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Reconstructing the Social Order Through the Works of Mercy in an Age of Migration: Reflections from the Houston Catholic Worker

Artist: Angel Valdez

“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name,” Exodus 20:7. To “misuse” God’s name is to appropriate his name to justify self-interest, violence, murder….. (La Civiltá Cattolica)

 The fabric of our social order is being harmed and even destroyed today by the following of false gods. This includes the misuse of the Lord’s name in overt expressions of hostility towards groups in our society (especially migrants and refugees), extreme capitalism that increases the wealth of the few while many poorer people suffer, and by some expressions of Christian(?) nationalism which increase divisions.

During the Great Depression, Peter Maurin echoed the call of Pope Pius XI in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, asking us to help to reconstruct the social order. Much of that work remains to be done. And this may be a very special moment in which to do it. As Bishop Mark Seitz recently said in America magazine, “Migration is a privileged space in which the salvific mystery is being acted out.”

Misusing God’s Name

Those who say terrible things about refugees and migrants, those who defend unjust business practices in the name of God and freedom might meditate on the full text of the Commandments, especially the one against misusing God’s name. In an article entitled “An Impossible Fraternity?” in the Jesuit magazine La Civiltá Cattolica,  Giovanni Cucci writes of the consequences of misusing God’s name:

“Significantly, in the Decalogue, the prohibition against taking God’s name in vain is followed by the threat of punishment (“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name,” Exodus 20:7), which is not mentioned in the context of the other commandments, as if to reiterate the seriousness of such a transgression. To ‘misuse’ God’s name is to appropriate his name to justify self-interest, violence, murder, as can be associated with fundamentalism, terrorism and abuse of religious authority. The text distances itself from such perversions, denounces their seriousness, but at the same time also reveals their presence throughout history.”

Misusing God’s name includes presenting to the world a “version” of Christianity which, while calling itself Christian, on close observation can be found not to be Christianity at all, but rather a “new” religion that promotes disparagement of others, encourages threats of violence and oppression, the identification of only one country with its religion, and the violation of other commandments as well: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. You shall not covet … anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Some partisans of this other religion believe that persecution of refugees and migrants, the seeking of absolute power, lies, and even murder are justified.

They have omitted the knowledge that God created all people in His image and likeness and also have overlooked key passages in the New Testament

The Commandments: Do Not Follow False gods, Do Not Worship Idols

The warnings from the prophets of the Bible that we not be taken in by false gods should give us all pause.

The Bible story from the prophetic book of Daniel about worshipping false gods is not as well-known as Daniel in the Lion’s Den, but it is significant for our times.

The story of Daniel tells of how the King of Babylon asked his friend Daniel why he did not worship the idol, Bel. revered and worshipped by the king and the Babylonians. The whole nation worshipped that god.

Daniel’s answer to the king was that he did not worship man-made idols, but only the Living God, who created heaven and earth. The king was surprised and said to Daniel, Do you not see that Bel is a living god? See how much he eats and drinks every day. We give him twelve bushels of flour and forty sheep to eat each night long with fifty gallons of wine.

Daniel laughed and said, Do not be deceived., O king. This is but clay and brass and it never ate or drank anything.

Through Daniel’s practical wisdom, the king learned that the seventy priests of Bel and their wives and children had been going through underground tunnels to get the food and eat it each night. The king put the priests to death, and gave the idol Bel over to Daniel, who destroyed it and its temple. (Daniel 14:1-22).

God Walks with his People Today

This earth is not our permanent home. As Servant of God Dorothy Day said, “We are on a pilgrimage to our real home” with the Lord, with the angels and saints.

In our life journey, for many it is hard to find a temporary home here on this earth. People in great numbers around the world are leaving their earthly homes. They are dying from hunger or violence. They are seeking a peaceful place to live for themselves and their families and practice their faith, if they are lucky enough to escape violence or destitution before it all overwhelms them. Often the social order not only does not support them, but makes their suffering worse.

Pope Francis, though, speaking of this journey, reminds us that the Lord, the Living God, is present with His people including migrants and refugees, as they walk:

“During this journey, wherever people find themselves, it is essential to recognize the presence of God who walks with His people, assuring them of His guidance and protection at every step. Yet it is equally essential to recognize the presence of the Lord, Emmanuel, God-with-us, in every migrant who knocks at the door of our hearts and offers an opportunity for encounter.” (Pope Francis, Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 2024)

 A major Instruction from the Vatican on The Love of Christ Toward Migrants.(2004) emphasized the scope of the reality of migration: “Today’s migration makes up the vastest movement of people of all times.” (Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Erga migrantes caritas Christi (The Love of Christ Towards Migrants). Erga Migrantes, as many other documents from the Vatican and from local Bishops over the past decades, asks Catholics to address in a positive way the pastoral challenges of this reality.

