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Fr. Horace McKenna, a Defender of the Poor

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Message Suzana Megles

I guess I'll never be able to pick up a magazine without thinking - this would make a great post.  And so here I am about to write about Fr. Horace McKenna, SJ.  Truth be told, I as a Catholic, often have problems with priests generally, and this is something I should be ashamed to admit and I am.  I haven't found too many of them who are concerned about animal suffering, and I see this as a weakness, because the God of all Creation must certainly love His animal creatures because He made them.  That should be abundantly clear to everyone, but I never hear anything re them from the church.  Surely by now, they must have read re the cruel accounts of the suffering animals in CAFOs.

I boycotted the Bejing Olympics after I found out about how the raccoon dogs are skinned alive in some parts of China, and just yesterday I got another video on Care2 showing the same unimaginable pain these poor dogs go through- for what?  a fur-trimmed trinket?  a fur collar on a coat? Were these workers doing this horrible cruel deed perhaps Catholic?  Of course, Catholic or no, this is unconscionable.

This post is about Fr. Horace McKenna, and after reading about this exceptional priest, I wish that some of us could have convinced him when he was still alive to join us in our animal rights crusade.  But then realistically - not much of a possiblilty because his hands were already so abundantly filled with the monumental task of helping the poor of Washington.  He even said, that after many years of unselfish labor in their behalf, that when God lets him into heaven, he'll ask to go off in a corner somewhere for half an hour and sit down and cry because the strain is off.........."

Reading about his birth on January 2, 1899 in New York City,  I found out that his parents had a hard time winning the approval of the parish priest regarding their choice for the name of their new baby.  They were told by him that there were no saints named Horace.  To which Mr. McKenna "intuitively" replied - he'll be the first!

In 1916 Horace entered the Society of Jesus. After ordination, his first assignment was a small parish in southern Maryland ministering to the poor blacks of the region.  Later moving to yet another parish in southern Maryland, where the entire region- including the churches was still segregated,  Horace and two other Jesuit friends began to push for integration.  Probably this early work in these early parishes may have prepared him for his greatest life's calling which was ministering to God's poor wherever he would find them.  That defining moment occurred in 1964 where he was assigned to St. Aloysius Gonzaga, a Jesuit Parish a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.  

Fr. Dear, S.J. wrote about his time here:  "Through his years serving and defending the poor of Washington, D. C., Horace helped found such works as S.O.M.E. (So Others Might Eat, a soup kitchen, clinic, housing and job program), "Sursum Corda" (a housing project located near the U.S.Capitol) and Martha's Table, (a soup kitchen and center for homeless women).  Horace became a common figure in the city, the leading advocate of the poor, and the friend that the poor could always trust.  Stories are told about the many homeless people who often turned to Horace on cold winter nights with no place else to go, and were allowed to sleep in one of the Jesuit's cars.  One homeless man, applying for some government program, when asked for his legal residence, replied,
'The back seat of Father McKenna's car.' "

Such an exceptionally caring man, but yet his superiors would not always be kind to him.  Because he refused to support Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical dealing with birth control, he was not allowed to be part of the famous March on Washington in 1963 where Dr. King proclaimed his dream for a just society. It must have been very painful for him to be deprived of hearing Dr. King who I'm sure he admired very much as they had so much in common. 

I applaud Fr. McKenna for his stand against an encyclical which forbade the use of contraceptives.  I would like to ask the hierarchy and proponents of this teaching -what would happen if large countries like China and India had to follow Humanae Vitae?  I believe there would be mass starvation in those countries.  Could a loving God want this?

I was amazed to also read that he was receptive to new ideas in his last years.  In his late 70's he was exhihiting an openness and tolerance of someone much younger.  He started to study liberation theology, supported the ordination of women, and attended a workshop on ministry to the gay community.  Indeed, it seems there was no segment of mankind for whom he didn't show understanding and concern.  I really believe that had he lived longer, we probably could have asked him to help with animal rights. I personally appreciate that he believed that women could be priests.  I always say -women may not make better priests, but then I hardly think they can be much worse. 

Fr. Dear, SJ,  the principal writer of this post, sums up Fr. McKenna's life well:   "Today Father McKenna's work continues at the McKenna Center, the drop-in center and shelter for the homeless at St. Aloysius Church in Washington, D.C.  Those who follow Horace's example encounter the passion of Jesus played out before their eyes every day.  Christ comes: homeless, broke, without friends, evicted, unemployed, wanted, an illegal refugee, a torture victim from Guatemala or S. Africa, a mother with nine children and no food, an AIDS victim, an alcoholic or drug addict, a victim of violence.  In these poor, Christ comes back as he did to Horace." 

I don't know if there is a movement to declare Fr. Horace McKenna a saint or not, but for many, I'm sure,
his father's statement at his baptism to the priest rings true -that his son Horace would be the first St. Horace!
Even one of his superiors said about Fr. McKenna: "He was a stubborn old goat, but if he wasn't a saint, I don't know who was."   (Georgetown University Press 1985)

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I have been concerned about animal suffering ever since
I received my first puppy Peaches in 1975. She made me take a good look at the animal kingdom and I was shocked to see how badly we treat so many animals. At 77, I've been a vegan for the (more...)
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