WORKER PRIESTS IN BELGIUM AFTER 1965

The first wave of worker priests had been limited, in terms of geography, to France and Belgium. And it was only logical that this common history forged close bonds between these two groups. Thus, an annual report of the national team of French worker priests in 1975 could mention prominently, almost as a matter of course: ‘With our Belgian comrades we have shared what can almost be regarded as a common life history for the past thirty years.’[1] As in France, the 1970s saw the highpoint of the second wave of Belgian worker priests, though the absolute numbers were obviously much more reduced. Whereas the higher number of first wave Belgian worker priests ever operating at any one time was probably never higher than eight, the second wave saw many times that number. In France, the highpoint was reached towards the end of the 1970s, when more than 1,000 priests had donned working-class blue; in Belgium it was 1974, when fifty-one priests were engaged in full-time labour at the same time.[2]

First wave Belgian worker priests had been organized in two teams centred, respectively, on Charleroi and Liege. The Charleroi team disappeared in the wake of the 1955 decision to close down the Belgian worker priest experiment, just as French worker priests had received their curtain call in 1954. Also, just as in France, however, priests wishing to engage in manual labour could continue to do so with the benevolent acquiescence of the bishops of Tournai and Liege. As long as they shunned employment in high-visibility workplaces, first wave Belgian worker priests could continue to ply their trade as blue- collar operatives in small factories. ‘To demonstrate good will to Rome and to follow, more or less, the pathway chosen by French bishops’, two first wave worker priests were nonetheless asked to abandon their chosen labouring career to return to their original calling as parish priest.[3]

After the green light obtained in the wake of the French re-authorizations on the eve of the closing ceremony of Vatican II, between 1965 and 1980 the Liege worker priests were joined by new teams in both linguistic halves of the Belgian state, including two teams, one Flemish and the other francophone, in the capital city of Brussels. Thus, apart from the two groups in Brussels, Walloon worker priests operated in Liege, Brabant, and Namur. Flanders had active teams in Ghent, the first Flemish team to get off the ground, Antwerp, and Hasselt. By 1969 a National Council began to coordinate country-wide efforts; from 1972 onwards a more firmly organized Equipe Nationale took over from the Council.[4]

A series of snapshots of the inner life and orientation of the Belgian teams, composed for their national gathering of late May 1977, allow a detailed picture to emerge which, in its basic outlines, would similarly apply to the French cohort. What becomes clear is that the nucleus of actual worker priests within each team often provided the infrastructure for a somewhat extended community of co-thinkers and activists who, in effect, formed a type of base community, without, however, using this particular term. The francophone Brussels team, for instance, consisted of a total of five men and three women, who worked in various sectors of the Brussels economy (two worked for large retail firms; two others for the Brussels public transport system; one as a social worker; one in the insurance industry; one as a full-time trade union official; and one as an electrician). All lived in working-class neighbourhoods, with some amongst them active in neighbourhood action committees over and above their full-time paid employment. One member of the group also served as a municipal councillor.[5]

The Flemish-language Brussels team of six consisted of an equal number of men and women, suggesting once again the important, but much overlooked, role of female activists in second wave Left Catholicism. What was somewhat unusual in the Flemish Brussels team was the high number of activists belonging to religious orders. One layperson (an ex-member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Annunciation order) and five active members of religious orders, amongst them two Jesuits, formed the team which met for reflections and deliberations three times per month. In their self-statement, the multiplicity of engagements and personal trajectories are described in an illuminating manner, once again suggesting a creative admixture of individual orientations as the basis for such experiments.

Andre, one of the Jesuits, is described as rather critical of the structure of the church, as having ‘a rather global and Marxist view of social and political realities’, and as focused on close contact with his co-workers; Cecile, belonging to the order of the Dames van Maria, where she exercised an active leadership role, had been a social worker and then a blue-collar worker in Brazil for some time and now worked as a cleaning woman in the building of the national headquarters of the banking giant Societe Generale. ‘Cecile regards the circumstances around her work situation and her neighbourhood activism as closely related, a reflection of the identical system of exploitation.’ The other Jesuit on the team, Hugo, took an active role in the provincial leadership of his order, while ‘emphasizing his engagement at work and in his neighbourhood [... ] Very active in pastoral work for the Flemish in his parish.’[6]

  • [1] ‘Compte-rendu de mandat de l’Equipe Nationale [Fran^aise] P.O.’, p. 4—Archives desPretres-Ouvriers Belges (APOB) [Flemalle], Classeur ‘Equipe Nationale’.
  • [2] See the graph included in the unnumbered pages between pp. 75 and 76 in Dominique deGreef, ‘Les Pretres-ouvriers en Belgique’, Memoire de license, 1985, Faculte de Theologie,Universite de Louvain.
  • [3] Andre Marie Antoine, ‘Les Pretres ouvriers belges. Regard sociologique’, n.d.—APOB.
  • [4] De Greef, ‘Les Pretres-ouvriers en Belgique’, p. 78.
  • [5] Andre Boxus, ‘Equipe P.O. Bruxelles’—APOB, ‘27-29 mai 1977’, III.
  • [6] Two documents in APOB, ‘27-29 mai 1977’, III, allow insight into the Flemish Brusselsteam, a four-page survey in French, ‘Equipe Bruxelles Flamand’, and an untitled Flemish version,of which only the first page is extant.
 
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