Editorial : Celebrating 50 Editions – The Common Good

Reprinted from The Common Good, no 50, Spring 2009

This week I happened to watch a documentary on Prime TV about the London Underground bombings in 2005. It was called the Angels of Edgware Road: it told the stories of three people who found themselves right next to the carriage where one of the bombs went off and who acted with amazing selflessness and courage, clambering into the shattered remains of the carriage to help the seriously wounded. It was a series of clips from interviews with the three, also with one of the victims who survived and with a fifth person.

What is that motivates people to respond like the Good Samaritan in the Gospel? Two of them said it was simply the cries of the wounded and the dying which compelled them to think, not of themselves and try to get out, but to stay behind and help. One young woman described how the explosion had knocked her silly. When she came round she could not open her eyes until she managed to wipe the broken glass shards from her face. Apart from many superficial cuts, she found she was not seriously hurt; she was able to struggle through the doors into the chaos, encountering first a dead body with clothing totally blown off, then the wounded man whom she was to save.

All the three could do was to apply elementary first aid to try to staunch the bleeding: make tourniquets from ripped clothing, raise bloody limbs, then staying with the person, holding his hand and talking to him until help came. None of them saw their actions as particularly heroic. One spoke of how he prayed for a dying man. The compulsion each felt was simply to be there for the other – for a complete stranger, for a fellow human being in need.

The account of the fifth person was interesting. She was so traumatised by the event that she could only think of getting out of the chaos, the stench, the smoke, the terrible feeling of being trapped below the ground. But when eventually she got out and was free, she was overcome by feelings of guilt. She said the only way she could satisfy her conscience was to join the Red Cross, which she eventually did.

When it comes to being a Catholic Worker, I asked myself the same question. “Why do these people do it?” The Catholic Worker movement was born in America as a result of the Depression. There were lots of people in the direst need. Others, led by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, felt compelled to help. The Depression passed, but there are still needy people and always will be. The CW or its equivalent will never lack causes to work for and people requiring ongoing assistance.

Twenty years ago the Christchurch Catholic Worker started and this is the 50th issue of The Common Good – both events worth celebrating. The one has fed the other. Several times a year the broadsheet arrives in my mail with stories of the activities of CW groups at home and overseas. Good communication keeps friendships alive and spreads the good news of new initiatives. But there is more to The Common Good than news: there are many really worthwhile feature articles to challenge and deepen ones faith.

I know from experience that it is hard work keeping a periodical like The Common Good alive and fresh. The fact that contributions continue to flow in and keep the exchequer balanced is a tribute to the quality nourishment that readers receive. So, may it prosper for many more years and continue to be a vital ingredient of CW success.

I see two aspects of the Catholic Worker movement which sustains its members long term. One is the religious motivation. For the members, this is the realisation of the Gospel call. It is a vocation which requires to be constantly fed on the lifeblood of Christ.

The second is the emphasis on community. People who are selfless in their giving, need support from each other. The best support is from other people who are similarly moved, are working alongside and who become friends for life. So the Catholic Worker communities and families provide vital support.

Nevertheless, it still comes down to personal commitment and that is usually born out of an experience which may be as traumatic as being involved in a terrorist bomb blast.

Another story may help illustrate how such motivation is born. In the ’60s I was teaching seniors in a school in Britain. A boy came to see me and told me he intended to leave school midyear since he had all he needed to qualify for University entry. He was looking for a volunteer position to fill the gap. Since he was quite a rugged character, I suggested in his reference that he should be capable of a tough assignment. He was sent to help in a youth club in twilight area in the industrial North East of England. Later he revisited the school and spoke to the Seventh Formers of his experiences. It had been very rough, and he mixed with the sort of youth he had never come across before. But he enjoyed it. One boy asked him what he had learned. He paused – and replied: “Whatever else I do in life, I would always want to give something of myself to help kids like that.” Experience had motivated him to want to continue giving selflessly to others.

May the Common Good continue to inspire us for years to come. May the spirit of St Francis and Dorothy Day find its expression in the deeds and aspirations of another, younger generation. In a nutshell, may the Gospel imperative of peace and justice continue to be preached and heard and lived.

Fr Michael Hill is the editor of Tui Motu, a national ecumenical monthly. He lives in Dunedin.

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