On My Holy Mountain

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On My Holy Mountain

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On this day, the Memorial of Saint Joseph the Worker, the Church honors Joseph in his role as a worker and, in so doing, seeks to highlight the dignity of human labor. In West Virginia, the Memorial of Saint Joseph the Worker should be a day of celebration. Human labor and the spirit of the working man making a living for himself by his labor are emblazoned on the Great Seal of our State: the two proud figures, a pioneer farmer wielding an ax and a miner with his pick on his shoulder. The symbol of this State celebrates hard-working people who have wrested a living from the Mountain State’s beautiful but challenging landscape. The events of recent weeks also turn our thoughts about workers in a somber direction.

Just over a century ago, the community of Monongah was devastated by the worst mining disaster in American history. Hundreds of men and boys were killed by a devastating explosion in the Monongah Mine, likely triggered by the ignition of methane which in turn ignited the coal dust in mines 6 and 8. In a few short minutes, whole families of men were killed and hundreds of widows and orphans were created at a time before modern welfare support. Bishop Patrick J. Donahue went to Monongah to join the community in its grief and to help them commit the souls of their dead fathers and sons to their eternal rest. The disaster occurred on the Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6, 1907, but there was nothing of Christmas joy amid the cries and tears of widows and orphans.

The Monongah Mine Disaster, and the other deadly mine explosions which soon followed in Pennsylvania and Alabama, were so shocking to the nation that we spurred on to create the Bureau of Mines in 1910. This U.S. Government Agency was charged with the investigation of the methods of mining, especially in relation to the safety of miners and the prevention of accidents, with the hope of preventing workplace fatalities. During the years of its existence, the U.S. Bureau of Mines’ work into the prevention of mine explosions has led to great improvements in mine safety and the Mine Safety and Health Administration has continued to identify opportunities for improved safety, but clearly more needs to be done.

A few short weeks ago, I joined parishioners at Whitesville to pray for the miners and their families involved in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. The explosion occurred on Easter Monday. While the readings at Mass spoke of Mary Magdalene’s joy at seeing the Risen Savior, I had to speak to the people also of Magdalene’s tears as she approached the tomb that morning. West Virginians are a people of faith, but this Easter Week was a difficult time for our Mountain State, a time of sorrow and dashed hopes. The Montcoal community experienced the sort of suffering we had all hoped would never be repeated after the Sago disaster four years ago. In the 21st century, there should be a greater span between accidents than just four years.
In my first pastoral letter, A Church That Heals, I acknowledged that

“we are far from the place called health: a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.”

It was clear that “the road to this place of health and well-being requires that we develop a healthy, vigorous and just environment of social networks and mutual relationships that supports the health and well-being of all of us.”

These words, originally about health and the access to healthcare, could be equally applied to mine safety and access to good safeguards and adequate technologies.

West Virginia’s coal helps to supply over half of our nation’s energy. A good deal of our State’s coal is exported to help other nations improve their economies and further their development. These are facts of which we can be extremely proud. We can also reasonably expect that miner safety be a higher priority than coal production. The disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine raises concerns about the conditions within the coal mines across our State and the atmosphere existing in the coal industry’s corporate culture. Experts are clear that such explosions are preventable. We must ask: Is our mining technology in 2010 equal to the technology that is easily available in other industries? Why is it safer to travel in space than to work in a West Virginia mine?

We know that our elected representatives are actively seeking answers to questions such as these. In doing so, they are part of “that great struggle in which men in the course of the ages have sought to improve the conditions of human living” (Gaudium et Spes, 34). As believers, we recognize that “this human activity accords with God’s will” (GS, 34). In the weeks and months ahead, our representatives will seek to address both issues of science and technology as well as questions of justice and equity. We, people of good will, have an obligation to encourage them in these inquiries and to remind them of its human face.

This is a time of transition in the coalfields. It is certain that the nation will need our coal for years to come. Just as certainly, our nation’s energy needs must increasingly be met by sources that contribute less carbon to the atmosphere. As coal is mined, more attention must be devoted to the increased incidence of black lung disease. Attention must also be paid to the health of communities situated near mines, and to the purity of water flowing through and leaving the coalfields.

Some experts see the supply of easily mined coal dwindling within decades. New policies, new techniques, new ideas will be coming to the mountains which have for so long supplied the energy of this country. “There is a saying in the region that coal is king.” The Bishops of Appalachia in their 1975 pastoral letter This Land is Home to Me recognized that “the coal-based industry created many jobs, and brought great progress to our country.” They also frankly acknowledged that “oppression for the mountains” and suffering for many resulted from tragedies like the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. And they warned that the temptation toward “maximization of profit” can lead to a disregard for human beings and their needs and lead to “a new kind of powerlessness.”

As our nation has become more dependent on West Virginia’s coal over the past 35 years, we have seen the great foresight of the Bishops of Appalachia. There have been advances in mining and still, for many of our fellow West Virginians, coal is not simply a way to make a living, it is a way of life. We owe it to them and to ourselves to ask the questions that will lead to good safeguards and adequate technologies that prevent disasters; we owe it to them and to ourselves to ensure that unsafe mining practices and mines with a disproportionate number of violations are properly addressed, before lives are jeopardized; we owe it to them and to ourselves to make certain that “safety first” isn’t just a motto but that it is a lived reality in our State’s mines. Indeed, we owe it to our miners and mine operators alike to demand that mines become “zero accident” work places, where an accident is unacceptable to all and where production would always be halted rather than risk an accident.

