The Pope Is With Us - Ed Willock (June 1953)
The Pope Is With Us
Ed Willock
June 1953

THOUSANDS of Americans can testify to the intimacy which grew between the Pope and themselves during the grim depression days when he became their champion.

Ed Willock: Confronted as we were in those days by a world which had no place for us, unemployable, useless (though we were at the peak of vitality and idealism), made to sit for uneasy hours in hiring halls awaiting half-heartedly for jobs we didn't want, resented at home for eating food we couldn't earn, chased from the corners by police who regarded us as nuisances, we searched everywhere for an answer to our predicament. In the newspapers, in the local public library, and in the eyes of our parents we sought an explanation. School was behind us, where at least we had been presented with half serious challenges and the opportunity to cope with them. In the few short months following graduation we found that society had no use for us. Our minds that had exercised themselves upon scholastic subjects, and our muscles that had so interestingly been challenged upon the ball fields, were for some strange reason of no particular worth in the practical conduct of society. You can imagine how avidly we searched for an answer. We had had no warning. Mountains of achievement had been pointed out to us all during our school years — then, without warning, to realize suddenly that we were ineligible to take even the first few steps in their ascent! Those were the mid-thirties and we had just emerged from high school. It was then that we discovered the Pope not just as a dogma but as a leader.

In those depression days everyone turned to the written word for direction. I have learned since then that one of the few businesses that flourished during the great depression was publishing. Hungry idle eyes fed upon words and pictures. For many the compulsion was one of escape, but among the youth we were driven by the desire for an explanation. How miraculous then, in the midst of such literature, that so many of us turned to the encyclicals of the Pope! It was as though the great Rerum Novarum, written by Leo XIII when our parents were in cradles, suddenly became topical and timely for the youth of 1936. "The condition of the working classes" became significant for us when we found ourselves the workingless classes! And then, as if sensing our search for direction, Pius XI delivered his "forty years after" encyclical in which he brought the comments of Leo XIII up to date, providing a contemporary answer for our contemporary questions.

tendency to the left

As victims of society are wont to do, we became very social conscious. A rare one among us would find a low paying job. I worked for two years for a group of radio stores in Boston. I helped with the delivery and installation of new radios, and my wages were ten dollars a week for about seventy-two hours of work. This job brought me into the homes of the more affluent citizens, as well as into homes not unlike my own. I had an opportunity to see the maldistribution of fortune. Many families were forced to live on less food and income than other families squandered and wasted. While working for a short time in a Boston hotel I saw buckets of uneaten steaks and succulent vegetables thrown out as garbage, food which my family could not have afforded, yet which was treated as unpalatable by the epicures who dined in this high-priced hotel! We heard the arguments against welfare and W.P.A. — business men commenting upon lazy fellows who leaned upon their shovels and got paid for it; men who could sit about golf-club rooms and luxuriate in such conversation, so unfamiliar with ditch-digging that they didn't know a man couldn't last one full day as a ditch-digger if he did not rest on his shovel from time to time. Some of our own fathers were wielding those shovels. Was it due to laziness that these men were on relief? I can recall easily my own father (as long as we could remember) walking home every night with his lunch bucket. For twenty years he had worked in the same factory, hardly missing a day. Then a grey day came when he told my mother that he had been "laid off." Why? For loafing? No, the management had changed hands and efficiency dictated that one hundred men must go. And he was one of the hundred.

Our questioning eyes saw these things, and the left-wing orators on Boston Common explained them a la Marx. It was then that our Holy Father issued the encyclical Divini Redemptoris on atheistic communism. Direction at a time when we needed it most! Conservative local churchmen and politicians preferred to defend traditional values rather than admit the social disorder about them. But the Vicar of Christ had no fear of being considered left-wing. I can remember the Catholic mayor in Boston piously commenting in one morning's Post, "Thank God, we have no breadlines in Boston!" I read these words while relaxing after working on the Catholic Worker breadline which fed nearly four hundred men daily. As I lifted my eyes from the newspaper I could see across Tremont Street the men and women lining up for free milk. The Pope could face facts. He was far away in Rome but he knew the local scene better than the local representatives of the state or of the Church. "I know mine and mine know me!" How we fed upon the Pope's words in those days! He preached the Gospel to the multitude even at a time when these people were the masses being lost to the Church.

