From 1944 to 1954 a small number of priests in France and Belgium shared the life of the working class. Never more than 100 in number, these priests were little known until their suppression in March 1954. Their existence posed certain problems, and their suppression left other serious problems unsolved. These included, along with the question of the evangelization of the working classes then largely estranged from the Church, the question of the relation of the Church in the world, the theology of the priesthood, and the relationship between the priest and the layman.
The phenomenon cannot be understood outside its historical context. The 20th century in France began in an atmosphere of struggle and misunderstanding. Church and State were separated by the abrogation of the Napoleonic concordat; the religious orders were expelled. After World War I laicism was less hostile, but the French working class was already profoundly de-Christianized. Class structures of the industrial era became a sign of religious division. The bourgeoisie, unbelieving a century earlier, rallied to religion as a force of social stability, and the Church was reduced almost to the status of a fief of the middle classes. Socialist movements hostile to the Church presented a promise of hope to the working classes. In 1927 Plus XI said to the Abbé cardijn, founder of the Jocists (see jocism), that the great scandal of the Church in the 19th century was that she had in fact lost the working classes.
Although there was a realization that the working classes were drifting away from religion, there was not at the time a consciousness of the extent of their de-Christianization, or of its causes and consequences. The traditional practice of baptism maintained the illusion that France was a Catholic nation. A minority of Christian workers formed a separate labor union, and catholic action, born with the Jocists, led youth, lay and clerical, to new engagements in the events preceding World War II: the general strikes of June 1936, the Popular Front, the wars in Spain and Ethiopia, and the rise of Fascism and Nazism. An important intellectual movement was astir. J. Meritain, E. Mounier (Esprit ), the Vie Intellectuelle, Sept, and other forces hastened the awareness of the "wall" (to use the expression of Cardinal suhard) between the Christian and the modern world.
The disrupting influence of the war and the occupation of France affected the situation of the workers as well as that of the Church. French youth were deported to the factories of Germany, and the bishops appealed to young priests to join them secretly as workers. Nearly all were discovered, imprisoned, and sent to concentration camps or forcibly repatriated. One of these, Henri Pertin, OP, published on his return Prêtre-ouvrier en Allemagne (Paris 1945; English tr. Priest-Workman in Germany, New York 1947).
The experience of these priests confirmed that of others who were prisoners or engaged in the Resistance and the maquis. All discovered during those difficult years the real religious situation of the working-class world, and the value of their presence in a proletarian milieu.
In 1942 Father Augros founded the seminary of the Mission de Paris in Lisieux, and in 1943–44 the Abbé H. Godin began the Mission de Paris. The latter's report, France pays de mission?, appeared in September 1943 and sold 100,000 copies. Like the rest of the French Church, Cardinal Suhard was deeply impressed by Godin's book.
Although Godin's book did not formally propose the experiment of the worker priest, it nevertheless opened the way for it. France, which had given thousands of foreign missionaries to the Church, had itself become a missionary country. Missionary adaptation was a familiar idea since Gregory the Great. Was this not simply a new way of reaching non-Christians where they were to be found? It seemed important that the Church should not be conceived as something cut off from the world to which it must bring the message of Christ. To make its presence felt, it was proposed that priests should mingle with the workers in factories and on construction sites and docks. They would be workers like the rest, with no special privileges. Being diocesan and religious priests, they would live alone or in small communities of two or three, and work to form small groups of laymen to give witness to the faith. They were to live by their labor and to share the problems of their fellow workers. The expectation that they should join labor unions posed a problem, because of the variety of unions from which to chose. Generally they chose the union whose operations appeared to be the most efficacious. They shared in various manifestations of solidarity in the struggles and hopes of their fellows in such matters as housing, antiracism, and peace. They did not regard their engagement as a temporary thing, but rather as a vocation consciously entered upon for life. It was no concerted or structured movement created by a founder. Rather it was a current emerging from various sources, a missionary awakening of the Church centered on the point where the separation between the Church and the world was most in evidence—the working class.
Rome intervened in 1953–54 to stop the experiment. Later, in September 1959, the possibility of working was further restricted, leading to the demise of the vocation.
Bibliography: g. siefer, La Mission des Prêtres-ouvriers: Les faits et conséquences, tr. m. devignot and j. ernest (Paris 1963). Les Prêtres ouvriers (Paris 1954). h. perrin, Itinéraire d'Henri Perrin, prêtre ouvrier 1914–1954 (Paris 1958). d. l. edwards, ed., Priests and Workers: An Anglo-French Discussion (London 1961).