Monsignor George Higgins, the great "labor priest," died May 1 in his hometown of LaGrange, Illinois. How appropriate that he died on St. Joseph the Worker Day, or May Day, as it is known around the world.
Higgins was the best known and probably one of the most loved of the labor priests. He directed the social action department of the U.S. Catholic bishops for many years, and routinely preached and taught about economic justice and unions. He wrote articles prodigiously articulating Catholic social teaching on labor. He gave the opening prayer at AFL-CIO conventions for almost 50 years. He stood with workers in hundreds of struggles for justice in the workplace. And he mentored many younger men and women, including me.
The passing of Higgins, as well as that of Monsignor Jack Egan a year previously, marks the turning of an era. Although there are a few solid cohorts of these fine men who are still fighting for worker justice, by and large the generation of religious leaders that grew up during the great labor organizing expansion is dying. In leaders like Higgins and Egan, we lost a wealth of experience, relationships with labor, and wisdom.
In several of the memorial services, friends mourned his death and wondered who would take his place. The good news is that there are hundreds of new leaders emerging who understand the importance of engaging the religious community in economic justice issues and in building partnerships between religion and labor.