There exists no sharper illustration of present-day enfeeblement of the Jesuit temper than the difference between the ministries of John Corridan, S.J., the “waterfront priest” of the 1940’s, and today’s Robert VerEecke, S.J., the “dancing priest.” Fr. Corridan earned a significant place in labor history. Fr. VerEecke earned removal from the Church of St. Francis Xavier for making sexual overtures to a male parishioner.
The diminution is tragic. And telling. In the slide from Corridan, a morally serious man, to VerEecke, a flâneur on ideological boulevards, we witness the unsteadiness of a Church listing toward the conceits of the age.
Fr. Corridan’s waterfront apostolate developed out of a 1930s mandate from the Society’s Father General in Rome to create means to thwart an existing threat—now largely forgotten—of communist encroachments on American labor (e.g. the Transit Workers Union and waterfront industries). Jesuit intent was to provide American workers a concrete, non-Marxist program for better working conditions. Assigned to Xavier Labor School at 30 West 16th Street, next door to the parish church, Corridan galvanized Irish Catholic longshoremen to dare challenge racketeering labor leaders—Irish themselves—who controlled New York’s docks. Membership in the International Longshoremen’s Association was then over 90% Catholic.
The Xavier Labor School, founded in 1936 and critically located between the West Side docks and Union Square, was central to that Jesuit initiative. Subsequent anti-anti-communist attitudes in recent decades have obscured the character of those years and the part played by both locales. Bouts of intense labor unrest erupted intermittently on the scandal-plagued docks. At the same time, Union Square became a nerve center of communist and socialist agitation against both capitalism and the Church, portrayed at the time as an enemy of economic fairness and social justice.
Corridan cast a national spotlight on the gangster-ridden Port of New York. His historic role was considerably broader than that popularized by Karl Malden’s powerful portrayal of him as Fr. Barry in On The Waterfront. His drive, courage, and political agility contributed substantially to the legacy of Irish Catholicism and its imprint on urban America.
Taking his bearings from Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Corridan applied the encyclicals to the bare-knuckle hiring practices on the nation’s largest waterfront. An eloquent opponent of a corrupt shape-up system, he worked to advance Jesuit aspiration for a responsible “Christian reconstruction of industrial society.” [See afternote.]
A Dissimilar Ministry
By contrast, Fr. VerEecke presided over a parish anchored in the riskless harbor of leftist social justice activism and identity politics. Congregants understand themselves as a prophetic community, enlightened citizens of the world. They stand as neighbor to all peoples except their own citizens—working people ill-served by open borders. Special warmth extends to Hondurans with a Honduras Companion Communities Project. The parish’s Immigration Initiative lends weekly support to “undocumented friends.” Contemptuous of lawful immigration procedures (“a dehumanizing system”) it promises sanctuary to “our undocumented sisters and brothers.”
Catering to downtown demography, the parish offers “a safe space” in which to affirm the status of LBGTQ on the ever-enlarging spectrum of sexual identities. A rainbow flag draped on its altar steps in celebration of the Obergefell decision mistook—as it continues to mistake— affirmation for ministry.
Such affirmation is a function of morality presented evermore strictly in terms of an administrative, social service model. Ratification of LBGTQ identities and the endless range of human needs are priorities of what Daniel J. Mahoney terms “advanced humanitarianism.” Daniel J. Mahoney encapsulates that model in The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity. Traditional religious morality smothers in the warm bath of our kindly modern beneficence:
There is not much sense left in the concept of sexual purity; but, on the other hand, a large-scale building of spacious apartments for everybody will cause sexual impurity to disappear automatically and universally. . . . The less content attaches to the idea of moral perfection, and the less moral substance appears to be left over [from concepts of material or “psychic” welfare], the more pretentious and cocksure becomes the pursuit of the claim to a formally “perfect” world .
Mahoney calls such a world “morally waterproof,” a dependable reality for those—Pope Francis among them—who identify the wisdom of Catholic moral reasoning with a bow to the humanitarian priorities of left-liberal elites.
With the parish ear attuned to strains of politicized virtue, Christianity dwindles to an artifact of ideology. And sentimentality. Bolstered by the judicial mysticism of Anthony Kennedy (“the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning . . . “) it makes a kind of sense for Fr. Bob to serve the faithful with liturgical dance and his original lyrics for a hymn to the rosewater environmentalism of Laudato Sí.
Adjoined to the site of the old labor school—now Xavier High School for boys—the Church of St. Francis Xavier is a portent in stone of what awaits a Church that dresses secular creeds in a Christian idiom. Sentimentality is the enemy of the way of the saints.
And Speaking of Liturgy
At the urging of friends, I attended a crowded Novus Ordo at St. Xavier’s one Sunday before Fr. VerEeck’s tenure. Perhaps protocols have changed in the interim, though I have no reason to think so. More likely, the self-assurance informing the formalities has increased. At the time, by way of an entrance rite, the presider asked the faithful to offer a hand to someone next to them and introduce themselves. “Hi, I’m Jeff,” chirped my pew mate.
The sound of a wrecking ball was stunning. All the restraint of a God-centered liturgy, evolved over centuries, was smashed in a phrase. Self-affirmation, an idol of the cultural moment, swept the sanctuary clean of any hint of human diffidence. Even then, before a rainbow flag ever appeared on the altar steps, reticence no longer ranked among desired norms. Here was a liturgy devised for moderns and cleansed of antique solemnities.
Hi, I’m Jeff. That single, reckless colloquialism cut the chords of sacral time, seeming more appropriate to a dating service than a Mass. Looking back at that moment, my reaction proved more accurate than I knew then.
NOTE: For a full grasp of the era and Corridan’s influence on it, James T. Fisher’s On the Irish Waterfront: the Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York (2009) is very fine. A valuable look at the Jesuit labor schools is Peter McDonough, Men Astutely Trained (1992). Available online through JSTOR is Joseph McShane, S,J., “The Working Class Spirituality of the Jesuit Labor Priests” U.S. Catholic Historian (Summer, 1990).