Msgr. George Higgins: A Reflection by Fr. Clete Kiley

Recently the AFL-CIO and the Catholic Labor Network hosted an event honoring the legacy of “labor priest” Msgr. George Higgins. Fr. Clete Kiley moderated the panel discussion.

Several years ago, a Labor leader lamented to me that with Msgr. Higgins gone, the Labor priests are all dead. But it is clear from our gathering here that the “Mantle of Elijah” has been passed along to a new generation of Labor committed Catholics, and not just of priests, but of theologians, lay Catholic Labor leaders. Catholic workers, and lay ecclesial minsters. Msgr. Higgins would be delighted to see this.

For my part, I am here today as a representative of the Church of Chicago and the Chicago Labor Movement. I bring you greetings from Cardinal Cupich and from President Robert Reiter of the Chicago Federation of Labor, whose generous support got me here today.

George Gilmary Higgins was born on January 21, 1916 in Chicago. Twenty years ago, May 2, 2002 he died there. But Chicago was more than a book-end venue on his life’s journey. It was the city and the church out of which he came. It was in his bones. I believe it will be helpful to reflect on some aspects of his Chicago history.

On December 9, 1915, one month before George Higgins’ birth, Bishop George William Mundelein was appointed the new Archbishop of Chicago. A few years later Mundelein was named the first Cardinal of the West. The Church of Chicago in those days has been described as “the Confident Church”. In 1916 Chicago was the fastest growing city in the country. It was the largest Catholic Archdiocese.

Cardinal Mundelein was decidedly pro-Labor. He urged Chicago priests to be on the “side of the workingman”.  He hailed Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.  He heartily embraced the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ 1919 Program for Social Reconstruction. He created structures to better provide social services, and developed ways to support working people. He built St, Mary of the Lake Seminary- Mundelein Seminary today.  And every brick, wire and toilet was done by union tradesmen. Mundelein believed the Catholic church and American culture were compatible. He chose the seminary’s Georgian architecture to underscore this point. He wanted to inculcate future priests with this openness to America, with a sense of American citizenship, and economic justice and collaboration with all faiths working for the common good.

Among the seminarians who attended Mundelein’s seminary was Msgr. John Hayes. He is a key person in the Higgins story. He was ordained at Mundelein in 1930. He was THE Labor priest before George. In 1931 Quadragesimo Anno was promulgated underscoring the Church’s commitment to social reconstruction.  In 1933 John Hayes was sent to Rome to study for a doctorate in Catholic Social Doctrine. When he returned, he started worker programs and the local Labor schools. From 1940 to 1944 he served at the NCWC and organized the Labor Schools in dioceses around the country.

(a side note: Msgr. Hayes was my first pastor. He hosted a lunch every year that included Msgr. Hillenbrand, Msgr. Higgins, Msgr. Jack Egan, Msgr. Gene Boyle from San Jose, Msgr, Bill Kelly from Brooklyn and some others.  I was a rookie so my job was to get more ice. But what a legacy! Also, Msgr. Hayes had been pastor in another parish where a young parishioner asked him if he could become an altar boy. Msgr Hayes told the lad maybe he might want to become a Catholic first. Shortly after, Msgr. Hayes received Wilton Daniel Gregory into the Church.) This is a piece of the Higgin’s DNA I’m trying to convey. It was never just one individual doing the work, but a whole network of relationships that gives the context out of which we come. They knew each other and were organized back in their day.

In 1933 George Higgins entered Mundelein seminary. In 1936 Cardinal Mundelein appointed Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand as rector. Hillenbrand was a noted social justice advocate and liturgical reformer. Hillenbrand challenged the students to read every daily newspaper they could get their hands on.  They were formed to explore interfaith dialogue, to tackle the implications of economic and racial justice, and were urged to collaborate with Labor unions, the government, and other religious denominations working for the common good.

George was formed in a Church where the Pope, the Cardinal and the seminary rector were all in alignment around the social mission of the Church. They were clear about the dignity of work, the rights of workers, and the value of unions. This alignment put wind in George Higgins’ sails and allowed his life and ministry, and thus, the Church itself, to become such a beacon for working people. Msgr. Higgins worked his whole life with Catholic bishops and Labor leaders and workers to hold that alignment firm. We need this alignment now more than ever.  We need bishops, and priests, Labor leaders, and working people, really all of us, to safeguard this alignment in every parish and chancery, in every union hall, and on every work site, everywhere. In short, we need solidarity and unity if the Church will “ take the side of the worker” as Cardinal Mundelein urged George and his confreres to do so many decades ago.

Our panelists will now share how Msgr. Higgins’ legacy lays a foundation for what each of them, and all of us, are called to do today.

Fr. Evelio Menjivar, Pastor, Priest-Labor Initiative, Archdiocese of Washington.

Dr. Meghan Clark, St. John’s University- a bright generation of lay Catholic theologians;

Mr. Chuck Hendricks, a Catholic union organizer with UNITEHERE International Union, and the Catholic Labor Network.

George Higgins would love seeing this panel.

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  1. […] member Patti Devlin welcomed a panel that explored Monsignor Higgins’ legacy at the AFL-CIO. Fr. Clete Kiley, as moderator, introduced the topic with reflections on Higgins and the Chicago environment that […]

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