By Barb Arland-Fye
When Father Marvin Mottet opened the Social Action Department for the Diocese of Davenport in 1969, the late Bishop Gerald O’Keefe mistakenly referred to it as Social Services. “No, Bishop,” the priest politely corrected his superior, “it’s social action; justice comes first.” While charity is necessary, solving the problems that create poverty is crucial, the priest explained.
It’s a message Msgr. Mottet — who prefers to be called “Fr. Mottet” — has practiced and preached for the past 56 years of his priesthood. This weekend he’ll receive an award for his leadership role in advancing social justice and dignity for all members of society through the tradition of Catholic social teaching. The Roundtable Association of Catholic Diocesan Social Action Directors will present its Servant of Justice Award to Msgr. Mottet on Feb. 11 in Washington, D.C.
“At age 81, Msgr. Mottet continues to put into practice the Gospel’s preferential option for the poor as an advocate and an example,” the Roundtable Association said in a news release.
“I’m honored and humbled because I know where this comes from. They’re the people who are on the front lines of social action,” Msgr. Mottet said.
His exposure to social action dates back to childhood when he observed his parents helping others during the Great Depression — sharing food with strangers, waiting for payment on milk deliveries, educating themselves on the issues of the day. The future priest’s passion for social action grew exponentially during his studies at St. Ambrose College in Davenport.
Ordained to the priesthood in 1956, he helped form the Catholic Interracial Council to address racial discrimination and segregation in Davenport a year later. That effort inspired the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, which has honored such peacemakers as Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Cesar Chavez, Sargent Shriver, Dorothy Day and Msgr. Mottet.
Msgr. Mottet became the Davenport Diocese’s social action director after surviving cancer while still in his 30s. That experience impacted his prayer life and shaped his approach to social action.
“I would take one day a month at the Carmelite Monastery (then in Bettendorf) for prayer and reflection. I’d go in with questions and come out with answers about the direction our social action team should go.”
The priest created a model for balancing charity and justice and called it the “Two Feet of Christian Service” following a pastor’s request for a one-page statement to put in the hands of ordinary parishioners.
“Marv created and used that model to transform Catholic social ministry to address the causes of poverty and create institutional change,” says Dan Ebener, who served more than 20 years as the Davenport Diocese’s social action director.
An outline of a pair of shoes serves as a symbol for the model and a metaphor for Msgr. Mottet’s life; the priest has worn out many pairs of shoes engaging in social action. In 1978, he became executive director of the national Campaign for Human Development and lived among the poor in a Catholic Worker House. “Social justice is not just a theory; I felt it was necessary to live in solidarity with the poor,” explained Msgr. Mottet, who helped open two Catholic Worker houses in Washington, D.C., and two in Davenport.
After serving in the nation’s capital, he returned to Davenport as pastor and rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral, located in a neighborhood that had the highest crime rate in the inner city, he said. “Ten years later we had the lowest crime rate in the inner city because of all the work that had been done in the neighborhood.”
Msgr. Mottet helped launch Quad Cities Interfaith and Interfaith Housing, a congregation-based organization to address the causes of poverty locally. Numerous organizations that address poverty and injustice have taken root at his instigation and his ability to persuade others to join him. “We weren’t intending to build an empire. It was research, plan, develop and spin-off.”
Age and health have slowed him down. A deteriorating hip, the consequence of medication he takes because of a kidney transplant years ago, requires use of a walker. He accepts his physical limitations as part of his faith journey, of which prayer and celebration of the Mass are the central focus.
“So often when I go past the chapel, he’s in there praying; obviously the activity of his social action ministry is supported by a very deep prayer life,” observes Bishop Martin Amos.
Msgr. Mottet still serves as president of Project Renewal, a program he helped start 38 years ago in one of Davenport’s poorest neighborhoods, attends social action department meetings and leads healing ministry efforts. He’s also the diocese’s exorcist, whose services are in demand well beyond the diocese. “I’m an exorcist by default,” he jokes. No one else had asked for the position, until he did.
Most of Msgr. Mottet’s efforts focus now on helping a former student he taught at Assumption High School in Davenport to bring to fruition projects with potential to create a significant number of new jobs and to share the wealth from the sale of products.
“We want to employ the people who are living in despair and go to bed every night praying for a better tomorrow. We want to provide that better tomorrow. And through the grace of God and the Holy Spirit, we will,” said Jim Orr, the former student who calls this effort the Mottet Initiative. “We’re looking for people of like spirit and mind who have the same passion to bring jobs to those in need,” Orr added.
Msgr. Mottet is convinced of the initiative’s potential to benefit society. “I look back on my life and realize that the things I’ve been able to accomplish happened because of the people I know … the world is run by friends. An Irish-American bishop told me that!”
Built a network of relationships
Msgr. Marvin Mottet learned long ago the effectiveness of one-on-one conversations with people of all backgrounds. As a result, he’s built a network of family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances who’ve helped him bring about change that helps people better their lives and strengthen their relationship with God.
He’s not shy about making good use of those relationships. Take, for example, the latest announcement concerning the federal health care mandate. The Obama Administration gave religious organizations an extra year to comply with the mandate that requires them to provide health care covering contraceptives, sterilization and drugs that may cause abortions.
Msgr. Mottet wrote a letter to President Obama to express disappointment with the decision. The priest signed his letter as president emeritus of both the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) and Gamaliel Foundation. CCHD helped fund programs President Obama worked for when he was a young community organizer, and the Gamaliel Foundation once employed the future president. Fr. Mottet hopes the reminder causes President Obama to reconsider his administration’s stance. The priest sent the letter to a White House staffer he knew from his CCHD work. “She said she walked it over to the appropriate person. The president probably gets 100,000 letters a day.”