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INDIVIDUAL MOTIVATIONS, COLLECTIVE DYNAMICS, POLITICAL EVOLUTIONS

The Liege team provided interesting detail as to the motivations to become a (Belgian) worker priest. Charles-Andre Sohier underscored, for instance, the central role which May 1968 played in his life. ‘My participation in several actions and gatherings of students in Liege and a presentation by Paul Blanquart’, one of the most visible and dynamic young radical French activists and philosophers, then a member of the Dominican order, ‘allowed me to become conscious of the political dimension of working-class struggles for justice and against capitalist alienation’. An Italian member of the Liege team, Lucio Del Basso, exemplified the transnational dimension of the worker priest phenomenon, which benefited from Southern European migrations to the north and—when the wave of military takeovers began to cast a dark shadow over Latin American states—from Latin Americans seeking refuge in various European states, the latter forced emigrations paradoxically contributing to the mutual exchange of activist ideas and practices between South and Central America and Western Europe. ‘At the age of twenty’, Lucio Del Basso wrote, ‘I worked as an employee for the Italian State Railway in Rome’, experiencing alienation even worse than what he later experienced when working in the Liege region. An encounter with several priests belonging to the order of Oratorians, founded by Saint Filippo Neri, led the young Italian to join that order.

‘The first book which opened my eyes to the experience of the worker priests was En Mission Proletarienne by Jacques Loew’, one of the pioneer French worker priests of the first generation. ‘In conversations with the Genovese group around El Gallo’, a flagship journal of the Italian Catholic Left since 1946, ‘we constantly discussed this issue, and it was there that I met an Italian worker priest who frequently came to the gatherings of that group. As it was then very difficult to launch a worker priest project in Italy, I emigrated to Belgium where I saw that it was easily feasible to do so.’[1]

The material on the Belgian worker priest experience also allows insights into the radicalizing dynamics affecting second wave priests. If they openly engaged in politics, first wave worker priests had mostly been attracted to the only game in town, the Old Left organizations dominating the French and Belgian Left in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, in France above all the French Communist Party (PCF). A September 1972 document penned by one of the first wave Belgian worker priests who continued to animate his com- rades-in-arms for several decades after 1965, Louis Flagothier, not only underscores the crucial role for Belgians played by French politics, but at the same time highlights what it meant to be a Left Catholic rebel in the rapidly evolving post-May ’68 atmosphere. Intimately familiar with French politics on account of his frequent trips to Paris which commenced in the late 1940s, Flagothier now wrote about the political preoccupations of the cohort of French worker priests active in the early 1970s:

What then is the revolutionary line? Is it that of the Communist Party or the line of the PSU, the Parti Socialiste Unifie, the flagship organization of the French New Left, benefiting from a heavy presence of Left Catholics from its very origins, or of one of the groups composing the Far Left? Is it the line of the CGT or the CFDT? At the Easter gathering in Paris, more than one person present underlined the difficulties to sustain dialogue between worker priests of whom some are active in the CGT and others in the CFDT. Just recently I learned from Le Monde that a conflict in a certain factory became particularly bitter due to the fact that at the head of the local branch of the CFDT stood a worker priest who—of all things!—also happens to be a municipal councillor representing the PSU.[2]

Belgian first-generation worker priests had never been as closely associated with Moscow-oriented Communism as had been the case with some sections of their French equivalents in the early 1950s. Belgian second wave worker priests nonetheless struggled to redefine their political and organizational preferences and their spiritual quests in the wake of the turbulence of global 1968. The traditional Catholic Action groupings mandated to missionize the working-class milieux, above all the Jeunesse Ouvriere Chretienne (JOC), traditionally viewed as an ally in Belgium as much as anywhere else, were now deemed to have become largely irrelevant. Most Belgian worker priests, two-thirds of them having been JOC chaplains before their decision to effect their move into industrial work, were now regarded with suspicion by the JOC, who felt left in the lurch. In turn, an official document of the francophone worker priests in Belgium had few good things to say about the JOC:

‘The JOC is very totalitarian.’ And the text continued: ‘Within the blue-collar milieu, there are many young people, but not very many members of the JOC.’ The same document later on also, once again, drew a parallel to France. There, the traditional Catholic Action organization geared towards work in adult working-class milieux, ‘the Action Catholique Ouvriere (ACO), is likewise fundamentally under attack. The long, patient and selfless presence of activists within the working class’, a trademark feature of the ACO, closer to the relatively moderate PCF than to the French New or Far Left, ‘is no longer seen as adequate to the needed tasks!’ Instead, young French worker priests were now clamouring: ‘Let us build a revolutionary Church!’[3]

Belgian worker priests, of course, had to face at least one more problem than their French counterparts: a deep-going and deepening split between the two linguistic (and, increasingly, cultural) halves of Belgian society. A member of the Antwerp team, in late 1974, made an interesting observation, the potential implications of which cannot be adequately addressed in the context of this monograph, but which is worth citing nonetheless: ‘Frans (Antwerp) highlights a difference between the mentality of Walloon worker priests (trade union activism, active engagement in social movements) and the mentality of Flemish worker priests (prophetic world views, intensive dislike of structures).’ Whatever element of insight may have been captured by this chance observation, another speech at the 8 December 1974 gathering of the Equipe Natio- nale, by a member of one of the Brussels teams, certainly another speech the then-current status and the attendant difficulties facing Belgian worker priests in general. In fact, this one sentence well describes the functioning of the teams of worker priests (and other Left Catholic groupings!) anywhere in Europe at that time: ‘We note major differences between teams: some are quite large, others minuscule—some gather frequently, others almost never—some have an action programme, others improvise—some operate in a democratic fashion, others follow a top-down model—etc.’[4]

  • [1] Both personal accounts by Sohier and Del Basso are in ‘Notes en vue de la rencontre de laPentecote ’77’, 6 May 1977—APOB, Classeur ‘Equipe de Liege’—with Sohier’s comments on p. 4and Del Basso’s reflections on p. 3.
  • [2] Louis Flagothier, ‘Seraing, 25 septembre 1972’, p. 3—APOB, Classeur ‘Equipe Nationale’.The Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT) was the major French trade union federationcontrolled by the PCF; the ex-Catholic Confederation Fran^aise Democratique du Travail(CFDT) was then openly advocating workers’ self-management and far more in tune with theanti-authoritarian French New Left than the hardline Communist CGT.
  • [3] ‘Conclusions de la reunion des pretres-ouvriers francophones des 1 et 2 mai 1971’; citationson pp. 1 and 4—APOB, ‘1971’.
  • [4] ‘Equipe Nationale, 8 Decembre 74’, p. 2—APOB, Classeur ‘Equipe Nationale’.
 
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