Monsignor George G. Higgins, scholar, activist and foremost “labor priest” of the Catholic church in the United States, was awarded this year’s Laetare Medal at commencement.
Throughout his career, Higgins has been a forceful and occasionally controversial advocate of organized labor, often appearing on picket lines to rally and support striking workers. He was a participant and speaker at the first congress of Solidarity in Poland.
Among his numerous awards from labor, academic and religious organizations is a 1979 honorary degree from Notre Dame, where a labor studies center was named in his honor in 1993.
The 85-year-old Chicago native was raised in a strong union family, the son of a postal clerk. His father was a voracious reader who took him to hear G.K. Chesterton give a lecture and to the 1932 Democratic National Convention to see Franklin Delano Roosevelt accept the nomination for president. Ordained a priest of the Chicago archdiocese in 1940, he was appointed to the staff of the social action department of the organization that would become the United States Catholic Conference. He became its director in 1954.
The Laetare Medal, established in 1883, is the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics. It is so named because its recipient is announced each year in celebration of Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent. The 122 previous recipients include Civil War General William Rosecrans, operatic tenor John McCormack, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, novelist Walker Percy, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean.