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If there was one overarching issue which agitated priests in virtually every single European country, it was the issue of celibacy. In the wake of Vatican II, many observers were expecting a papal pronouncement which would liberalize this regime. Yet as months and then years went by without such a move from Rome, some priests decided to take matters into their own hands. Priests marrying and then seeking out a new profession, renouncing their status as priest, had been a phenomenon throughout history, just as had incidents of priests living in a free partnership with a lover, though the latter generally covertly. By the late 1960s, in a general atmosphere of experimentation and the assertion of new rights, the number of priests wishing to avoid recourse to hypocrisy and continual subterfuge grew exponentially. One of the very first to challenge frontally church dogma on this point was Jos Vrijburg, a student chaplain in the infamous Amsterdamse Studentenecclesia. A mainstay of that university parish since its founding in 1960, in November 1968 Jos Vrijburg publicly announced his intention to marry without giving up the soutane. His superiors in the liberal Dutch hierarchy expressed to him their understanding of his wish, but also unmistakably communicated to Vrijburg that they could not countenance such a unilateral move on his part. Jos Vrijburg’s marriage plans became the talk of the town and animated discussions across the Netherlands.[1]

Two young priests from the Haarlem diocese, Joep ter Linden and Pieter Jan Blankendaal, on the eve of their departure for Brazil, at this very moment visited a number of colleagues and friends to say their goodbyes, and it struck them how central the casus Vrijburg—the issue of celibacy—was in every single conversation with their colleagues. During their meeting with a young chaplain in Beverwijk, Jan Ruijter, the idea emerged to organize a gathering with other priests to discuss this in a larger setting with others present. Each of the three priests present in Ruijter’s home promptly telephoned five colleagues, suggesting that each of the five call a further five fellow priests, and so on, with a view to a gathering in a few days’ time.[2]

On 16 December 1966 seventy-three Dutch priests met in a large hall in the Amsterdam Hotel Americain to discuss the topic of celibacy, Jos Vrijburg’s statement of intent, and what they could do about this situation. The small crowd present decided to draft a letter to the Dutch bishops, asking them to take a unilateral decision permitting the continued employment of married priests as priests, without waiting for prior approval of such a move from Rome. The names of the co-signers appeared at the bottom of the bold letter. Press and television journalists were present at the meeting in the Americain, ensuring that this gathering would find a public echo. Within days a flood of letters arrived at the contact mailbox of the Americain group, indicating support, written by both secular and regular priests all across the Netherlands, some taking the form of a collective letter signed by close to a dozen priests at a time.[3]

The Americain group soon changed its name to Septuagint, the name given to the legendary seventy Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew Bible into Hellenistic Greek, the lingua franca of the Eastern Mediterranean for many centuries in antiquity. The French/American connotation of the original name was deemed to be too confusing, especially when international contacts multiplied.[4] A second meeting was convened on 14 February 1969 with double the number of priests in attendance. A coordinating committee was formed, which then sat down to draft a letter to all Dutch Catholic priests, where issues far beyond the question of celibacy began to be addressed. The church—laity, priests, bishops, and the pope—was urgently asked to modernize its outlook, inner structure, and orientation.[5]

The coordinating committee consisted of 20-30 priests, who gathered most frequently in Utrecht, operating as the de facto leadership for the duration of Septuagint. A financial report for September 1969 lists the number of individuals who were then members of Septuagint as 605, including a not inconsiderable number of members of religious orders, including notably sixty-four nuns.[6] Septuagint quickly became an important player in Dutch public life, benefiting from the liberal atmosphere then prevalent within the Dutch Catholic church. From July 1969 onwards, lay activists began to join Septua- gint as full members, though they remained, for the most part, in the shadows of the organization. By October 1969, according to one source, 1,300 Dutch Catholic priests had come out in solidarity with the goals of the organization. In May 1970 a group of sixty critical ministers belonging to one of the major denominations of Protestantism in the Netherlands, the Hervormde Kerk, joined Septuagint. Two months later, about 100 Jesuits, the Helvoirt Group, likewise joined forces with Septuagint. The wind was clearly in the sails of the insurgent forces challenging the authorities.[7]

The highpoint of Septuagint’s influence was probably reached in the second half of 1970 around the time of the First World Congress of radical priest associations, which met in late September and early October in Amsterdam. The unofficial internal ten-page history of the group referred to in the previous paragraph suggests that at the point of maximum extension Septuagint counted 2,000 members. A significant proportion of this number—though never more than half—were lay members. Thus, at least about 1,000 Dutch priests were directly involved in this dynamic group. Given that the Netherlands at that time counted no more than 4,000 secular priests, this made Septuagint by far the most important such grouping in Europe in terms of its hold over a significant proportion of the national priesthood.[8]

Red Priests in Working-Class Blue

  • [1] An interesting short appreciation of Jos Vrijburg, complete with photos of the eventual27 June 1969 wedding, can be read at .
  • [2] Richard Auwerda, ‘Vier jaren geschiedenis’, Conto 6, no. 11 (November 1972), p. 4.
  • [3] Septuagintgroep (ed.), Septuagint van Chur naar Rome. Dossier van de solidaire priest-ergroepen (Amersfoort: Katholiek Archief, 1969), pp. 11 and 22, with the text of the letterreproduced on pp. 10-11. A copy of the original typewritten letter with the list of names atthe bottom can be consulted in Katholiek Documentatie Centrum (KDC) [Nijmegen], Aktie-groep Septuagint (LXX), fo. 107. A collection of letters expressing support for this initiative canbe found in KDC, LXX, fo. 15.
  • [4] ‘Inleiding van J. Ruyter en verklaring van de bijeenkomst van Septuagint op 23 juni 1969 teUtrecht’, in Septuagintgroep (ed.), Van Chur naar Rome, p. 22.
  • [5] ‘Inleiding van J. Ruyter’, pp. 23-4. The text of the letter sent to all Dutch priests is reprintedin Septuagintgroep (ed.), Van Chur naar Rome, pp. 12-19.
  • [6] ‘Septuagint—Kasoverzicht—18 September 1969’—KDC, LXX, fo. 200.
  • [7] Much of the information in this paragraph stems from an unsigned and undated ten-pagesynopsis of the history of Septuagint, written in or shortly after 1975: ‘Septuagint’ —KDC, LXX, fo. 1.The figure of 1,300 priests expressing their solidarity is mentioned by Herman Verbeek, ‘Journaalvan 14 dagen Rome’, in Septuagintgroep (ed.), Van Rome naar Utrecht (Amersfoort: KatholiekArchief, n.d.), p. 34. The collective enrolment by the Helvoirtgroep is documented in Septuagintgroep (ed.), Van Utrecht naar huis... ? (Amersfoort: Archief van de kerken [1970]), pp. 35-7.Concrete figures for Protestant members of Septuagint are mentioned in an unsigned report,‘Bericht zur Lage der Nation—Nation: Niederlande’, ‘Beverwijk, mei 1970’—KDC, LXX, fo. 1.
  • [8] The guestimate of ‘roughly 1,000’ priests amongst the total membership of Septuagint is theinformed opinion of its former spiritus rector, Jan Ruijter, expressed in a conversation with the
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