The first time I heard the phrase “social justice” I was 16 and on a retreat given by the diocese where I grew up. When explained to me in the roughest of sketches on that hot July day, I knew I’d found the place I belonged. Whatever social justice was, it was where I wanted to be. I joined the “volunteerism club” in my high school, and eagerly sought out ways to advocate for social justice at my Catholic university. I knew when graduation was approaching that while I loved academics, I was being called to work for justice in a more direct way.
So I moved to Chicago to serve as a teacher in an under-resourced Catholic school on the south side of the city, working toward certification as a teacher and a degree in education. For quite a lot of reasons, I discerned after nearly a year that classroom teaching was not where God wanted me to serve. However, during my crash course in what it means to live in a low-income neighborhood and get by with little, to be surrounded by violence and grocery shop at a convenience store, I kept my eyes wide open. I saw a lot while riding public transit through one of the most crime-ridden and economically depressed parts of the country.
As providence would have it, the very same university where I was working on my degree in education had just piloted the nation’s first Catholic Social Justice Master’s program. I applied and was accepted. I kept my eyes wide open. I met amazing people who have worked and struggled to bring God’s Kingdom to this earth. I learned from some of the best minds teaching on this subject. I encountered things that, as a person deeply committed and loyal to my Church, broke my heart. As part of an internship I did for the Office for Peace and Justice of the Archdiocese of Chicago, I saw first-hand how fractured and cynical the body of Christ can become towards one another, once the term social justice is applied. These divisions have regrettably been created between traditional, often very pious, faithful, and generous Catholics and those who seem to focus on social justice at the expense of traditional Catholic values and Church teaching.
Far from being a source of division and brokenness, this concept of social justice can unite us nearly as fiercely as the Eucharist. It literally means, “being in right relationship”—to order society and all of its institutions towards being in right relationship with one another and with Creation. When properly understood and embraced, what could be more unifying than that? During the process of earning my degree, it occurred to me that the primary way God wanted me to serve him and serve justice was to do so through my writing. To serve Him in the “tangle of my mind,” reading, thinking, and writing about such a complex yet simple truth as living in right relationship.
Now that I am married and a mother, this desire to live justly continues to burn within. What does it mean to live justice as a wife, as a mother? As a member of a parish community as well as a city neighborhood? Why is social justice such a loaded term? How can we bring the beauty and wisdom of the Church’s teachings to bear on the justice issues of our day? How do we balance the demands of the Works of Mercy with the “stuff” of our day-to-day lives? I look forward to continuing to explore these questions and others as part of the Millennial community, and I offer a prayer for us all, to seek first God’s justice:
Lord Jesus, carpenter and king, supreme sovereign of all men, look with tender mercy upon the multitudes of our day who bear the indignities of injustice everywhere. Raise up leaders in every land dedicated to Your standards of order, equity, and justice. Grant unto us, Lord Jesus, the grace to be worthy members of Your mystical body, laboring unceasingly to fulfill our vocation in the social apostolate of Your Church. Sharpen our intellects to pierce the pettiness of prejudice; to perceive the beauty of true human brotherhood. Guide our minds to a meaningful understanding of the problems of the poor, of the oppressed, of the unemployed, of all in need of assistance anywhere. Guide our hearts against the subtle lure of earthly things and undue regard for those who possess them. May we hunger and thirst after justice always. Amen. – Fr. John A. Hardon