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A RETURN TO CATHOLIC ACTION
By Rev. Bruce Nieli, C.S.P.

Fr. Bruce NieliI pray for a return to Catholic Action.

In 1972, during my seminary internship year at our Paulist mother house of St. Paul the Apostle Church on Manhattan’s West Side, I was part of the parish team hosting a rally in our spacious church basement for Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers. Chavez was quick to point out that there among the two thousand participants was a “saint,” Dorothy Day.

Both Cesar Chavez and Dorothy Day had been heroes of mine throughout my formation in the culturally formative 1960s. So when one of the UFW members addressed our parish Cursillo group the next morning and mentioned that both he and Chavez were Cursillistas, I was motivated to experience the movement myself (I had been a bit hesitant) to my great satisfaction!

I would later meet the Cursillo founder, Eduardo Bonnin. As a young man in 1940s Spain, Bonnin, I learned, belonged to something called “Catholic Action.” He and a group of other young men of that organization, disturbed by the absence of young adults in church participation, made a pilgrimage to the famous shrine of Saint James of Compostela and, after a profound conversion experience, came up with the Cursillo method of transforming society through small communities of committed Christians.

The expression “Catholic action” described both a movement and a mentality. As a movement, Catholic Action had its beginnings in the latter part of the 19th century, when laity proactively took measures to counteract the anticlericalism running rampant, especially throughout Europe in countries like France, Italy, Spain, and Belgium. As the Church entered the twentieth century, Catholic Action became more and more an organized movement in which laity, collaborating with the hierarchy, would work to bring Christ and the social teachings of the Catholic Church into the greater society. The godfather of the movement, honored by both Pope Pius XI and Pope Paul VI, was Father (later Cardinal) Joseph Leo Cardign of Belgium, founder, in 1919, of the Young Trade Unionists, which became, in 1924, the Young Christian Workers, the quintessential model for Catholic Action.

To articulate the philosophy of Catholic Action, I choose a selection from an essay by Peter Maurin, co-founder (with Dorothy Day) of the Catholic Worker movement, entitled “Blowing the Dynamite.” Cardign would refer to Maurin’s thought as “the purist spirit of the Gospel.”

Writing about the Catholic Church, a radical writer says: “Rome will have to do more than to play a waiting game; she will have to use some of the dynamite inherent in her message.” To blow the dynamite of a message is the only way to make the message dynamic. If the Catholic Church is not today the dominant dynamic social force, it is because Catholic scholars have taken the dynamite of the Church, have wrapped it up in nice phraseology, placed it in an hermetic container and sat on the lid. It is about time to blow the lid off so the Catholic Church may again become the dominant social dynamic force.

It would be this “blowing the dynamite” approach to proactive Catholicism that would characterize the highly diverse groups coming under the umbrella of Catholic Action. These would include, in addition to the Young Christian Workers, the Young Christian Students; the aforementioned Cursillo Movement, itself giving birth to numerous parish and youth encounters; the Legion of Mary; Sodalities; the Christian Family Movement; the various community organizing groups like COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service) in San Antonio, whose founder, Ernesto Cortes, would later train the young Barack Obama in Chicago; and Friendship House in Harlem (an early influence on Thomas Merton). The influential magazine Commonweal reflected the strong impact of Catholic Action.

Joseph Leo Cardign also designed what would become the predominate methodology of Catholic Action, summarized by the three titles of see (observe), judge, and act. This approach would make its way into the 1961 encyclical of Pope Saint John XXIII, Mater et Magister:

There are three stages which should normally be followed in the reduction of social principles into practice. First, one reviews the concrete situation; secondly, one forms a judgment on it in the light of these same principles; thirdly, one decides what in the circumstances can and should be done to implement these principles. These are the three stages that are usually expressed in the three terms: observe, judge, act. (paragraph236)

To put it another way, we see the reality around us, with its problems and challenges, with the eyes of Christ. We discern a response to these problems and challenges with the mind of Christ, using Scripture and the teachings of the Church. And we implement action responses as the Body of Christ. “Observe, judge, act’’ would become “piety, study, and action’’ in the Cursillo Movement and in Victorino de la Salle’s highly influential Federation of Cuban Catholic Youth.

I mentioned earlier that we may also speak of Catholic Action as a mentality. The move to bring Catholic social teaching into the public square motivated Catholics like Msgr. John A. Ryan of Catholic University, whom many have called the prophet of the New Deal, and Paulist John J. Burke, founder of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, precursor to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In fact, the current Catholic Campaign for Human Development began with the guiding principles of Catholic Action.

Even Hollywood felt the influence of the Catholic Action mentality. Movies of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, including Boys’ Town, The Keys of the Kingdom, Going My Way, and On the Waterfront, highlighted the socially conscious Catholic priest.

A contemporary example of such a priest directly formed by Catholic Action whose influence permeates current Catholicism is the very prophetic and Spirit-filled Msgr. Thomas Kleissler of Newark. In his recent memoir Beyond My Wildest Dreams, Kleissler describes a boyhood experience of picking up on a rainy day in the school library a pamphlet about Fr. Cardign and the Young Christian Workers. The pastoral approach of “observe, judge, act” that the future priest learned from that pamphlet, along with a life-long passion for justice and service to the poor, would dominate his subsequent pastoral activities, from leadership in the Christian Family Movement, to active participation in the civil rights movement, to the co-founding (with Msgr. Tom Ivory) of RENEW, a process that perhaps more than any other would build up the Church out of base communities of parishioners committed to ongoing personal conversion to Jesus and to connecting faith to everyday life.

To put it mildly, Catholic Action helped to lay the foundations for the emphasis on lay involvement in Church life so prominent in the Second Vatican Council, but there has been a subsequent lull. Now is the time for a revival and renewal. Hopefully the New Evangelization of Pope Saint John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis, can spark such a revival and renewal. Certainly the caring witness of Pope Francis, and his magnificent apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, provide reasons for hope.

Providentially, the Aparecida document (2007) of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference, for which the future pope was so largely responsible, explicitly employed the methodology of Catholic Action: see, judge, act (Aparecida, paragraph 19). The first part of the document, entitled “The Life of Our People Today,” is the “see’’ section, focusing on the reality of the world that the missionary disciple faces. The second part, “The Life of Jesus Christ in Missionary Disciples,” explores how to judge that reality in the light of faith. The third part, “The Life of Christ for Our Peoples,” contains very inclusive and practical ways to act!

For it is precisely Catholic Action, both as a movement and a mentality, that offers the best opportunities to unite pro-life and pro-poor in a polarized America desperately in search of being e pluribus unum. Recently I participated in a unified effort to serve the immigrant children and families coming across the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America in a desperate flight from poverty and threats from ruthless gangs and drug traffickers. There at the Rio Grande, at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, we were volunteers from all walks of life and ideologies, from the faith communities, the medical profession, the various levels of government, the legal profession, the local food bank, and even the bus station, all working together to meet the basic humanitarian needs of God’s precious children. Coordinating the entire effort was Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Brownsville.

There, in a border town filled with a cross section of the human race, I rejoiced to see a return to Catholic Action.

Reprinted with permission, Catholic Spirit, Diocese of Austin, Texas.

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