What is a Catholic Worker vocation?

Jim Consedine

At the recent national CW hui at Hiruharama, lengthy discussions were held to help clarify the nature of a CW vocation in modern New Zealand. We reflected on the gospels and Church social teaching, on some of the sacred traditions we have inherited from our tupuna and from within the traditions of the CW and Dorothy Day, Ammon Hennacy, Jim Dowling, Kassie Temple, Ciaron O’Reilly, Jeff Dietrich and Peter Maurin to mention just a few leaders. We also looked to the short but significant 18-year history of the CW in this country. Being a small island nation ensconced in the heart of western capitalism with a rich indigenous history of life dating back 1000 years before colonisation, we believe we have a unique opportunity to develop our own style of gospel witness in the CW tradition.

At the hui, our group analysis of the society made for sobering thought. We highlighted how idolatrous the materialist culture of mainstream society has become in direct defiance of the biblical edict that there should only be One God. In our country, God has a rival. We noted how our consumer culture and its all-pervading impact through the corporate media has its roots in war and violence. There is widespread loneliness and alienation among many sectors and a culture of binge drinking and excessive drug abuse among sections of young people. This is reflected in NZ leading the world in youth suicide. We foresaw a looming ecological crisis sparked by global warming but centred around the use of resources especially water and food distribution. This is no prophetic insight but a statement of fact. Our nation’s secular nature was noted, as were its economic and social class divisions which, while usually denied, are very apparent to us. We challenged the notion that all technological advances could be equated with development as the dominant society teaches.

We felt the mainstream churches generally showed little faith in their own credal or social beliefs and seemed very reluctant to risk anything to spread and live the radical faith they have inherited. There appears to be few prophets and little vision. As the psalmist says, ‘Without a vision, the people perish.’ Christ is too often presented as an insurance policy and safety net rather than a leader in spiritual and human growth. Timidity and security seem too often to be the hallmarks of Christian belief, not risk and pilgrim faith. We are sad about that.

We felt there were some strong positive sides to our national identity – our widespread ecological interest, the tradition of peacemaking symbolised in our nuclear free legislation, mainstream efforts to better understand the Treaty of Waitangi and its implications (a process which hardly exists in other western countries), excellent networking among some groupings, a strong sense of compassion and justice at a local level, and despite some appearances to the contrary, a national spirit of tolerance and acceptance of differences. And there are many small groups taking up the challenges of the age and stepping out in faith of one form or another to build a more just and hope-filled future.

So what makes a CW vocation?

Give us 20 CWs and you will get 20 answers. That’s the trouble with a movement with anarchist roots – you find it difficult to get agreement. However, at the hui we went back to basics. We began our reflection with the words of Zechariah’s prayer in Luke, that we are called ‘to be free from fear…..and live in holiness and justice all the days of our lives in God’s presence.’ This we agreed was our universal vocation from baptism. Add to that mix some key components of the gospels like the Beatitudes of Luke and the Corporal Works of Mercy, and it all starts to shape up. Nothing complacent about those writings given the context then and the context for them now.

When we got down to specifics, we agreed on 15 specific characteristics which might help form a CW vocation. Some CWs will have some. Some will have others. Few will have them all. But that is the way we progress – we are a pretty motley lot and dare to struggle to make things happen. So, how do we, in the words of Peter Maurin our co-founder, ‘create a new society within the shell of the old?’ In no particular order of importance, Catholic Workers seek to practise:

  • Te matauranga o te tangata whenua – to walk in the spirit of the indigenous people of this land is to walk on proven paths
  • Personalism – a philosophy of life which recognises the God-given dignity of each individual
  • A preferential option for the poor – from our earliest days, CWs have sought to identity the Risen Christ in the poor and act accordingly. Luke’s gospel and the teachings of mainstream Churches now strongly support this stance.
  • Voluntary poverty – in a world dominated by ownership of material objects, we are called to surrender our lives to Christ and live as simply as possible
  • Personal obligation – we take personal responsibility as best we can to help support the needy rather than leaving it to state agencies.
  • Pacifism – we believe that Jesus was the exempla extraordinaire of non-violence and pacifism. Like the early Christians, we oppose war and violence as being not just bad for people but against the teachings of Jesus.
  • Nonviolent resistance – to tyranny and other forms of exploitation. As Christians, we cannot live cheek-to-jowl with poverty, militarism and exploitation. When all legal means have failed, in the spirit of Mohandas Gandhi, Daniel and Phillip Berrigan and Martin Luther King we are called to act from conscience to overcome evil and bring about social justice
  • Daily practice of the works of mercy – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned and a range of other acts of love to neighbour
  • ‘Small is beautiful’ – is our economic model in an age of corporate giants and massive labour exploitation. German economist E. F. Schumacher highlighted the model ‘small is beautiful’ in the 1970s. In an age of worldwide corporations and multi-nationals, ‘small is beautiful’ better suits our thinking when it comes to economics.
  • Building intentional communities – Dorothy Day said ‘the only solution is love and love comes with community.’ This is not always easy in cultures built on individualism.
  • Communal prayer – we recognise little can be done by one person acting alone. It is too easy to be marginalised or to lose heart. The power of our little movement comes from community – and the love and support that engenders.
  • Practise hospitality – for in so doing ‘you might be entertaining angels ‘ as the ancient Greeks used to say. Hospitality, especially to the poor, sits at the heart of a healthy society.
  • Good work – manual labour is seen as being invited to be part of the on-going creative energy of God. Schumacher distinguishes between ‘good’ work which enhances creation and the worker, and ‘bad’ work which is exploitative and demeaning.
  • Minimising harm to the environment – is a further development of earlier principles which needs to be highlighted as part of good work
  • Creating farming communes/growing ‘healthy’ food – organic where possible, respecting the soil and the cycles of nature.

So, what is a Catholic Worker vocation? Ultimately, it is a call from God (as are all true vocations) which seeks to encapsulate all or some of the elements above. It is a beckoning, a calling forth, as the prophet Micah says, ‘to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with God’ in a modern context. It is an amazing and life-giving way to follow Christ, be Church, live locally with others yet be part of a worldwide family.

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