Some years back–in an interview on EWTN–Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, was addressing some of the pressing needs of the Church. He said–and I paraphrase–“we need Catholic cab drivers and bartenders.” It was a comment that elicited a chuckle, but the truth of it was very serious and speaks to the way the Church understands herself and the vocation of the laity. If one stops to think about it, His Eminence is absolutely correct, practical, and–perhaps most important–counter-cultural. Perhaps this simple suggestion of the Cardinal-Archbishop of Chicago could provide a template for a revolution. Come to think of it, it was done once before–but the call was for fishermen.
The first truth implied and enunciated in the Cardinal’s comment was the inherent dignity of every human being and his work. It is the opposite view of the reigning cultural elite: What the world considers as an important profession or what consitutes success in the eyes of the same world is at odds with the teaching of Christ and the Church. Sadly, this basic truth has been forgotten in the years following the Second Vatican Council–oftentimes even by bishops and parish priests. In a lecture diagnosing some of the ills that brought us the priestly abuse crisis, Fr. Paul Mankowski, S.J. observed:
Before the Council every Catholic community could point to families that lived on hourly wages and who were unapologetically pious, in some cases praying a daily family rosary and attending daily Mass. Such families were a major source of religious vocations and provided the Church wi[th] many priests as well. These families were good for the Church, calling forth bishops and priests who were able to speak to their spiritual needs and to work to protect them from social and political harms. Devout working class families characteristically inclined to a somewhat sugary piety, but they also characteristically required manly priests to communicate it to them: that was the culture that gave us the big-shouldered baritone in a lace surplice. Except for newly-arrived immigrants from Mexico, Vietnam and the Philippines, the devout working class family has disappeared in the U.S. and in western Europe.
The beneficial symbiosis between the clerical culture and the working class has disappeared as well. In most parishes of which I’m aware the priests know how to talk to the professionals and the professionals know how to talk to the priests, but the welders and roofers and sheet-metal workers, if they come to church at all, seem more and more out of the picture. I think this affects the Church in two ways: on the one hand, the Catholic seminary and university culture has been freed of any responsibility to explain itself to the working class, and notions of scriptural inspiration and sexual propriety have become progressively detached from the terms in which they would be comprehensible by ordinary people; on the other hand, few priests if any really depend on working people for their support….
In years past, one could count on Monsignor Such-and-such presiding over the parish finance council meeting that included the lawyer, doctor, and executive before meeting the pipe-fitter and electrician over at the “Nickel Joint” for a few beers before compline. Do our pastors do this today? I suspect such cases are rare.
The second truth implied in the Cardinal’s statement is the necessity of the laity to be informed and courageous about their faith. This is none other than the employment of two of the cardinal virtues: prudence and fortitude. Prudence–the application of right reason to oneself and his dealing with others and in all situations; and Fortitude–a certain firmness of mind and endurance in difficulties (physical or moral). The lay faithful need not have consciously in his head: “Now, I shall employ the virtues of prudence and fortitude.” That’s just weird. But being virtues, they should be habitual and practiced whether or not the person is conscious of the term! Being well informed of the Faith is a key component. Knowing the articles of the Creed, reflecting on them and the moral teaching of the Church is accessible to and is a necessity for every Catholic. Theological acumen is not necessary, nor is a grasp in the manner of doctors of the Church. It can be very simple. Once apprehended, this knowledge should translate into right thought and action. The person should be confident and firm in these convictions and demonstrate such to his neighbor–even to the point of enduring his neighbor’s insults. The important part of this aspect–and that which is apparent by the Cardinal’s comment–is that this is the job of every Catholic; not just the catechist or CCD teacher, or person who volunteers at the parish. First and foremost this means every Catholic within his own family and sphere of influence. Perhaps the sphere of influence is small; but the touching of another soul is not a small thing–it has eternal consequences.
This is where the bartender and the cab driver come in. The sphere of influence of these individuals, in particular, is enormous. Think back to the time you had to grab a cab to get from somewhere to the airport to catch a flight; or perhaps, you were late for a date and needed to meet your sweetheart somewhere and you had to hail a cab. In these situations, did you ever converse with the cabbie? Perhaps he expounded for you–during standstill traffic–his metaphysical ruminations; or his political predictions; or the reason why the cab rates went up 90% in the last year because of new regulations and gas prices. Or maybe you just talked sports. Whatever the issue, the cab driver is a unique individual with a captive audience that may number into the thousands each year. What if a discussion ensued on a great moral issue of the day? His would be an opportunity to defend the poor or the unborn or the Church. Or perhaps, his simple “Merry Christmas” would be a witness to the faith in the face of an ever-rising secularism. He might even bring the car to a screeching halt and dump out a customer for insulting Our Lady.
The same for the bartender. The great American balladeer, Billy Joel, captured the scene beautifully in his hit “Piano Man.” The different characters that fill the scene in Joel’s imagination seem to capture every class and type of person. They come to the bar for a drink and for different reasons–some looking for companionship, some in pain, some celebrating, some dreaming of something better, some simply thirsty. This is the world of the bartender, it is also the world we live in. All types of people, perhaps thousands each year, visit with the bartender. Consider the influence he might have: a kind word he might offer, taking a stand for the truth during a heated discussion, defending a woman being harassed by a guy, helping a poor weak soul to a cup of coffee, and, yes, kicking someone out of his establishment for something improper or immoral. The Bartender brings joy and also justice to a situation–and as a result, can be a model of Christ in his sphere of influence.
The cab driver and the bartender are solid examples of needed witnesses for Christ and the Church. Most of the time it will not be an explicit articulation of an article of the catechism (though sometimes it might), but it will be a course of action in conformity with and in defense of common sense and a Christian way of life. It may be a simple as the bartender giving the drunk a cup of coffee and hailing a cab, only to have the cabbie ensure that the poor soul gets home unharmed–whether the fare was paid or not. I have long suspected–and it was confirmed by Cardinal George’s and Fr. Mankowski’s comments–that academics giving papers or bloggers or lawyers will not be the most effective ones to change the culture and maintain the faith. It will be moms and dads, welders, roofers, sheet metal workers…and cab drivers and bartenders.
In addition to the aforementioned reasons, perhaps there is also something mystical about cab drivers and bartenders. The one takes you where you want to go; and the other provides you joy, refreshment and contentment. Sounds like an image of the Church to me.
This article, Needed: Catholic Cab Drivers and Bartenders is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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About John M. DeJak
John M. DeJak is an attorney and Latin teacher and works in academic administration. He writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.