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Labor workers uplifted at St. Patrick’s Cathedral annual Labor Mass

Union leaders gather at St. Patrick's Cathedral in celebration of Catholic Charities' Annual Labor Mass. Photo Credit: Johnny Zhang for CCNY.

Union members and leaders came, by the hundreds, down the aisle at St. Patrick’s Cathedral behind banners proclaiming labor unity. The bagpipe strains of “Immaculate Mary” filled the church, thanks to the Sword of Light band from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), all joined together at the midtown cathedral for the annual Catholic Labor Mass Sept. 8. Included were long-established unions such as the Teamsters and the Steamfitters, as well as those with a particular New York twist, the Theatre Stage Employees among them, and newer labor groups representing Catholic school teachers, flight attendants, and nurses, the heroes of the COVID-19 moment.

Annual Labor Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Photo Credit Johhny Zhang for CCNY

Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, Executive Director of Catholic Charities, the chief celebrant and homilist for the event, meshed the labor presence and the Sept. 8 liturgical feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary after greetings from Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who was unable to attend, were read.

The Catholic Charities director said that the power of labor is often focused on “the ideal of being big for the sake of doing good.” But, like Mary, there are the humble who also do great things, “whether big or small, (dedicated) to every human person made in the image and likeness of God,” he said.

Msgr. Sullivan described the labor movement and the Church as “natural allies” in the struggle against injustice, dedicated to “foster the common good.”

The Church and organized labor have hit hard times lately, he said, as “we now live in a world where every institution is challenged,” as the Church, coping with scandals, faces a decline in Mass attendance while organized labor’s membership also has declined in recent decades.

“There could be a temptation to hide away,” he said about both labor and the Church. “But we need to continue to be in the public square” because the call to justice “is something our world cries out for more than ever.”

That crisis in confidence extends to government as well, said Msgr. Sullivan, who recognized public officials at the Mass including New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, just weeks after succeeding former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Also in attendance were New York State Attorney General Letitia James and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

Gov. Kathy Hochul accompanied by New York officials at the Annual Labor Mass St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Photo Credit: Johnny Zhang for CCNY.

The image of the bargaining table remains a useful image in grappling with societal issues, said Msgr. Sullivan. “You sit around the same table,” he told the gathered union members, labor leaders and government officials. “You look people in the eye and you try to work out what you can work out,” he said.

A similar image applies to the Eucharist, he said, noting, “When we gather around a table … We are nourished and we are strengthened.”

Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, Celebrant and Executive Director of Catholic Charities New York delivers the homily. Photo Credit: Johnny Zhang for CCNY.

Organized labor, he said, is aligned with the Marian vision. Mary, while visiting her cousin Elizabeth in the opening chapter of Luke’s Gospel, praised God “for he has lifted up the lowly and filled the poor with good things.”

He said that organized labor is at its best when it is not only concerned with its own members, but also with lifting up the lowly, including workers who provide valuable service with little representation and low wages. The labor movement, he said, cares about Lyft drivers in Los Angeles, Amazon warehouse workers, and those who delivered food at personal risk during the pandemic, many of whom are not formally part of organized labor.

“They care about all the men and women who have yet to be organized,” Msgr. Sullivan said.