'Labor priests' of 21st century being trained to help immigrant, low-wage workers.The concept of "labor priest," epitomized by Msgr. John Egan and Msgr. George Higgins in the 20th century, has been given a new twist to meet the realities of the 21st century.The priests — more than two dozen of them, and all working with the approval of their diocesan bishops — are being recruited to help immigrant and low-wage workers.The clerics met in Chicago in June with a number of mentors, speakers and labor leaders to hone their focus and to give them tools for the work ahead."We don't know what to call it yet," said Father J. Cletus Kiley, a priest from the Archdiocese of Chicago who works in Washington as director of immigration policy for UNITE HERE, a union for hotel, restaurant and textile workers. "I call it the labor priest community."Are they priest-advocates for workers? Are they advocates for immigrant workers? The immigrant part is an important nuance," the priest told Catholic News Service. “Many priests are working in immigrant communities. The abuse of workers in those situations is pretty strong, and many of these folks are in service industries and lower-wage industries.”From 1997 to 2006, Father Kiley headed what was then called the Secretariat for Priestly Life and Ministry at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He then was president of the Faith & Politics Institute in Washington for four years."The concern I have (with regard) to labor is really a concern for my parishioners," said Father Jon Pedigo, who this month takes on a new pastorate at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in San Jose.Father Pedigo said his new parish has "a lot of laborers involved in the 'mercado' (Spanish for 'market') campaign — the grocery workers. We're trying to get them some (union) representation and a vote." According to the priest, the owner of "the largest Latino-client-base super-grocery stores" in his area is "one of the worst violators of labor laws.""A lot of the people at (Our Lady of) Guadalupe are low-income workers," Father Pedigo added.He said he has gotten some "put-downs" over his 21 years as a priest because of his support for labor — Father Pedigo's own father was a union organizer in the 1930s — but he tries to create "room for dialogue" with his parishioners. "It's hard for them to disagree with the actual person who is going through this struggle themselves," he said.His fellow priests are sympathetic, he said, but "a lot of priests are so caught up in the everyday activities of their own parishes, the immediate work, that they have a harder time connecting the bigger picture" to labor issues, he said. "We've had an entire week on the need to deal with this as clergy. The guys know they need to deal with this. They're not unaware. They may not go to all the picket lines I go to, but they support me."Father Tim Martinez, pastor of Risen Savior Parish in Albuquerque, said, "My own concern is for people in the pews, for people in my parish. There's a lot of people out there who are really hurting — more now than have been in a long time."He added he was unaware of the labor priest initiative until his bishop, Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Sante Fe, N.M., recruited him. "He thought this might be a good way for people to get connected in a new way," Father Martinez said.His parish is about evenly split between U.S.-born Catholics of Mexican heritage and Mexican-born Catholics, but two-thirds of those seeking baptism for their children are foreign-born.Lacking statistics, Father Martinez said he goes by the stories his parishioners tell him. "They have no voice. They don't have the resources to stop being taken advantage of, when their wages are stolen, when they're asked to work in unsafe conditions. It's not that they don't complain, it's just that they don't know who to complain to — and get a positive answer," he said."They don't have recourse, or they certainly feel they don't have the recourse to the law or to anybody when they feel they are faced with this kind of situation."Work woes dog many parishioners who seek him out."People come in with pastoral concerns: I'm having trouble with my child, I'm having trouble with my family, my son's doing drugs, whatever. But as they talk about it, there's always context," Father Martinez said. “‘How do I provide a living for my family?’ A lot of people are no longer just under the pressure in being in family relationships. A lot of people are now trying to find jobs."The Chicago meetings also attracted one non-Catholic clergyman: Father David Gerritson of the Orthodox Church in America. He is full-time pastor of a Russian Orthodox parish in New Jersey and part-time business agent for the International Association of Stage and Technical Employees, the stagehands' union.He will spend a day or two each week in Charlotte, N.C., addressing union members' concerns as they prepare for the Democratic National Convention to be held in Charlotte."My entire life has been devoted to the labor movement and to the priesthood," Father Gerritson said. "This is one of the reasons I became a priest. I was very much influenced by Saul Alinsky's work with the Roman Catholic Church. I was inspired to enter priestly ministry because it's my belief and my experience that the Christian church and the labor movement are the institutions that preserve human dignity, the icon of Christ."Father Gerritson, because he is not Catholic, learned about the initiative after Father Kiley addressed the AFL-CIO Executive Council a few months ago and Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, sent a letter about that presentation to the international presidents of all the affiliated unions."Father Gerritson heard about it from the president of his union, Matthew Loeb, who told him: “‘You've got to be involved in this.’ ... I said yeah, and I got a blessing from my diocesan bishop to attend."Father Kiley said the National Federation of Priests Councils is providing a home for the labor-priest initiative, and that the Catholic Campaign for Human Development was establishing an online community for priests who are part of the initiative.Other groups involved in the project include the Catholic Labor Network, Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice and Interfaith Worker Justice.—CNS{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0713/labor/{/gallery}