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George Higgins: assured a place in church history

Long before his death, Msgr. George Higgins was assured a significant place in the history of the Catholic church in the United States.

Most notably, perhaps, he is one of the last of a generation of “labor priests” who represented the interests of immigrant Catholic America before the country’s economic powers. They joined in the fight for worker rights and living wages, humane hours and working conditions, arguing the inherent dignity of every person. Their arguments and protests were made to those who were not about to improve the lot of workers out of sheer altruism.

Higgins’ life and writings should be studied by every seminarian who wants a profound example of a healthy minister whose style was to convince the world with wit, intelligence and love, not condemnations. He was a voracious reader, and near the end of his life, when his eyes failed and he was unable to read, visitors reported that he was still educating himself, self-administering taped courses on church history.

He was revered and esteemed far and wide, not because he wielded power, walked with wealth or had the ear of the influential, but because he knew that the church was at its best when it brought the truth of Jesus to real people in their everyday circumstances. Unlike others who, given his access to power and influence, might have gone a different direction, Higgins never followed the lure of money and power.

If he represents the last of a generation of labor priests, he also represents the diminishing interest of the institutional church in such matters. For years, Higgins in his labor work could count on the support of the church’s national headquarters, where he maintained an office.

When he retired, his beat, as it were, retired with him.

Certainly the George Higgins of today is out there somewhere. There are priests who know the current territory of the marginalized and the dispossessed, those who need to organize to have a voice. What they need, in turn, is the platform and support of the national church, they need it to help articulate a vision and a strategy.

Higgins’ mission remained relatively uncluttered even in recent years when organized labor suffered huge losses and the new service economy and globalization seemed to overwhelm the notion of workers’ rights. “In recent years,” he said, “too many of our leading conservatives and neo-conservatives 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.”

His mission remains a compelling one. In an interview about 10 years ago, he appeared to reduce a lifetime of work and study and his understanding of decades of church social teaching to a simple line spoken with enormous conviction: “People have a right to organize.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 10, 2002