WASHINGTON (May 1, 2002) -- Msgr. George G. Higgins, the "labor priest" who was generally regarded as the dean of the U.S. Church's social action ministry for the last half century, died May 1 at the age of 86.
After a long illness, Msgr. Higgins died at the at the home of his sister, Bridget Doonan, in LaGrange, Illinois, his native city. He had returned to LaGrange in January to speak at St. Francis Xavier Church, the parish in which he was raised. After delivering the talk on January 19, he fell ill with a severe infection and was hospitalized for a period of three months.
"Msgr. George Higgins was without parallel the authority on the Church's social teaching and on labor-management issues," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). "He was a forceful and articulate figure in the Church and a major influence on the lives of several generations of Catholics dedicated to the cause of social justice. He was, above all, a good and dedicated priest. I pray for the repose of his soul and for the consolation of his family and the many persons in all walks of life to whom he will always be a vibrant and lasting inspiration."
A priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, who spent 60 years of his life working in the nation's capital, Msgr. Higgins was probably the best known and most influential priest in the United States. He was widely admired within the Church and in the secular realm for his knowledge of the labor movement, ecumenism, Catholic-Jewish relations and many other fields, and for his talents as a skillful negotiator.
"The best informed priest in the United States," as U.S. Church historian John Tracy Ellis once described him, Msgr. Higgins was an advisor to labor leaders and presidential commissions, a friend to bishops and to everyday Catholic people. Above all, he was a champion of ordinary men and women and of the workers' right to organize.
He headed the Social Action Department of the Catholic Bishops' Conference for 35 years, and his syndicated column, "The Yardstick," appeared in Catholic papers from 1945 until he penned his last piece in September, 2001, by which time macular degeneration had seriously impeded his vision. By then he had written nearly 3,000 columns. Most were on some aspect of the labor movement but his range of topics was vast. He had a special interest in Catholic-Jewish relations.
Msgr. Higgins was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1940. He came to Washington to study at the Catholic University of America, where he earned a doctorate in economics and political science, and took on a supposedly temporary position with the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was then known. The following year he became assistant director of the department and, in 1956, its director.
While guiding that office, he used his column to teach on a wide variety of topics important to the Church, while using his personality and old-fashioned political skills to mediate labor disputes from coast to coast. He counseled Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and was a mediator between workers and growers in California and the Midwest. For 35 years he was chairman of the United Auto Workers' Public Review Board, an agency that handles grievances between rank and file workers and the union.
Msgr. Higgins was a peritus (expert) at all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and was on the preparatory commission which drafted the council's laity document, the first U.S. priest to receive such an assignment. He became one of the best known interpreters of the Council to the English-speaking world as a daily member of the U.S. Bishops' press panel. After retiring from the Bishops' Conference in 1980, Msgr. Higgins was an adjunct lecturer in the Theology Department of the Catholic University of America, 1980-1994, and later professor emeritus.
Msgr. Higgins received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in White House ceremonies in 2000. The previous year he was awarded the Laetare Medal, the highest honor given by the University of Notre Dame.
In June, 2001, the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee (sponsored by the Holy See and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations) honored Msgr. Higgins as one of the great pioneers of the dialogue worldwide.
A dinner planned as a tribute to Msgr. Higgins last September 11 was postponed, but a reception in his honor was held two months later at the time of the U.S. Bishops' fall meeting. It was co-hosted by Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, then President of the Bishops' Conference, and Mr. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.
The Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Tuesday, May 7, at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. A visitation and Liturgy of the Eucharist will be celebrated at St. Francis Xavier, La Grange, May 6.