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Gathering honors ‘labor movement’s parish priest’


Maybe it was those years of getting atop flatbed trucks to rally migrant dayworkers in the California farmlands. Or speaking through a bullhorn in Rust Belt union halls or picket lines. Or preaching homilies in packed churches. Whatever the reason, the boom in the voice of Msgr. George Higgins hasn’t lost a decibel. At 85, he uses a cane and he has had eye and hip problems. But at the podium before 300 admirers gathered at the AFL-CIO headquarters, just blocks from the White House, the evening of Nov. 10 for a testimonial dinner honoring the stalwart known as “the labor movement’s parish priest,” the Higgins voice -- deep, full-throated -- was there. Along with his grace, wit and ire.

At the monsignor’s insistence, the dinner was a fundraiser for the Fr. Jack Egan Interfaith Fund for the Future. It was sponsored by Chicago-based National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, which Higgins called, “a very good organization, and the best I have seen in my lifetime.”

A full, spirited, conscience-driven lifetime it has been. No one at the dinner, which brought together high- and low-ranking members of the nation’s labor, political and religious communities, needed reminding that here was a moral giant who for six decades sided with the plumbers, janitors, maids, mechanics, teachers, miners, truck drivers, nurses, pickers and anyone else looking for workplace justice.

“If there is a priest more respected than Msgr. Higgins,” said Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, who recently ended his term as president of the nation’s Catholic bishops, “I haven’t heard of him.”

At 13 Higgins entered Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago. Twelve years later in 1940, the son of a night shift postal worker was ordained. It was the era of two progressive prelates -- George Mundelein and Samuel Stritch -- who took seriously the great papal social encyclicals and made sure that all their clergy and laypeople were also on board. Higgins needed no prompting. As a young priest, he wrote: “The Christian has a temporal mission to perform in and through society, a mission which is part of his supernatural development and not something added on as an elective.”

After studies in labor economics at The Catholic University of America, Higgins remained in Washington to join the National Catholic Welfare Conference, there to learn how to work the gears of the church’s social justice machine. That would be his base until retiring in 1980, 13 years after the organization divided into the U.S. Catholic Conference and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Higgins currently lives on the retired priests wing at the Carroll Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in northeast Washington near Catholic University, where he taught for years. He remains a voracious reader; his first floor apartment is book-lined, the tables heavy with magazines.

Not tethered to conventional ministry in those early years, Higgins designed his own apostolate, one that would keep him on the run for some six decades working for what he called “basic human rights, economic as well as political.”

Higgins established himself nationally through his weekly syndicated column “The Yardstick,” which provided editorial page fiber for the church’s diocesan newspapers. In Without Fear or Favor (Twenty Third Publications), biographer Gerald Costello described the column as “an incredible outpouring of words, of insightful and significant commentary on the major questions of our time faced by the church.” His 1993 memoir, Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a Labor Priest (Paulist Press, written with William Bole) is a trove of history, analysis and insight, all of it annealed by faith.

With spunk, the Higgins column often took on both the left and right. When Saul Alinsky, the Chicago community organizer, ridiculed Sargent Shriver’s Office of Economic Opportunity in the late 1960s as “a feeding trough for the welfare industry surrounded by sanctimonious, hypocritical, phony, moralistic crap,” the monsignor fired back: “Saul is a great organizer and a great actor, but I think the time has come for his friends, and I am one of them, to tell him point-blank that he is beginning to act like an old-time vaudeville ham who will say almost anything, no matter how embarrassingly silly, just to get a laugh from the galleries. There is nothing funny at all about getting a laugh at the expense of Sargent Shriver and the OEO. It is a form of sick humor, very sick indeed.”

In 1961, William F. Buckley’s National Review derided Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra as “a venture in triviality.” Higgins wrote: “This snide comment on the encyclical is a rather disgraceful performance, but it will not have been written in vain if it served to open the eyes of those Catholics who have hitherto looked to the National Review for guidance in the field of social ethics.”

Much the same fire blazed at the Nov. 10 dinner. In a 20-minute speech -- the brevity alone was a mark of innate modesty -- Higgins cited Pope John Paul’s 25,000 word encyclical Centesimus Annus, which supported labor unions’ drives “to gain broader areas of participation in the life of industrial enterprises.” This, Higgins said, “is a clear call for new experiments in co-management, co-ownership and, in general, for a broader definition of the role of trade unions over and above their somewhat limited role in traditional collective bargaining.”

In his prepared text, Higgins turned up the heat: “It remains to be seen when, if ever, American conservatives and neoconservatives will respond in practice, as opposed to pure theory, to the pope’s strong endorsement of trade unions. … In recent years, too many of our leading conservatives and neoconservatives have been thunderously silent on this issue. ... The time has come to change course and belatedly come out loud and clear in support of the legitimate goals of organized labor.”

Colman McCarthy, director of the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, is the author of All of One Peace: Essays on Nonviolence.

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2001