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Priest-Labor Initiative follows Pope Francis' servant example

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Elizabeth Helton no longer has health care. An employee of the food-service company Sodexo USA at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., she and others lost those benefits, as well as vacation time, after the company last year adjusted its full-time-worker formula in response to the Affordable Care Act.

In the past, variable-hour employees like Helton who worked during the school year but not the summer qualified for benefits if they clocked at least 30-hour weeks for at least half a 12-week quarter, according to The Wall Street Journal. The new policy averages a worker's hours over the course of a 52-week year, leaving about 10,000 of Sodexo's 125,000 U.S. workers without benefits because they no longer average 30 hours a week.

"I struggle without those benefits," Helton told NCR. So, too, does her family, as her husband -- a cancer survivor -- has not seen a doctor for some time.

"He's supposed to get two CAT scans a year, and those two CAT scans would total my entire income for the year out of pocket, and we can't afford that," she said.

Helton shared her story with more than two dozen priests last week as part of the annual meeting of the Priest-Labor Initiative, held this year in Atlanta in conjunction with the annual convocation of its partner organization, the National Federation of Priests' Councils.

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The initiative, formed in 2012, has sought to create a network of labor priests across the U.S. to, as its mission statement puts it, "stand with and advocate for workers, especially immigrant workers, according to the principles of Catholic social teaching."

[For additional coverage of Priest-Labor Initiative, see "Priests meet in Chicago to discuss labor ministry"; "A year later, labor priest movement gains momentum"]

The role of today's labor priest presents a different dynamic than those of the 1930s and '40s, said Fr. Clete Kiley, the initiative's founder. No longer are the priests the leaders, but the workers and organizers themselves.

"It's the folks who lead this, and we're servants. We're there to help in any way we can be in solidarity. ... That's the right role for priests in this," he told NCR.

This third meeting brought some similarities but also began to present noticeable differences. For instance, a group that began with young, coast-centric and primarily immigrant backgrounds saw middle-aged priests join from the South as well as a few Midwest states not before represented. The Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, which recently formed a labor caucus, also sent several priests and plans to partner with the initiative.

In all, the Priest-Labor Initiative's network has grown to 100 priests nationwide. The growth has come organically for a group still developing, Kiley said.

"You know, we've got 30,000 priests in the country, and we've got a hundred [in our network]. So we got higher goals than that," he said.

The past year, though, has seen more than membership growth; it has seen the influence of Pope Francis further materialize.

"Every time he speaks to priests, he's saying things like we need to have the smell of the sheep on us, we need to get out of our churches, we need to go out and engage people, we need to encounter people," Kiley said.

When the initiative met last year in Reno, Francis had only been pope for little more than a month, but long enough to utter his now-famous prerequisite for priests: "Be shepherds with the smell of sheep." Since then, his daily homilies have often addressed inequality, as did his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. In those remarks, Kiley said, Francis has given labor priests numerous points of reference to use as they meet with workers, organizers and managers.

"It seems to have given, I don't want to say permission, but an added emphasis for this kind of an initiative," he said.

Moreover, it's led to priests more confident in engaging issues of labor and work. That comfort was visible in the 80 priests -- or about four times the 20 who initially signed up for the initiative gathering -- attending a presentation April 30 by Adrian Dominican Sr. Mary Priniski on the economic aspects of Evangelii Gaudium and other developments under Francis.

On Capitol Hill, Thom Shellabarger, a public policy advocate with Interfaith Worker Justice, has seen the church's profile raised in a new light -- everyone's asking about Francis.

"They want to know: Is the church really going to respond the way Francis has responded? Is the church going to be there out in the streets the way Francis has called them to be?" Shellabarger said.

In labor priests, he said, people are "seeing the church on the front lines standing with people."

For the second year, the Priest-Labor Initiative gathering aligned with labor-related national legislation. Last year, it was comprehensive immigration reform; this year, it was a failed attempt to open debate on raising the minimum wage. In one session, Shellabarger led discussion about income equality, sharing resources and alerting priests to ballot initiatives and bishops' statements in various states.

Like the minimum wage, the network has allowed the group to get a better sense of overarching labor issues. The sessions with workers and one another allowed the priests to practice one of the most useful elements they identified in Evangelii Gaudium: authentic listening in an effort to answer the questions that people ask, instead of the ones they're not.

While their discussions previously have centered on immigrant workers and their rights, the Atlanta meeting exposed that immigrants aren't the only ones facing challenges.

"When you start expanding the conversation, you realize this is all over this country and in just about every walk of life," Kiley said, including service industry employees, nurses, adjunct professors, landscapers and even managers in downsizing companies.

"We can't equate workers' issues equal to immigrant issues. It's no longer true," Fr. Tony Cutcher, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, said.

Helton's story helped that point resonate.

Shellabarger said he had not before seen a company act "so callous and so direct" in attempting to bypass benefits for workers.

"If it's allowed to stand, [it] will have an impact on not just the workers at this particular college but workers in many other areas. So I'm quite concerned about what I heard," he told NCR.

As for Helton, she and her co-workers have asked Sodexo for a fair process to decide on unionization. From the priests, she said more than anything she heard an eagerness to help and suggested they provide support and education and, above all, hope.

"Hope that things can be better and that you have people that care and beside you and want genuinely to make things better, that's very powerful," she said.

The hope for the priests is that Helton and the workers who have met with the initiative at its previous national gatherings and smaller meetings will bring a message back to their co-workers and communities.

"They're going to say, You will never guess who's behind us 100 percent: the priests of the United States," Cutcher said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

This story appeared in the May 23-June 5, 2014 print issue under the headline: Pope's message gives added emphasis for growing Priest-Labor Initiative .

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