who greatly delights in his commands…
Open-handed, he gives to the poor;
his justice stands firm forever.
—Psalm 112:1, 9
As the citizens of the United States are already gearing up for the 2016 elections, we’re going to be hearing more about workers’ rights, labor unions, and the rights that immigrants have (or don’t have) to work or receive an education. This will all be in conjunction with the ongoing debates over raising the minimum wage that are currently taking place in many states. Added to the already tense political situation is the upcoming visit of Pope Francis, which is sure to be a watershed moment for the American Church, even as it ruffles the feathers of political conservatives and progressives alike.
In its history, the Church hasn’t shied away from important social justice issues. In fact, it was Catholic leaders in the 19th century that worked tirelessly in support of trade unions and fair wages and working conditions for laborers around the world. While some might argue that Church leaders and the faithful—that’s all of us—should leave the “politics” to politicians, we have to remember that for us, as Christians, these are not only issues of politics and governmental policy. The rights of workers, just wages, and fair access to meaningful employment are all moral issues that directly impact the good of our brothers and sisters, especially those who are poor.
One of the Church’s great heroes of workers’ rights is Blessed Anton Maria Schwartz.
Born in Baden, near Vienna, Austria, in 1852, Anton was the fourth of thirteen children. His father was a low-level civic official and musician. After his father’s death, Anton and his family struggled to make ends meet.
In 1869, Anton joined the Piarist Order. The Piarists—the “Clerks Regular of the Mother of God of the Pious Schools”—were founded by Saint Joseph Calasanz in 1597 to care for and educate the poor and homeless children living in Rome, creating the first free public schools in Europe. Anton developed a strong devotion to Saint Joseph Calasanz and maintained a strong devotion to him, which he maintained for the rest of his life. But he soon left the community at the advice of his superiors—they feared that their community would be suppressed as part of the Kultrukampf (a struggle between the Church and the German Empire that resulted in a number of anti-clerical policies and the closing of many religious houses). In turn, Anton enrolled in the diocesan seminary.
During his time in seminary, Anton and his family continued to struggle financially and he developed a serious lung infection. His condition was so severe that, before he was ordained, he was told that he should have his portrait taken—it was to be his memorial picture for use at his funeral! Anton survived, however, but poverty continued to be a challenge. In fact, when he was ordained in 1875, he was so poor that he had to borrow the liturgical vestments and chalice he would need for the sacramental rites; he added “Maria” to his name, at the time of his ordination.
As a young priest, Anton served in a parish near Austria’s border with Hungary and Slovakia, before being assigned as the chaplain of a hospital run by the Sisters of Mercy in Sechshaus, a district of the city of Vienna. There, he witnessed first-hand the suffering and hardships endured by apprentices and young workers who faced harsh and unsafe working conditions, long hours, and pitiful wages. While the Church condemned the situation, there were no programs in place to help the workers in practical ways.
The Sisters of Mercy worked to help Father Anton find benefactors who would support him in his work with the apprentices. He openly denounced the exploitation of the factory workers and urged them to create associations (what we would call labor unions) which would help protect them from further abuse. He also advocated for education programs for the workers. In this, Anton was well-ahead of his time. It would only be in 1891 that Pope Leo XIII would issue his great encyclical on social justice—Rerum Novarum—which completely reshaped Catholic Social Teaching.
In 1886, Father Anton founded the Catholic Apprentices’ Association, providing the apprentices with a healthy meal on Sunday afternoons, encouraging them to develop hobbies, and praying with them. He also created a refuge for the care of apprentices who came to Vienna looking for work and a place to stay. Finally, in 1889, Father Anton founded a new religious community: the Congregation of the Christian Workers of St. Joseph Calasanz. The new community continued Anton’s dedication to young workers (including waiters, carpenters, tailors, and cobblers). Although the community faced opposition from government agencies, they remained dedicated to serving the working poor and were officially approved by the Church in 1913.
Blessed Anton Maria Schwartz died after years of ministry on September 15, 1929, and was buried in the Church of Our Lady, Help of Christians, which he himself had built as a refuge for the working poor. He was beatified in 1998 and his memory is celebrated on September 15.
Holy women and men, like Blessed Anton Schwartz, remind us that our faith has to be lived out in practical ways that not only impact our daily lives, but which also enrich the lives of others. At the time of Blessed Anton's beatification, Saint John Paul II reflected:
In Vienna 100 years ago, Father Anton Maria Schwartz was concerned with the lot of workers… He leaves us a message: Do all you can to protect Sunday! Show that it cannot be a work day because it is celebrated as the Lord’s Day. Above all, support young people who are unemployed! Those who give today’s young people an opportunity to earn their living help to make it possible for tomorrow’s adults to pass the meaning of life on to their children. I know that there are no easy solutions. This is why I repeat the words which guided Blessed Father Schwartz in his many efforts: ‘We must pray more!
In these days of political debates and rhetoric, ask Blessed Anton to help you always keep the needs of the poor and marginalized—especially struggling youth—in your mind and heart.
A Prayer in Honor of the Blessed Anton Maria Schwartz +to keep all the heavenly commandments
O God, who have taught your Church
O God, who have taught your Church
by love of you as God and love of neighbor;
grant that, practicing the works of charity
after the example of blessed Anton Maria Schwartz,
we may be worthy to be numbered among the blessed
in your Kingdom.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
[from The Roman Missal]