labor unions

Then about that time began the rise of the labor unions. The same conservative elements who had denied the existence of the breadlines and ignored the plague of unemployment now damned the newborn C.I.O. as the child of communism. Of course, we were fascinated by this reawakening of wage-earning strength and were ready to defend it. Again the Pope was our champion. American Catholic labor leaders and a few priests came to the defense of this new force for social justice. Osservatore Romano, the semi-official Vatican paper, praised the vertical structure which had been adopted by the C.I.O. I learned that Catholic men strengthened by papal direction had developed the vertical union in the United Mine-Workers Union. Such fine Catholics as John Brophy and Phil Murray were behind this resurgence. More and more on street corners and at public labor rallies the words of the Pope were repeated. The Lady Garment Workers in Boston sent one of their leaders to take a course at Wellesley College — a course in union techniques. This woman, whose tuition they paid, was known to all of them as a disciple of the Popes. At every union meeting she stood up to the Trotskyites, the Leninites, and the Loevstonites, defending her position and furthering unionism as a papist. Through such voices as hers the contemporary program of the Church received a respectable hearing.

The temptation was great, of course, to find nothing in the Pope's messages other than a kind of left-wing partisanship. No doubt many Catholics and especially non-Catholics quoted the Popes to support their own class-conscious theories. For those of us who delved deeper, accepting the encyclicals for what they were, they introduced us to the strange new exciting universe of Catholic thought. Undoubtedly the encyclicals were heavily balanced on the side of the laborer, the family and the individual, defending these against the current tyrannies of corporations and governments, yet this was obviously an accidental emphasis dictated by the crying need of the day. However partisan they might have been, more careful study proved them to be magnificently balanced in remarkable contrast with the contemporary journalism
of the times.

Attracted by the accidental emphasis, the reader was bound to be led to the essentials of the faith. The papal letters and their commentaries provided a bibliography for our exploration. Quotations from Scripture led to a more intense perusal of the New Testament and a reading of the early Fathers of the Church. Historical references led us to historians like Belloc and Dawson. References to essential realities turned us to the philosophy of Maritain. The Pope's concern for the social order led us to Chesterton, McNabb, Penty, Monsignor John A. Ryan and hundreds of others. Aesthetic and cultural references turned us to commentators like Eric Gill and to the novels of Bloy, Mauriac and Bernanos. We all became interested in what the commies called "drug stores": the book shops and lending libraries. The Pope's paternal concern for our plight, standing out in such contrast with the indifference of local leaders, put us in touch with the many-sided mind of the Church as reflected in ancient and contemporary literature.

there have been results

What a blessing it has been to see the results of this ferment in so many American souls! I knew a young man, just graduated from Harvard of non-Catholic, well-to-do parents; he was introduced to contemporary Catholic thought by a copy of the Catholic Worker paper being placed in his hand as he walked along a street in Boston. He entered the Church and plunged diligently into a study of Christian labor unionism. He has made a career of forwarding just and effective unionism, although the effort caused a breakdown of his health. Today he is one of the foremost spokesmen for decent union practices. I met a girl, non-Catholic and attending a secular college in Maine, whose first contact with the Church was [through a] book written by Eric Gill. Now she is one of the most apostolic Catholics I have known. Then there was a seaman so esteemed in the Communist Party that he was chosen for the hollow honor of fighting in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain. Papal thought, first encountered by him as a kind of social program, led him into the Church. Ironically enough, a few 7 years ago his desire to visit Rome as a Holy Year pilgrim was frustrated because the government, recalling his escapade during the Spanish War, refused to issue him a visa.

These are but three people, but how many more there have been! Removed though they were by miles and ages from Christ’s Vicar, his message sought them out. "I know mine and mine know me." The Holy Spirit alive in the Pope sprang to life in the members of Christ. First one, then two, then thousands of sheep from scattered pastures lifted their heads and plodded slowly to the one fold, guided by the understanding voice and the protective crook of the one shepherd!

