Remembering César Chávez

This week, we join our fellow Californians in honoring the legacy of César Chávez, whose holiday we celebrated March 31. The César Chávez we remember was not only a labor leader who helped improve the lives of millions of farm workers (although, of course, this is absolutely true, and we give thanks for his heroic defense of human dignity). Yet at the same time we remember that he was a Mexican-American Catholic who testified to Christ and a model of faithful citizenship who worked for social justice. I never had the honor of meeting César Chávez. Many who worked with him believed he was a saint. And his life has an iconic quality and heroic spirituality that reminds me of the lives of the saints. There is also something truly American about his story. Born March 31, 1927 in Yuma, Ariz., his family lost its land during the Great Depression and was forced into migrant farm labor. By age 11, Chávez and his family were working full-time in the fields of California. They endured racism, poverty and brutal conditions. These years left a deep mark. At a young age he vowed to work to change the system that "treats farm workers … as if they are not important human beings." Chávez had no formal education beyond eighth grade. But he had a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for God. He taught himself economics, philosophy and history. He studied St. Francis of Assisi, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi. All this informed his founding of the United Farm Workers. Yet his vision was deeply Catholic at heart. He learned his prayers and popular Mexican devotions from his mother. Good priests instructed him in the labor encyclicals of the popes and the Church's rich social teaching tradition. Throughout his life, he went to Mass almost every day and he also spent an hour daily in prayer. He chose to live in voluntary poverty, and he practiced what he preached - the simple joys of serving his brothers and sisters in Christian love. He placed his life and his work under the patronage of Our Lady of Guadalupe. All his major initiatives began with the celebration of the Eucharist. When I read his words and the accounts of his life, I find a man who took Jesus Christ to be the model for how he lived. His absolute commitment to non-violence was rooted in the spirit of the Beatitudes. Chávez preached the Gospel in his words and actions. In everything, he declared that life is sacred and that the human person has a dignity as a child of God that no one can take away. I am still moved by the eulogy he delivered for 19 farm workers killed in a bus crash: "They are important because of the love they gave to their husbands, their children, their wives, their parents - all those who were close to them and who needed them. … They are important because of the work they do.… They are important because God made them, gave them life, and cares for them in life and in death." César Chávez was striving not only for social justice, but also for the holiness of the saints. We should be striving for these same things, too. His witness reminds us that we can never separate our work to build a better society from the Gospel and the teachings of the Church. Jesus said that he was the vine and we are the branches. César Chávez knew this powerful truth. He knew that apart from Christ and his Church he could do nothing - but that abiding in faith, his work would bear much fruit (John 15: 5). This is a good lesson. We need to always keep our witness as citizens rooted in Christ and in the Church's mission of salvation. César Chávez wrote a beautiful prayer that included these lines: Free me to pray for others For You are present in every person. Help me take responsibility for my life. So that I can be free at last. Grant me courage to serve others; For in service there is true life. … Let the Spirit flourish and grow; So that we will never tire of the struggle … Help us love even those who hate us; So we can change the world. Amen. Let us make his prayer our own as we pray for one another this week. And in tribute to his legacy, let us try to offer some Lenten sacrifice for all those living under conditions in which their dignity is not respected. I ask the special intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe for you and your families this week.