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Christmas Spirits

Remembering Father Rice

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As I write this, the American Family Association of Pennsylvania, a conservative Christian group, is working itself into the Christmas spirit. How? By showing up at U.S. Senator Arlen Specter's offices to support Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito.

 

Alito, the group asserts in a press release, has supported "religious freedoms" by, among other things, allowing local governments to set up nativity scenes. "This Christmas season has shown an all-out attack on Christmas and what it stands for," the AFA says. "[W]e believe that Judge Samuel Alito would not 'grinch' Christmas nor attempt to deny its real meaning."

 

So, if you don't like Samuel Alito, you must be against Christmas. Not the most sensitive message to carry to a Jewish Senator's door, perhaps. But some Christians seem so determined to insist on their right to be Christian -- a right no one is challenging -- that you'd almost think they'd forgotten what it meant.

 

Jesus, after all, urged his followers not to pray in the streets, or to make public display of their piety. As the moneylenders in the temple can attest, he also frowned on mixing faith and commerce. Yet among his disciples today, some are calling for boycotts of stores whose clerks don't say "Merry Christmas."

 

But for me, the Christmas spirit was much more aptly summarized in a somewhat chilly, quiet Dec. 10 ceremony in Uptown's Epiphany Church. More than 60 people were in attendance to celebrate the legacy of Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, known universally as "Pittsburgh's labor priest."

 

Many more had attended Rice's funeral a few weeks before, but it was Rice's message, rather than the man himself, being memorialized this day. And Rice's form of Christianity -- the kind that isn't satisfied with a handful of graven images on the courthouse steps -- has never seemed less popular.

 

That might have suited Monsignor. He might have been amused, for example, that the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review -- whose editorial page couldn't bring itself to eulogize Rosa Parks -- couldn't help but mark his passing with a cheap, Red-baiting swipe. (While Rice had once been rabidly anti-Communist, the Trib noted, he was also pro-union and "later expressed regret at his [McCarthyite] stance. Need we say more?") He was little interested in the easy cause, or in flattering his flock when it went astray. Over the decades he wrote a column in the Pittsburgh Catholic, in which he consistently confronted his believers with moral imperatives they didn't want to consider.

 

"We have been immoral in that we have put our own national interest, often a very remote interest, above humanity," he told his countrymen in a 1982 column (here quoted from the anthology Fighter With a Heart, by Charles McCollester). "We have gone against our own democratic principles in that we suppress movements of liberation all over the globe....We have sinned and gone mad."

 

Nor could he abide those who took the Lord's name in vain, enlisting it in their militaristic crusades. Noting the preening of American generals during the first Gulf War, he wrote that the boasting "was pure Americana. It had everything -- confidence that God was with you...and that war is peace when we wage it; and for good measure, routine piety and standard hypocrisy."

 

Those gathered at Epiphany Church recalled Rice's humor, his flaws, his willingness to stand for any cause that added to the dignity of his fellow human being. They remembered him standing on picket lines. They remembered him walking in civil-rights marches. And they remembered that during one such march, ironworkers erecting the U.S. Steel Building -- men whose rights Rice had fought for too -- tossed fittings down upon their heads. It was the kind of persecution the Christians of the American Family Association can only dream about.

 

Lynn Williams, formerly the head of the United Steelworkers, told the assembly that he could still recall Rice standing "on the back of a pick-up truck in the pouring rain," giving courage to workers on a picket line -- at the age of 84. How noble that is, to be 84 years old and standing in the rain for your fellow man. How much more honorable than, say, demanding that insufficiently Christian store clerks be left out in the cold. 

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