Reactions vary to migration, sometimes bringing angry rhetoric and even hatred to uprooted peoples trying to survive in difficult times. The Church and the Catholic Worker Movement in its founders can show us a different way to respond. There is historical precedent.

A Previous Age of Migration

The historical period that used to be pejoratively referred to as the Dark Ages (300 to 1000 A.D.) was a time when peoples from different countries and cultures were on the move. Peoples organized into tribes came from many lands to parts of the Roman Empire and what is now Europe. Their journeys affected world history and geography in a major way.

 Scholars remind us that those centuries should not be referred to as the Dark Ages, or an age of Barbarian Invasion, but instead, as the Age of Migration or the Migration Period.

 During that time when the Roman Empire was breaking up and Germanic tribes migrated to Gaul and other parts of the Empire, there were certainly signs of darkness, violence, and changes in social realities. It turned out to also be an age of opportunity for followers of the Nazarene to respond creatively.

It is fascinating to read about the role of the Church in those centuries and especially that of the monasteries in bringing together peoples from different countries and different cultures, and actually reconstructing the social order. This happened especially from the example of the monks and monasteries who inspired the people.

There were heresies and divisions in the Church then as there are now, but goodness and the monastic ideal prevailed.

Monks, Monasteries, and the Reconstruction of the Social Order

Among the books Peter recommended in The Catholic Worker on this subject was Ireland and the Foundations of Europeby Benedict Fitzpatrick.  Fitzpatrick’s book provides a substantive history of the reconstructive activity of Irish missionaries in Europe from the sixth century to the eleventh, flowing from the great ancient Irish civilization. “Abbeys and schools had arisen on the foundations of Roman ruins or the clearings in German forests.  Pilgrims came and went in peace.  Universities laid their foundations in the metropolitan centers.” The Irish monks carried the learning of their civilization with them as they journeyed to many different points in what is now Europe, often literally carrying their books on their backs as they walked.

“Stories are told of one or another digging his staff into the ground in the middle of a forest, where bears and other wild animals roamed, to begin his new monastic life there and relate to the people in the area.” (Benedict Fitzpatrick, quoted in Mark and Louise Zwick, The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins.)

The Benedictines

St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine monks, lived from about 480 to 547 A.D. The connection between the Benedictines and the Catholic Worker is profound. Dorothy Day was a Benedictine Oblate. She often wrote about the Benedictine Rule which emphasized that “the Guest is Christ,” and that the monks should not treat a rich person with more respect than a poor person. Dorothy quoted John Henry Newman in The Catholic Worker in 1944 of how the Benedictines worked to restore the physical and social world that they found in ruins:

“It was a restoration rather than a visitation, correction, or conversion. The new world which he helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing, and building; and other silent men, men not seen, were sitting the in cold cloister, trying their eyes, and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully deciphered and copied and re-copied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one that ‘contended or cried out,’ or drew attention to what was going on; but by degrees the woody swamp came a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning, and a city. Roads and bridges connected it with other abbeys and cities, which had similarly grown up, and what the haughty Alaric or fierce Attila had broken to pieces, these patient meditative men had brought together and made to live again.” Quoted by Joshua Brumfield, “The Dorothy Option?” in Dorothy Day and the Church: Past, Present, and FutureConferencee).

The Social Order Can be Reconstructed Today in a New Age of Migration

Today we are in what might be called a new age of migration.

There are signs of darkness – violence, untruths, hatred of other groups. Sometimes the lives of Catholics are even shaped and influenced by politicians rather than from the heart of the Gospel and the wisdom of the Church. We see the dark side of globalization, a world-wide laissez-faire capitalism that destroys the environment and the lives of people and causes them to leave their homes. We see the lasting harmful effects of colonialism.

There is hope, however. With the Lord we can participate in the reconstruction of our world. Not through violence, insurrection, power seeking, but through the Works of Mercy, through support for small businesses and farms, support for workers, with hearts of flesh instead of hearts of stone. Not through what is being called Christian nationalism, but through the way of the Cross, through the Paschal Mystery, with Jesus the Christ to resurrection.

Artist:  Angel Valdez

A renewal of the social order today will include the refugees and immigrants who have always been willing to do the hardest physical work, such as farm work and construction work and who are famous for creating small businesses. Some people think the refugees are not worth anything, but the people we meet here every day are people of a bright future in this country, if they are allowed to stay.

Parishes are receiving refugees at their Masses and are helping in many ways. Hopefully, more parishes will reach out, because refugees are often invisible in their communities.

Hope for Remaking our World is Through the Paschal Mystery and the Works of Mercy

Building the world according to the plan of the Living God will require giving of ourselves as the Lord did and working to change destructive systems that make it difficult for people to see God’s glory. As Pope Francis recently said, “On the Cross we will see His glory and that of the Father (John 12: 23, 28).

