The amazing, and now Venerable, Father Al

 

At an inch or so over five feet and weighing, I would guess, something on the underside of 100 pounds, Sister Winnie, a soft spoken Filipina, is not your typical dinner speaker. Yet a few weeks ago she held a room full of Washingtonians spellbound with her story – which is also the story of a largely unknown American of whom the Church in the United States should be very proud.

Sister Winnie was born, and lived the first years of her life, in a shanty built on an enormous trash dump (politely known as a “landfill”) outside Manila. The locals called it “Smoky Mountain” because of the fires that spontaneously combusted from some two million metric tons of trash. Winnie was rescued from Smoky Mountain by the Sisters of Mary and, with the permission of her family, was raised in the sisters’ Girlstown, where she became a skilled accountant. She then took a job with a major German industrial firm, sending much of her salary back to her family to help her parents and siblings. But corporate accounting paled after awhile, and Winnie decided to put her professional skills at the service of the sisters who had given her a new life.

You can guess the rest: while working for the Sisters of Mary, Winnie discerned a vocation to religious life, joined the congregation that had done so much for her, and now works in one of the sisters’ missions in Mexico, doing for other waifs and abandoned children what the sisters had done for her: giving them a life.

I had never heard of the Sisters of Mary, or the Boystowns and Girlstowns in South Korea, the Philippines, and Latin America where they now serve some twenty-thousand desperately impoverished children, or their parallel men’s order, the Brothers of Christ, which serves both children and people with disabilities, until earlier this year. Then, happily, my friends Tom and Glory Sullivan, Catholic philanthropists who’ve generously supported this work for years, began to tell me about the founder of the Sisters and the Brothers, Msgr. Aloysius Schwartz, whose heroic virtues were formally recognized by Pope Francis this past January 22 – thus making him Venerable Aloysius Schwartz.

“Father Al,” as he was universally known, was born during the Great Depression in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Holy Name parish, near the Capitol and Union Station. As a boy living in tough economic times, he decided early on that he wanted to be a missionary priest among the poor. Ordained in Washington in 1957, he was incardinated into the Diocese of Pusan, South Korea, where he soon discovered a tremendous human problem: children living in the direst poverty, often without parents, because of the devastation caused by the Korean War.

And he decided to do something about it.

Fifty years later, the Girsltown and Boystown homes for indigent children that he founded have served some one hundred thousand youngsters: not only by feeding, clothing, and housing them and providing medical care, but by offering these youngsters an education that gives them the financial possibility of gainful employment, and the Christian and human formation that teaches them to give back to their parents and siblings. Sister Winnie is a spiritual daughter of Father Al; she is also a wonderful example of what Aloysius Schwartz understood to be the fruits of a missionary vocation to the poorest of the poor – she is a fellow-disciple who, having received great gifts, gives them to others.

Watching him working the soda counter at a People’s Drug Store, few would have imagined that the youngster they knew as Al Schwartz would die in 1992 at age 61, after years of patiently bearing the cross of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Perhaps even fewer would have imagined that young Al Schwartz was a nascent saint of the Church. Venerable Father Al’s life and accomplishments are a reminder that God really is profligate with gifts of grace, and that saints-in-the-making are all around us as companions on the way.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash