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THE IMPACT OF MAY ’68

‘May 1968 blew apart the restrictions imposed by the Mission Ouvriere.’[1] The entire range of ‘priests at work’ lived through a period of intense engagements at the side of their secular comrades, with many priests spontaneously assuming responsible positions in the course of the multiple conflicts breaking out in all corners of the land. About 1,000 additional priests, who had up to now stood aside from all forms of ‘priesthood at work’, were suddenly inspired to don the working-class blue, never bothering to seek authorization from their bishops or the Mission Ouvriere. By November 1968, the Episcopal Commission of the Mission Ouvriere deemed the three-year trial period of the first official cohort of fifty-four second-generation ‘priests at work’ a success and lifted the cap on the number of such engagements. Also in November 1968, the French Bishops’ Conference added its stamp of approval, and henceforth the original term of ‘worker priests’ replaced the more cautionary utilization of ‘priests at work’ even in official parlance. The artificial distinction between the first and second generations of worker priests fell by the wayside, and the worker priests were given the green light to elect their own national leadership. The four chosen representatives, together with one additional elected delegate from each of four regions (Paris, the North, the South and Southeast, and the West), now effectively coordinated the worker priest collective as a selfgoverning enterprise, though each member still kept close ties with their respective bishops.[2]

‘By 1970, the Mission Ouvriere had become a place for mutual encounters, research and experimentation in view of a prophetic Church, allowing a variety of experiments, and certainly providing ample opportunities for the bearing of witness of the Gospel within the working class. As such, it was henceforth seen as a positive factor by the worker priests.’[3] In 1972, the first regular national gathering of the post-Vatican II worker priests was held; from 1974 onwards, Le Courrier P.O. served as a crucial communication link between the bi- or triannual National Conventions. The second wave of the French worker priest experience was clearly engaged in a seemingly unstoppable ascent. Counting solely those worker priests with firm links to the Equipe Nationale, thus leaving unaccounted for the even larger number of unauthorized working priests, by January 1969 there were 82 members in 14 locations throughout France, by May 1969, 168 in 37 towns, by April 1970, 287 worker priests in 75 locations, in 1972, 521 and 756 by 1974.[4] By all accounts, the second wave of French worker priests far outdistanced in quantity their first- generation ancestors, some of the latter, of course, being included in this count.

Yet the quality of their commitment did not lag behind that of their pioneer predecessors. Not only May/June 1968, but many subsequent flagship labour struggles saw worker priests once again in the forefront of events. To mention but one particular case, the Dominican Jean Raguenes: born in 1932, ordained in 1966, he served from the autumn of 1967 onwards as student chaplain for University of Paris students enrolled in Economics and Law. His home base was then the Centre Saint-Yves in the rue Gay-Lussac, at the very centre of student unrest.[5] In September 1970, Jean Raguenes chose to become one of the legion of enthusiastic young worker priests, opting for Besanqon as his home base. By May 1971, he became a full-time worker at the LIP watch factory which, two years later, happened to become the symbol par excellence in France, and Europe as a whole, for the sudden wave of experiments in workers’ self-management.

Forced by management to go on the offensive, the workforce of LIP, to forestall the planned sacking of 480 production-line workers, occupied the premises, sequestered the then-current stock of 25,000 watches, resumed production under their own authority and supervision, and then built up a solidarity network throughout France and other European countries. One of the central figures in the brains trust coordinating these actions was none other than Jean Raguenes. In the words of one former LIP worker interviewed more than a quarter-century later, Bernard Girardot, Jean Raguenes ‘was a prophet [... ] Jean has truly left a mark on LIP, for he had put down deep roots there, he had physically married the cause of les LIP’. Jean Raguenes played crucial roles at each stage of the radicalization of this exemplary conflict which rendered LIP a household term across Europe for some years, no longer seen as a militant strike to defend employment but having taken on the clear contours of a major ‘stepping stone towards emancipation’.[6]

Red Priests in Working-Class Blue

  • [1] Suaud et Viet-Depaule, Pretres et ouvriers, p. 15.
  • [2] Informative sources on the conjuncture of 1968 are, once again, Poterie and Jeusselin,Pretres-ouvriers, pp. 158-9, and Suaud and Viet-Depaule, Pretres et ouvriers, p. 15.
  • [3] Poterie and Jeusselin, Pretres-ouvriers, p. 161.
  • [4] Pierrard, L’Eglise et les ouvriers, p. 353.
  • [5] For an empathetic and informative evocation of the Centre Saint-Yves as the nerve centreof the French Catholic ‘May ‘68’, see Gregory Barrau, Le Mai 68 des catholiques (Paris: Atelier,1998), pp. 67-71.
  • [6] A marvellous autobiographical account of this remarkable figure is Jean Raguenes, De Mai68 a LIP. Un dominicain au cwur des luttes (Paris: Karthala, 2008), with the centre section on hisexperiences at LIP on pp. 112-210. An evocative summary of the impact of Jean Raguenes on thecommunity of les LIP is Jean Divo, L’Affaire LIP et les catholiques de Franche-Comte (Yens-sur-Morges: Cabedita, 2003), pp. 89-97, citations on pp. 92 and 96.
 
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