centers” that “are trying to educate young Catholics in the church’s social tradition. Perhaps we can network those places in such a way that we enhance and improve” the possibilities of making that education more widely available, he said.

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1999