THE SECOND WAVE GETS UNDER WAY

In fact, in the years between 1954 and 1965, many other priests, over and above the first pre-1954 generation of worker priests, began to take up industrial employment, usually also in small workshops. By the mid-1960s, thus, the cumulative number of priests who had, at some point, exercised their profession as ‘priests at work’ approached the 600 mark, a remarkably quiet subversion of curial intent.[1] And the ex-worker priests undertook further offensives. In the run-up to Vatican II, five different trips to Rome assembled former worker priests, bishops, and theologians in an effort to convince the Vatican to reverse its 1954 decision. At one point even the future Pope Paul VI, Giovanni Battista Montini, then archbishop of Milan, went to Rome for conversations with the visiting French worker priests, though himself travelling incognito.[2] With Vatican II under way, the former worker priests decided on a permanent presence in Rome, adding to the ebullient off-Vatican atmosphere which characterized the cultural climate in the Eternal City between 1962 and 1965.

Andre Depierre became the central figure of this worker priest outpost in Rome, with other French and Belgian worker priests taking turns to assist his efforts. Bishops and cardinals from all over the world were targeted by their lobbying efforts, with the highpoint a private audience with Pope John XXIII, during which Roncalli assured his visitors of his support, adding that the Council ‘and my successor will do what I cannot do myself’.[3] ‘Without them

[the worker priests pushing their cause in the antechambers of the Vatican] the miracle of 23 October 1965, when, in the closing moments of the Council, an extraordinary plenary assembly of French bishops unanimously approved the resumption of the “working priest” experience, would probably never have occurred.’[4] Together with Cardinal Veuillot and a number of close supporters, the worker priests present in Rome that day gathered in a trattoria in Traste- vere to celebrate this momentous decision.[5]

Nonetheless, this landmark reversal of the 1954 strictures was initially only a partial victory. The authorization of a second cohort of worker priests linked this decision to strict conditions. Candidates had to have a track record of links to the world of labour. They were strictly subordinated to their diocesan bishops in the cases of secular priests, to the superiors of their orders in the case of regular priests. No attempts at autonomous coordination amongst this new group of worker priests were permitted. They were, likewise, not permitted to take on positions of any responsibility within trade union structures. An initial trial period of three years was to test the consequences of this decision. All new priests at work had to integrate themselves into the structures provided by the Mission Ouvriere, a body set up by the French hierarchy in the second half of the 1950s to coordinate various missionary efforts then under way, targeting the world of industrial labour.[6]

With most first-wave worker priests belonging to the Mission de France, the bypassing of this traditional organizational ‘home’ of French worker priests to the exclusive benefit of the Mission Ouvriere, then under much tighter hierarchical control, was rightfully interpreted as a rebuff to the original cohort. From January 1966 onwards, the Episcopal Commission of the Mission Ouvriere began to select candidates, and when the first fifty-four priests were nominated, only one first-generation worker priest was amongst them. Thus, for three years, the fifty-four officially chosen to constitute the first team belonging to the new second-generational cohort coexisted with the preexisting cohort of ‘priests at work’ without any official contact between them allowed.[7] In April 1966, when the second cohort was just beginning their assignments, an inventory of priests at work came up with the following count. Of the 233 ‘priests at work’, 125 worked part-time, 41 full-time, and another 67 full-time without authorization.[8]

  • [1] Charles Suaud and Nathalie Viet-Depaule, Pretres et ouvriers. Une double fidelite mise al’epreuve. 1944-1969 (Paris: Karthala, 2004), p. 12.
  • [2] Poterie and Jeusselin, Pretres-ouvriers, p. 135.
  • [3] Poterie and Jeusselin, Pretres-ouvriers, pp. 139-42, citation on p. 140.
  • [4] Pierrard, L’Eglise et les ouvriers, pp. 348-9.
  • [5] Poterie and Jeusselin, Pretres-ouvriers, pp. 143-4.
  • [6] Suaud and Viet-Depaule, Pretres et ouvriers, p. 14; on the genesis of the Mission Ouvriere,see Gerd-Rainer Horn, Western European Liberation Theology. The First Wave, 1924-1959(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 287-8. On the difficult coexistence of Mission deFrance and Mission Ouvriere in the first few years after 1965, see Tangi Cavalin and NathalieViet-Depaule, Une histoire de la Mission de France (Paris: Karthala, 2007), pp. 206-10.
  • [7] On the bad feeling expressed by the first-generation worker priests, who, unless age orillness prevented this, continued to work also, note Poterie and Jeusselin, Pretres-ouvriers, p. 151;Suaud and Viet-Depaule, Pretres et ouvriers, p. 14, likewise stress the uneasy parallel existence ofmultiple networks guiding a variety of cohorts of ‘priests at work’ between 1965 and 1968.
  • [8] Pierrard, L’Eglise et les ouvriers, p. 350.
 
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