This experience during our formative years convinced us with reasonable evidence of the fact that so many Catholics hold by faith alone: the contemporary headship of the Pope as a living representative of God. The historical fact was this: the Pope through his guiding voice pointed out the path of vocation at a time when no other human voice could be heard. All was babel, cynicism, tongue-in-cheek justification. We were a generation without orientation, lost, separated by a yawning gap from our parents' world. In the midst of this chaos and clatter one commanding voice penetrated our consciousness, confirming our uncertain convictions. Here, to my mind, is a far greater miracle than Fatima, that in a vast world in which the individual is treated as an expendable fragment, something less than useless, the Vicar of Christ can effect a paternal rapport as compelling and as intimate as was achieved when the Pope was Peter and the Church a tiny tribe.

not everyone listened

I am not so ill-informed as to suppose that this experience which I and thousands of others have enjoyed, is typical among American Catholics. Far from it. The fact that we are scandalized by the general indifference to the encyclicals, exhibited by the Catholic world as a whole, sets us apart as peculiar people. He who makes frequent reference to papal teachings is a marked man in his parish. Obviously the tone of papal encyclicals and speeches, up to and including last Christmas Eve's address, appear to be alarmist almost to the point of hysteria when heard against a background of parochial "business as usual." To repeat the papal warning (as it appeared in that Christmas message) to beware the infiltration of technological mores into the family and social area, to repeat this at a parochial gathering, is as out of place as to quote Marx to a chamber of commerce. Expedience and technological efficiency have become so much a part of the parochial scene that even to question them is to be damned as a rebel, papal authority to the contrary!

It is by no means edifying to be told (as I was told by a curate) that these new-fangled notions of social reorganization lack the orthodoxy of traditional parochial practices. It would appear that papal direction lacks historical prestige. Perhaps that is why only yesterday Catholics became excited about communism, while only so short a time ago as 1936 to be so concerned was to risk the possibility of being considered communist yourself. By the time that the contemporary Pope's messages merit the esteem of the traditionalists they will be as valueless as so much of the traditional nonsense that is currently given preference. The paradox is this: whereas the timeliness of papal directives was the attractive element which endeared them to the youth of the depression days, it is this very novelty which makes them suspect in the eyes of the traditionalists. To my mind a gross heresy is continuously implied in the attitudes of the traditionalists; namely, that the Holy Ghost was with the Church in days of yore, but in
1953? One must be prudent (cautious).

Yet I am loath to make too much of this delinquency. Far more can be accomplished by Catholics organizing informally to cope with the challenges of their own state in life than can be
done by criticizing the ultra-conservatism which characterizes parochial affairs. Positive action of this kind strengthens the theological virtues within us, helping us to comply with the spirit as well as the words of our Holy Father, whereas too great a concern for the "business as usual" mentality among our Catholic brothers arouses an antipathy which destroys enthusiasm and provokes discontent.

a religious experience

In the long history of Christianity many have testified to religious experiences which educe convictions and which defy debate. The Christians whose faith has been so confirmed are unmoved by mere polemics. These mystical experiences, as history and hagiology records them, usually deal with mysteries that are eternal and other-worldly. Thus they can be a source of religious edification for Catholic and Protestant alike. But this modern experience which I have attempted to describe, a confirmation in the minds of thousands, is a testimony to that very doctrine which the Protestant Reformation denied: the vicarage of the Pope at Rome as the temporal head of Christ's Church. Secularism and other post-Reformation conditions robbed the Church of much of its worldly prestige. That is to say, the local civic powers and the local mores no longer confirmed or reflected the authority which Catholics attribute to their Pontiff. The world organized itself and conducted its affairs without concern for the man who claimed to be a personal representative of God Himself. The Pope became an anomaly, boasting of incredible authority in defiance of the fact that in terms of temporal power he was a nobody. His temporal power waned as that of demagogues and merchants grew. More and more he appeared to the indifferent world as a provincial potentate living on the reflected glories of a dead past. Yet it was from this position of low esteem that his divine commission to guide the world proved most persuasive. It was not until his words appeared in columns shared with minor political analysts, across the page from ads for women's underwear, that they fanned a spark in the hearts of men everywhere. The magnetism of his headship was felt best when it exercised its compulsion in competition with every worldly persuasion. In the twentieth century the papacy gained title to paternal authority even among the faithful who had never doubted the validity of the authority.

This, I think, is the lesson that all Catholics must learn, whether bishop, priest or layman: that he who has the greatest authority among us was not tossed back upon a mere vindication of its validity when it was defied and questioned by every minor merchant and major poet, but rather, against such odds, he exercised a merciful untiring concern for men, thus gaining title before them. Perhaps we have made too much of the fact that we, the baptized and the ordained, represent the Creator and the Judge, and made too little of the fact that we represent Him Who suffered and died for love of men.

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