We all know that the Catholic Church has had to weather a lot of negative publicity and intense criticism these past few decades. How much of that criticism is deserved is a matter of opinion. But what is interesting is that many of those who have been most outspoken in their criticism of the policies, practices, and teachings of the Catholic Church have been willing to admit that the Church has done a tremendous amount of good in caring for the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. In the Archdiocese of Chicago, our ability to serve those most in need depends in large part on your willingness to give generously to the Annual Catholic Appeal. It supports Catholic schools and Catholic parishes in struggling neighborhoods. It helps fund Catholic Relief Services, which is able to swoop in and meet the immediate needs of people whose lives have been devastated by a natural disaster. It provides direct care to immigrants and refugees and helps underwrite social justice initiatives and Respect Life activities. When the Church ministers it is not just about what we do but how we do it. We try to imitate the way Jesus interacted with people who sought his help: letting them know that they are loved, caring for the whole person and not just addressing their immediate need, and helping them discover their dignity as a child of God. During my time as pastor of a church in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago, I was truly inspired by what some of the teachers in the parish school routinely did for needy students, acts of service that went well beyond their job description. Let me give you just one tiny example of our Catholic tradition of caring for others that comes from my hometown of Memphis.
In the 1860’s and early 1870’s Memphis lost much of its adult population. First there was the Civil War that decimated the male population and then there were several widespread outbreaks of yellow fever. My grandmother’s two older sisters died the same day from yellow fever. Many of the people with resources fled the city, but the poor, as so often happens, were left behind. There were several congregations of Catholic sisters in Memphis and they stayed to nurse and care for the sick and in many cases to die with them. In 1870 the pastor of the Dominican church of St. Peter arranged for the purchase of property on the outskirts of town to establish St. Peter Orphan Asylum for the many children who had been left without a parent. Given the small Catholic population of the area, only a small percentage of the children who came to live at St. Peter’s through the decades were Catholic. The Dominican Sisters and a dedicated staff operated St. Peter’s Orphanage until the 1970’s when such large institutions fell out of favor.
The property was then redeveloped as a social service agency, nursing home, and government subsidized (HUD) apartment complex for senior citizens. My parents moved into one of these apartments when they were in their late seventies; and after my father’s death four years later, my mother continued to live there until she needed assisted living. The Dominican Sisters were still very much a part of the ministry to the residents of the apartments and the nursing home and daily Mass was provided in both buildings. During my visits to Memphis during those years, I met quite a few of the other residents. I learned that three of the men living in the senior apartments had spent their entire lives on the St. Peter’s property. They had been left at the orphanage as infants, and because they had special needs or developmental issues, no one had adopted them. They would not have functioned well if they had simply been turned out on their own at eighteen; so the sisters continued to provide them with housing and gave them work to do on the property. Now that they were elderly, they were still being watched over and cared for by the Catholic Church.
I think this story is typical of the ways that the Catholic Church has cared for people everywhere. These are not stories that find their way into colorful brochures (much less into newspaper stories about the Catholic Church).They are simply stories of ordinary people who seek to reflect the compassion and love of God to those who are in need. Times do change, and the agencies and schools funded by the ACA cannot function in the same way they did a hundred years ago; but I believe that the same spirit of concern for people out of love for Christ is at the heart of what the Church of Chicago is doing today. I personally give to the ACA. I hope that you will be generous with your pledge.