I recently had the chance to see Bruce Springsteen perform in his natural habitat, at MetLife Stadium in the famous swamps of New Jersey. It was the middle of the string of concerts where he broke his own record for longest American performance on each night. I was there for the middle one.
I’ve been a fan of Springsteen’s for awhile. Because it was the radio heyday of WNEW FM and they hyped him relentlessly, I bought his first album the week it was released. His songs spoke to me, resonated with me. They still do. I like that his music tells stories. And that those stories all pretty much echo the same theme. There’s a guy. The odds are stacked against him. He realizes it but he doesn’t let it get him down. He keeps going, bathed in the good of his life, a good which usually manifests itself as a girl, a car, or a guitar. He knows he can’t win, but he carves out a meaningful life as best as he can.
The night I was there Springsteen was joined onstage by Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine. It would be hard to imagine a better coupling. They launched into a set of songs that called attention to the oppressed little guy. They took the side of the little guy. They spoke for the poor. It occurred to me, sitting high in the upper deck, that I was hearing onstage the same message I heard every day at mass. They were preaching the Catholic Church’s Preferential Option for the Poor and setting it to music.
The Catholic emphasis on kindness and service to the poor really struck me. It went from a topic I rarely thought about to one that was constantly before me. A friend of mine, who works with the poor and marginalized in North Carolina, once told me that he’d seriously considered a conversion to the Catholic Church because of their care for the poor. It wasn’t, he said, a trendy thing. They’d been doing it forever. It was St. Lawrence of Rome who identified the poor and marginalized as the greatest treasure the Church possessed. Now I watched as Morello played his guitar and sang, his head rolling back, alternating between a state of musical euphoria and social anger pouring out empathy for the downtrodden, asking that the playing field be leveled.
I am reminded of the great Catholic social activist, Dorothy Day. She was a Staten Islander, like me, both of us living on the south shore beachfront. After her conversion, she devoted her life to the poor. She started the Catholic Worker Movement. She spent nearly every spare penny on the hungry and homeless. She was the advocate for the downtrodden every day of her life. She used her writing skills to start The Catholic Worker, a newspaper that aimed to give hope to the one who thought there was no hope for the future.
I googled Morello after the show, wondering what instilled this attitude in him. I wasn’t surprised to see that his background was Catholicism. He isn’t what anyone would call “devout.” He considers himself an agnostic. He does two day events in cities where one day is a rock show and the other is a day of social service. He wrestles with his faith, to be sure, but wrestling with one’s faith is something the Church makes provision for.
Springsteen also is a non-practicing Catholic. But, Catholic teaching has a way of influencing you and never setting you free again. He didn’t close his show without encouraging us to put some cash into the buckets manned by a South Jersey community center. Though Springsteen and Morello have distanced themselves from the Church intellectually, both still see the poor as the Church sees them. Both know that the poor are treasures. And both acknowledge their responsibility to help. Springsteen likes to proclaim at concerts that “I’m a prisoner…of rock and roll!” That may be. But he and Morello, like Dorothy Day, seem to be prisoners to the Church teachings of social justice.