“Jesus in the Gospel (cf. Jn 12:20-33) tells us something important: that on the Cross we will see His glory and that of the Father (cf. vv. 23, 28).

“But how is it possible that the glory of God manifest itself right there, on the Cross? One would think it happened in the Resurrection, not on the Cross, which is a defeat, a failure. Instead, today, talking about His Passion, Jesus says: “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified” (v. 23). What does He mean?

“He means that glory, for God, does not correspond to human success, fame and popularity; glory, for God, has nothing self-referential about it, it is not a grandiose manifestation of power to be followed by public applause. For God, glory is to love to the point of giving one’s life. Glorification, for Him, means giving Himself, making Himself accessible, offering His love. And this reached its culmination on the Cross, right there, where Jesus outspread God’s love to the maximum, fully revealing the face of mercy, giving us life and forgiving his crucifiers.” (Pope Francis, Angelus, March 17 2024).

The Catholic Worker Option

The Catholic Worker Movement provides an option for responding to the crises of our times. It offers a different way for us to live from what Pope Francis has called comfortable, consumerist isolation; a way that can take us beyond divisions to embrace the people of the world who are uprooted.

The Monastic Way, The Catholic Worker Way

The Catholic Worker movement began in the 1930’s during the Great Depression. When Peter Maurin presented his vision for the CW to Dorothy Day and to the world, he brought his studies of history to his teaching. He was also responding to the call of Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno for Catholics to participate in reconstructing the social order. The Holy Father had made clear to all that neither Communism nor unfettered capitalism could address economic injustice:

 “Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching.” (QA 88)

Peter Maurin’s model had nothing to do with violent revolution, but was rather based on transforming the culture through the daily practice of the Works of Mercy.

Peter Maurin brought to the CW movement a model of the unity of manual labor and prayer and ideas. Some have said, “Why this sounds like monasticism.” There is some truth to this.

Peter presented the example of how the reconstruction of the social order was accomplished in the early centuries through the monasteries, centers of what he called cult (worship), culture, and cultivation (small farms) and encouraged parallels for the Catholic Worker movement to the work of the monks during that Age of Migration.

Both Peter and Dorothy read the Desert Fathers. He and Dorothy frequently pointed out that in setting up Houses of Hospitality and centers of thought in agricultural centers, the monks had brought light and learning to the people. Through voluntary poverty and personal charity they laid the foundations of the social order. Peter and Dorothy insisted that the method of the monks was a revolutionary technique, not the band-aid operation the Catholic Worker was sometimes accused of being.

As Joshua Brumfield wrote, “For Dorothy, Peter, and the early Catholic Worker Movement, making the [Fr. Hugo] Retreat, reciting prayers, and living a version of monastic life was all ordered towards loving God by loving neighbor, which meant changing the social order via the Works of Mercy.”

 Dorothy Day wrote about the challenges involved in her book House of Hospitality:

Artist:  L. V. Diaz

“The new social order as it could be and would be if all men loved God and loved their brothers because they are all sons of God! A land of peace and tranquility and joy in work and activity. It is heaven indeed that we are contemplating. Do you expect that we are going to be able to accomplish it here? We can accomplish much, of that I am certain. We can do much to change the face of the earth, in that I have hope and faith. But these pains and sufferings are the price we have to pay. Can we change men in a night or a day? Can we give them as much as three months or even a year? A child is forming in the mother’s womb for nine long months, and it seems so long. But to make a man in the time of our present disorder with all the world convulsed with hatred and strife and selfishness, that is a lifetime’s work, and then too often it is not accomplished.

“Even the best of human love is filled with self-seeking. To work to increase our love for God and for our fellow man (and the two must go hand in hand), this is a lifetime job. We are never going to be finished.

“Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up. If we love each other enough, we will bear with each other’s faults and burdens. If we love enough, we are going to light that fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.”


Reference and Recommended Reading:
Joshua Brumfield, “The Dorothy Option? Dorothy, Benedict, and the Future of the Church” in Dorothy Day and the Church: Past, Present and Future: Conference held at the University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne Indiana. 2015.
Dorothy Day, House of Hospitality. Sheed and Ward, 1939.
Matthew Desmond, Poverty, By America. Crown Publishing Group, 2023.
Benedict Fitzpatrick, Ireland and the Foundations of Europe. Funk & Wagnalls, 1927.
Peter Maurin, Easy Essays. Wipf & Stock Publishers.
Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.  Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi: The Love of Christ Toward Migrants. 2004.
Pope Pius XI, Quadragesmio Anno. Encyclical.
Leila Simona Tilani, “Migration and the ‘Dark Side’ of Globalization” European Politics and Policy Blogs. 2022.
Andrew L. Whitehead, American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church. Brazos Press, 2023.
Mark and Louise Zwick, The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins, Paulist Pres,.2005.
Houston Catholic Worker, April-June 2024. Vol. XLIV, No. 2