On April 1, 2016, Bishop Rice addressed Missouri Legislators, Catholic Charities Board Members, Catholic Charities Federated Agency Board Members, and staff at our annual Legislative Breakfast. Below is a copy of his important and moving speech.
In September of last year, our Holy Father came to the United States for a pastoral visit and he addressed the members of the United States Congress. And I thought that, this morning, this might be a good opportunity for us to remember some of the challenging words that he gave to Congress, and apply it to some of our own situations. He began by stating that each son or daughter of a given country has a mission – a personal and social responsibility. He told the members of Congress, that as the members of Congress, they are the face of its people – their representatives, and they are called to defend and preserve the dignity of their fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.
He said, in a very special way, that we should always be concerned for those who are vulnerable and at risk. He said all legislative activity is based on the care for the people – and he said, “You have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you for the care of the people.” That’s a good reminder. The story is told of when Cardinal DiNardo of Texas met John Paul II – he was at some visit in Rome, and he was able to meet with the Holy Father… as he walked away, one of his priests said, “What did the Holy Father say to you.” The Cardinal answered, “He said this, Remember, it’s always about the human person.” You know, that’s easy to forget. It’s easy to forget in the political world, and it’s easy to forget in the Church. Sometimes we have our programs, and we’re so determined about our programs, we forget that behind those programs – are the people. In the midst of the programs and all the details, remember, it’s always about the human person.
The Holy Father went on to challenge the members of Congress. He said, “Remember, we are called to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and – one step at a time – to build a better life for their families.” And that’s what we all want, huh? We are all looking for the same things. We all want security in life, we all want stability. The average man or woman walking down the street right now – that’s what they’re looking for – to have a little stability, a little security. These are your average people that we are called to serve – and to remember that, it’s all about the human person, the everyday people who we are called to serve.
Now our Holy Father went on to use four different figures – some from the Church, and some from society–the history of our country–that have inspired us. The first one that he mentioned was Abraham Lincoln. And what did Abraham Lincoln call us to? A new birth of freedom. Now unfortunately, it was born under violent conflict and hatred and brutal atrocities of our own Civil War, but, he said in the midst of all that, we are to respond with hope and healing, with peace and justice – because today, in our day and age, there is conflict – a violent conflict – hatred and brutal atrocities being committed, and as members of the legislature, you are called to be people of hope and healing, of peace and justice.
The Holy Father reminded Congress – and again, reminds all of us this morning, that the challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation – cooperation, huh? To pool our resources and our talents – and to resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience…but to cross political ideologies and religious differences, and to cooperate – for example, between government and faith-based organizations – because the government can’t do it all, and faith-based organizations can assist – and faith-based organizations can’t do it all, and the government should come to assist, and to look for those areas where we can come together, for – again, the good of the people, because it’s all about the human person.
He goes on to remind us that such cooperation between different groups is a powerful resource to eliminate injustice.
Then, our Holy Father mentioned of course, Martin Luther King. The dream that Martin Luther King had – you know it’s a dream, I think, as an act of hope. When we dream, we hope that life can be better. And isn’t that what every parent wants for their child – to have a better life than they did? Maybe so that they wouldn’t have to work as hard, although we should never be afraid of hard work – but that our next generation, our children, can do better than we did. That’s always the dream I think, of a parent. And when a country has lost the ability to dream, they have lost hope. And again, as legislators, you are called to protect the dream that people have.
And again, it’s a very simple dream – security and peace – that they can live together as one – the ability to have a stable life – that’s what people are looking for. Remember, it’s always about the human person.
Our Holy Father mentioned Dorothy Day, who was a particularly powerful Catholic figure. She was a social activist, she had a passion for justice, she cared about those who were oppressed, and she was inspired by the Gospel.
But shouldn’t social activism and justice and care for the oppressed – shouldn’t that be the concern of those in politics as well? Dorothy Day embraced voluntary poverty because there were so many she said that had no choice – they lived in abject poverty. And she said that the fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly, and on many fronts – especially at its root – the root causes of poverty. Catholic Charities, for example, their motto – they have eight organizations but one cause. And I would like to think that as we try to feed the hungry, you who are in the world of politics, you would work at the root causes of hunger – that we at Catholic Charities – when we deal with the issues of homelessness, that you would deal with the root causes of homelessness. There are so many ways in which we can work together, and to always remember, it’s always about the human person.
Finally, our Holy Father brought to the attention of Congress, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk. He was a man of prayer, and he was a man of dialogue. And our Holy Father himself said, “It is my duty to build bridges, and to help all men and women in any way possible, to do the same – to build a bridge, instead of a wall.” Our Holy Father challenged Congress to build bridges. He did the same thing when he was in Mexico, overlooking the United States, and when he said to build a bridge instead of a wall then, he received a lot of criticism for it, but he said the same thing to Congress, “We are called to build bridges.” He said, “It is my duty to build bridges, and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same.” Why? Because walls divide – walls also provide a false sense of security based on separation. And when we do that, we’ve lost sight of the human person.
You know, I go down to the soup kitchen on Tuesdays with our seminarians. I first went down in 1991, when I was teaching at a high school with our boys and we would go down once a month to cook a meal. And I still remember the very first meal – it was this huge pot of Hamburger Helper, and we didn’t know what we were doing, and I remember we burned it and it tasted awful. It was so bad even the poor wouldn’t eat it, and we learned quickly, the next month we got the moms to come and cook the meal, and then we served it.
And when I was transferred to the Seminary in ’95, I made it a part of the program for our seminarians. Every Tuesday during school, the Juniors go down to the soup kitchen at Peter and Paul in St. Vincent’s, and we serve the poor. Why? Because it’s all about the human person. And in one sense, we could probably train a monkey or a computer to do what we do – bringing the food to them at their place. But it’s the human touch, it’s the dignity, it’s the respect for the human person that we bring along with it. And it’s very edifying to go and to see the people that come there. And they do us a service, in allowing us to serve them, and so we must never forget, it’s always about the human person.