There is a saying in the coalfields, “Coal-mining laws are written in blood.” Following the Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion, Nick Helms, who lost his father, Terry, in the 2006 Sago Mine Disaster, spoke about the grief and pain that coal-mining families feel. “I never understood that saying until after Sago,” Nick told us. “Dad would say that nothing would ever change until after something bad would happen. It’s a never-ending struggle, but it needs to be a never-ending topic in our government.” Nick concluded, “People were saying, ‘It’s cheaper to pay the fines than to do the safety.’ I know you need to make money, but not at the expense of peoples’ lives.”

“West Virginia needs coal mines,” Nick said. “But, West Virginia doesn’t need unsafe coal mines.” That is the attitude that we, a people of faith, must take as we strive to support those who make their living by supporting us and our lifestyle. The Church has always been responsive to the concerns of workers. Almost two decades before the Monongah disaster, in response to grave concerns about the worker’s plight worldwide, Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical letter On the Condition of the Working Class (Rerum Novarum, 1891) and drew attention to the essential partnership between capital and labor for their mutual benefit and the common good, the importance of safe working conditions and a living wage, the State’s role in regulating work relationships and conditions, and the right of workers to organize for reasons of justice and safety.

The Church has an obligation to continue to remain vigilant in these areas to ensure that justice is served and human dignity is protected. This is an essential part of proclaiming the Gospel of Life. Indeed, by virtue of human dignity, all persons have a right to a safe work environment and one in which unsafe conditions can be reported without fear of blacklisting or loss of one’s job. Workers have a right to a living wage and to reasonable work hours. The Church has long recognized and supported workers’ rights to organize. In the coalfields, such organization has had measurable benefits in terms of safety and we applaud all that the United Mine Workers of America have achieved. We must discover why union mines have a lower fatality rate in West Virginia and appear to have a much better safety record.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics report, “Coal Mining Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities in 2006,” supported the conclusion that “the coal mine fatality rate was 11 times higher than the rate for all U.S. private industry workers.” It is clear that more can and must be done across the coal industry: safety is about putting people first, making individuals responsible for themselves and one another, and giving all the ability to make appropriate, well-informed decisions without fear of reprisals. In a nation as technologically advanced as ours, the real limitation on safety would seem to be whether we have the desire to make it our first priority. As a people of faith, it is the Church’s duty to encourage this.

On visiting Nazareth in 1964 to dedicate the new Basilica Church, Pope Paul VI spoke of the “lessons of Nazareth” among which was to be found “the lesson of work.” The Holy Father acknowledged that at Nazareth, the home of the carpenter’s son and the very place where St. Joseph taught Jesus to labor, “the austere and redeeming law of human labor” is seen, a “consciousness of the dignity of labor” emerges, one begins “to recall that work cannot be an end in itself, and that it is free and ennobling in proportion to the values – beyond the economic ones – which motivate it.” At Nazareth, Pope Paul VI wished “to salute all the workers of the world, and to point out to them their great Model, their Divine Brother, the Champion of all their rights, Christ the Lord!” In recalling these words and the great dignity of human labor as well as the true value of human life, I greet the men and women who labor in our coal mining industry in West Virginia and point out to them a wonderful patron, St. Joseph the Worker. As a workingman, he knew toil and labor; he knew joy and sorrow; he knew lean times and times of plenty; he dealt with great hardships, threats of violence, and boundless happiness in his family. St. Joseph made his living as a carpenter, most certainly. Christ was St. Joseph’s way of life. This is the message we must also bring to our brothers and sisters.

Let us have faith that the tears from Sago and Aracoma, Crandall Canyon and Montcoal, and so many others will result in true safety coming to the coalfields. Let us work diligently to break this tragic cycle. Let us pray that healthy living, pure water, and clean air will return to the coal mining regions of our beautiful Mountain State. May Our Lady, help of Christians, and St. Joseph the Worker, her Spouse, intercede for us, watch over the families and communities affected by this tragedy, and bring to completion the good work we have begun in Christ our Lord.

Prayer to St. Joseph, as Patron of Workers

O glorious Joseph, you concealed your incomparable and regal dignity as custodian of Jesus and of the Virgin Mary under the humble appearance of a craftsman and provided for them with your work. Protect with loving power your sons and daughters, especially entrusted to you.

You know their anxieties and sufferings, because you yourself experienced them at the side of Jesus and of His Mother. Do not allow them, oppressed by so many worries, to forget the purpose for which they were created by God. Do not allow the seeds of distrust to take hold of their immortal souls. Remind all the workers that in the fields, in factories, in mines, and in scientific laboratories, they are not working, rejoicing, or suffering alone, but at their side is Jesus, with Mary, His Mother and ours, to sustain them, to dry the sweat of their brow, giving value to their toil. Teach them to turn work into a high instrument of sanctification as you did. Amen.

Rev. Msgr. Frederick P. Annie, V.G.
Rev. Msgr. Kevin Michael Quirk, J.C.D., J.V.
Very Rev. Brian O’Donnell, S.J.
Rev. Mr. Todd Garland
The Catholic Spirit, Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston
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