April 9, 2012
Who are today’s true heroes? That’s more than an academic question; the New York press was consumed with it this year as a parade honored the Giants as “heroes” of the NFL’s Super Bowl, while others loudly insisted that our “real heroes” were the men and women in uniform dedicated to defending their country.
The truth is that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and that defining the term has a lot to do with the people who ultimately win the title. The Church, in fact, has more than its share of heroes. Most were martyrs, and more than a few were combat chaplains. And then there are my own favorite heroes--those priests who have devoted their lives to the spread of Church teaching on social justice. Their ministry has often been lonely and, in a word, heroic, as they labored to bring the Church’s message on the dignity of work and love for the poor to a wider audience.
One of those heroes was honored recently, as 81-year-old Msgr. Marvin Mottet of Davenport, Iowa, received the Servant of Justice Award in Washington, D.C. It came from the Roundtable Association of Catholic Diocesan Social Action Directors, a point hardly wasted on Msgr. Mottet.
“I’m honored and humbled because I know where this comes from,” he said. “They’re the people who are on the front lines of social action.”
I’ve never had the privilege of meeting Msgr. Mottet, but he follows in the Midwestern tradition of others I’ve known--the Italian-born Msgr. Luigi Ligutti, a rural life expert who made Granger, Iowa his home for many years, and Msgr. George G. Higgins, product of a Chicago suburb, who became the de facto Dean of Social Action while working out of Washington.
Msgr. Mottet, who prefers the title of “Father,” has devoted his priesthood to the cause of social action. “At age 81,” his fellow directors said in presenting the In Davenport they tell the story of the day in 1969 when Father Mottet opened the diocesan Social Action Department, and the late Bishop Gerald O’Keefe mistakenly referred to it as Social Services. “No, Bishop,” the priest said. “It’s social action; justice comes first.”
According to a story carried in Catholic News Service, Marvin Mottet’s exposure to social action dates back to childhood when he saw his parents helping others during the Great Depression--sharing food with strangers, or waiting for payment on milk deliveries. As a seminarian and then as a young priest he became more and more involved with the cause, helping to launch the Catholic Interracial Council and ultimately, in 1978, becoming executive director of the U.S. Bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
When he returned to Davenport he continued his involvement in the Catholic Worker Movement, and threw himself into parish work in the inner city. Through it all, his ministry has been buttressed by an active prayer life that continues unabated today.
As I wrote earlier, I’ve never met Msgr. Mottet; that makes it hard to think of him as one of my heroes. But the work he’s done throughout his priesthood--for his diocese, his country, his Church--clearly comes from a heroic tradition, and a Christopher tradition as well. Monsignor, ad multos annos.