Worker-priest was a missionary initiative by the French Catholic Church in particular for priests to take up work in such places as car factories to experience the everyday life of the working class. A worker-priest was any priest who was "freed from parochial work by his bishop, lived only by full-time labor in a factory or other place of work, and was indistinguishable in appearance from an ordinary workingman".
Although the movement did spread to many other countries such as Belgium and Italy, the French were always the most prominent.
The movement was an attempt to "rediscover the masses" of industrial class workers who had become largely disaffected with the church.
Father Jacques Loew, who began working in the docks of Marseilles in 1941, effectively started the worker-priest movement. Loew had been sent by his Dominican Father Lebret to "study the condition of the working classes" but not to actually join the workers.
In 1944, the first worker-priest missions were set up in Paris, and then later in Lyons and Marseille. The Church hoped, by "putting young priests into secular clothes and letting them work in factories, to regain the confidence of the French working class, which [had] almost completely abandoned the Catholic faith."
In 1945, Pope Pius XII "approved (reluctantly) the daring social experiment of the French worker-priests." However, in the early 1950s, the worker-priest movement fell out of favor with the Vatican due to their role in left-wing politics and perceived abandonment of the traditional priesthood. The Worker-Priest movement was "severely constrained by a series of measures taken by the church in the 1950s".
In 1950, Pius XII in an apostolic exhortation on the priestly life expressed "reservations and suspicions of the worker-priests …" Loew's May 1951 report defending the movement, written to Giovanni Montini (future Pope Paul VI), the assistant Cardinal Secretary of State, was not well received.
Many of the priests joined in campaigns for improved pay and conditions and the movement became prominent in the industrial unrest of 1952 and 1953. This resulted in the factory owners complaining to the Catholic Church that the priests were being divisive by supporting the unions.
The French bishops informed the worker-priests that they must return to their parishes. About 50, however, chose to stay on at their work.
Moreover, by 1953, of some 90 priests, 10 had married, and about 15 were working with the communists. "the Pope sent verbal orders that the movement be suppressed, but the French cardinals managed to persuade the Pope to allow the worker-priests to continue 'in principle,' after some major changes in the setup."
In November 1953, all worker priests were recalled and required to leave their work and unions. In 1954, Loew acquiesced to the Vatican and quit his job; he then established the Saints Peter and Paul Mission to Workers, which trained priests from among the working class. Loew then travelled to Africa, then worked in the favelas of São Paulo, Brazil from 1964 to 1969, and then established the School of Faith in Fribourg, Switzerland. The theology of the Worker-Priest is in part contained within Loew's publications: Les dockers de Marseille (1944), En mission prolétarienne (1946), Les Cieux ouverts: chronique de la mission Saints Pierre et Paul (1971), and Face to Face with God: the Bible's Way to Prayer (1977).
In 1963, priests were allowed to return to the industrial workplaces, and in the 1990s there were about 2,000 priests of the workers mission in France, although they were ageing in line with the wider population of Catholic priests in that country.
However, the worker priests had gained certain insights about the alienation of the Church from the modern world and the poor from their experience as workers. These had been shared with many others including the Bishops by means of letters, newsletters, books and meetings and the then Papal Nuncio to France, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli. When Roncalli became Pope John XXIII in 1958, he called the Second Vatican Council, at least partly as a result of what the worker priests had revealed. During that Council, the French and Belgian Bishops in particular were very influential in shaping its direction towards renewal and engagement with the modern world.
On the advice of his mentor Cardinal Sapieha, Karol Wojtyla (future Pope John Paul II) and a fellow Polish priest studying in Italy, Stanislaw Starowieyski, travelled to France and Belgium to acquaint themselves with the worker-priest movement. Wojtyla, who had also performed hard labor during his time as a seminarian, reportedly admired the worker-priests. On his return in 1947, Wojtyla wrote a piece on the worker-priests for the Tygodnik Powszechny. Wojtyla wrote: "Father Loew came to the conclusion that the [Dominican] white habit by itself does not say anything any more today."
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- Horn, Gerd-Rainer. Western Liberation Theology, 1924-1959: The First Wave. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2008. See chapter 5: "A Working-Class Apostolate Beyond Catholic Action: Team Building, Base Communities, and Worker Priests"
- Liberation Theology
- Siefer, 1964, p. 4.
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