“Growing up I couldn’t help being religious,” says Reverend Thomas Bokenkotter. “My parents were deeply religious and greatly influenced me, as did the general climate of our household. For me a big part of religion is how we respectfully relate to each other, accept each other… and this I was taught from a very young age”.
Bokenkotter was raised Catholic, one of 7 children. As a child he served as an altar boy, showing up to mass early every morning, learning liturgical Latin, in constant contact with priests. “I grew up with religion; it was part of my genes…,” he says. When he graduated from his Catholic High School, he decided to become a priest and entered the seminary. “It was an easy decision for what seemed a natural path. I had no questioning about my vocation and enjoyed the studious, spiritual and pious atmosphere of my new setting.”
Bokenkotter’s religious education took him to Rome and to the prestigious University of Louvain in Belgium where he earned a doctorate degree in history; it deepened his understanding of Catholicism and of other religions.
Back to the States, he taught for many years at the seminary, then at Xavier University, and spent most of his time writing religion-based books among them the bestselling “A Concise History of the Catholic Church”.
At the beginning Bokenkotter’s orientation and activities were purely academic. His writings owed him the label of “liberal”, a term of reprobation by some, due to his critical views of the conservative Church. His studies and research, however, quickly proved to him that, even if conservative in many ways, the Catholic Church, thanks to the teachings of Christ and the gospels, remained at the forefront of social justice. He found that throughout centuries and various revolutions, many Catholics played an important role in the struggle for democracy and social justice and thus indirectly shaped the Church’s social doctrine. In his book “Church and Revolution”, he traced the steps of fifteen of them from the last two centuries. He started with Lammenais, the French priest who during the French Revolution, countered the position of the Church, siding with the people against the monarchy, and included portraits and stories of other determining figures, such as Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero; Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement; Emmanuel Mounier, leader of the Personalism movement; Konrad Adenauer, the German Christian Democrat statesman.
When the 60s arrived and with them the Vietnam war and the widespread civil turmoil in the country, Bokenkotter left his academic ivory tower. One of his students, Father John Bank, introduced him to the United Farm Workers movement, and to the injustice the migrant workers in California were facing. Bokenkotter studied their condition and convinced of their cause started picketing at Kroger stores across the city, urging buyers not to purchase California grapes. This passive resistance action soon succeeded in forcing negotiations for better working conditions of the farmers and ultimately led him to participate, through the mid 70s, in various anti war and anti racial demonstrations, including, among others, protests against the shooting at Kent State University, and against Nixon’s visit to Wright Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio.
“I spent the late 60s and 70s working as an activist for various peace and justice causes,” says Bokenkotter. “But when the war ended, the climate in the country changed and it became difficult to get young people to demonstrate. I thought I needed to serve in a different way.”
Visiting a Dorothy Day House in NYC and experiencing the soup kitchen it was offering the homeless and the poor, Bokenkotter returned to Cincinnati where he assessed a big need for such a service: “I found out that in Over-The-Rhine (OTR), downtown Cincinnati, 80% of the people lived in poverty, often malnourished; this was 1976.”
The Over-The-Rhine Kitchen, the oldest Soup Kitchen in Cincinnati, was then established with the help of few volunteers and just $700 in the bank. Located in the heart of OTR, it serves currently over 77,000 free hot meals per year and has received, not too long ago, a several million dollars bequest from a supporter woman.
In 1980, appointed pastor of the Assumption church on Gilbert avenue in Walnut Hills, Bokenkotter converted the then empty old catholic school across the street into a transitional living facility for homeless women and children in crisis; it also had a food pantry and a soup kitchen in its basement for the residents of the facility and individuals and families of the neighborhood. Renamed The Tom Geiger Guest House in1984 after a student of Bokenkotter who was instrumental in the operation of the first kitchen and who died suddenly at age 33, it now includes 42 apartments. The Walnut Hills Kitchen serves in excess of 65 000 free hot meals a year and the pantry provides grocery and food for more than 5000 individuals and families.
Throughout the years, Bokenkotter has also been involved, with his racially diverse parish, in numerous community activities. “I am on the side of anyone who wants to make things better,” he says, “and that’s what I encourage in my parishioners.” He always wanted to create a support Center for black youth to gather, exchange, learn, find needed help; unfortunately he has not been able to realize his dream project due to a debilitating health and an advanced age.
All along Bokenkotter maintained as well his writing and other academic endeavors. For several years and until 2 years ago, he held regular monthly educational meetings with a small group of faithful individuals discussing theology, church history and contemporary issues. One of their topic was the crisis of authority facing the church due to a fast changing world.
“The church has to adjust to the 21st century,” he says. “It has to listen to its members, be less rigid and more accepting when it comes to issues of sexuality, role of women, other religions… Opposing opinions from revisionist theologians should be given due consideration and not just silenced and censored.” Bokenkotter must have been thinking of the condemnation of his own book “Dynamic Catholicism” by the previous Pope because it listed divergent viewpoints on some controversial matters. He is, however, ecstatic at the progressive position and open attitude of the current Pope Francis on many of these contemporary issues.
Bokenkotter’s life has always been permeated by the gospels’ teachings and examples of the saints; they dictated all along his actions for Social justice and peace and led him to dedicate his ministry to the needs of the poor. Now ninety two years old he is no longer in charge of a parish, also less socially active. He remains, however, strongly committed to a better, equal and just world.
What is Roman Catholicism Roman Catholicism is a Christian religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and his disciples. Its members and churches, spread all over the world, comprise the Roman Catholic Church, led by the Pope considered the “infallible” successor of the apostle Peter; it is the largest Christian church with over a billion adherents, half of all Christians worldwide. Catholics believe in the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the inspiration of the Bible. Their worship is centered on the sacrament of the Eucharist, whereas the blessed bread and wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. Important teachings of Catholicism are love, forgiveness, charity, peace and justice, as instructed by Jesus in the gospels: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34); “Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called chchildren of God.” (Matthew 5:6-9)