Defending rights of the poor a 'noble profession'

Fr. Kammer

To care for the poor, to defend their rights and to enable them to shape their own destinies is a noble profession -- one shared by lawyers -- a leading advocate for people in poverty told a gathering of law students from St. Louis University Oct. 7.

"It is a gift to each of us for which we should be grateful and a cause for rejoicing in our calling," said Jesuit Father Fred Kammer, former president of Catholic Charities USA and a lawyer himself.

Father Kammer spoke to a lunchtime crowd at the SLU law school in Downtown that included a few lawyers and judges as well. He also addressed faculty and gave the homily the previous day at the annual Red Mass, a gathering of the legal and political community, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

At SLU's law school, Father Kammer recalled his own days as a law student looking for an intern position. He landed at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, spending several years there, leaving and returning as director of the Senior Citizens Law Project in Atlanta.

"While people inside and outside legal services often were surprised that I was both a priest and a lawyer, I always felt that my legal services work fit hand-in-glove with my sense of myself as a Jesuit priest," he said.

Father Kammer cited Church teaching, including a synod of bishops in Rome in 1971 that declared that "action for justice (is) a constitutive element of the preaching of the Gospel."

The priest, now the director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University in New Orleans, said: "I cannot imagine a more fitting place to exercise my ministry than in representing poor clients, working to change unjust laws and regulations and trying to help the poor gain access to society's institutions."

Father Kammer was amazed to see how many people on the legal aid staff were engaged in their church or were from families with strong religious traditions. They were shaped by Hebrew Scriptures or by the ministry and teaching of Jesus, he said.

In almost every nation, he said, those who are poor are women, children and those who are different than the majority. "Add the responsibility to care for and defend the least among us is shared by multiple religious traditions," he said.

Pope Francis is underscoring "this profoundly religious insight" in both his statements and his actions, Father Kammer said. It "underscores the connection for those in this room between lawyering for the poor -- which is an obligation of every lawyer -- and religious faith."

Pope Francis, he said, recently spoke of a "globalization of indifference" where so many people pass by those in need. Father Kammer pointed out that "we can't live in a bubble and not look at the world around us."

The goal, the New Orleans native said, is to advocate for the right of people "to be artisans of their own destiny."

Answering several questions, he cited efforts to attract private funds to provide for legal services and efforts to convince lawyers to do pro bono work. He cited enormous problems such as housing for the poor but noted that they are manageable if everyone would get involved in the life of a poor person such as tutoring or working in a soup kitchen.

In his homily at the Red Mass, Father Kammer cited the complexities of addressing society's problems, including income and wealth disparities that threaten democracy and divisions on fundamental issues of human life, human rights, health care, the role of government and other areas.

These complexities are reflected in biblical times, and the answer can be found in the Scriptures as well, he said. "For all of us in this complex, divided and violent society, the Scriptures tell us first that ... the Lord Jesus promises us that He and God will dwell with us."

The Holy Spirit inspires new ways to solve old problems, new means to serve society's legal needs and ensure justice for all, feel the compassion of Christ for the poor and vulnerable and act with the love of Christ," working for the common good and rising above the divisions of party, place, class, race and other separations, he said.

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