Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Worker priests, deacons, and the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus

Today is the anniversary of the death of Pere Henri Perrin, the worker priest, born in 1914, who died on October 25, 1954.
The worker-priest movement arose to respond to what many in France and other parts of Western Europe saw as the failure of the Church to reach the working class. Priests left the rectories and worked in factories and other industries.

The priest-worker movement was especially strong in France, responding to the sense that France was not really “Christian,” and that the Gospel seemed irrelevant to the concerns of the working class. The movement was suppressed by the Vatican, partly because the priests got involved in all aspects of their work, including unions. Since many of the unions were dominated by the Communist Party, their involvement in the unions, even elected as union officials, was a “red” flag, literally and figuratively. 

I believe that the Vatican’s decision was sort-sighted and blinded by the virulent anti-Communism of the 1950s (and beyond.)

Though the movement was officially ended, the immersion of priests as well as women religious and lay missionaries, in the daily lives of the poor, living among them, has continued to nurture the real missionary dimension of faith, especially in parts of Latin America. 

About the same time, faithful in the German Church were pushing for the diaconate as a permanent state.  

There had been discussions since the nineteenth century, but one of the most profound discussions happened in the priests' barracks in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau.

The priests there pondered the tragedy, the scandal, of a church that had not been ready to respond to Hitler. They wondered if the institutional church needed the input of people who were involved in the daily life of the people, in the offices, streets, and factories. 

The notes of one of the imprisoned priests, Father Wilhelm Schamoni, are pointed:
3. The preaching of these deacons, who would be involved in the work-a-day world, would be particularly persuasive and down-to-earth. One perceives in current preaching that it is being done by individuals who are “segregate a populo” [“separated from the people”]. 
4. The Church has largely become a Church of authorities and officials. The feudal state and the civil servant state have rubbed off on her. The diaconate would be an effective means to return Holy Mother the Church to a Church of the people. 
5. The Church has not succeeded in holding its ground among either the leading intellectual classes nor among those classes most easily led astray, the proletariat. In their own milieu, deacons from these classes for these classes could gain influence incomparably deeper than could any priest, since priests would never develop within this milieu the kind of rapport that deacons would have already established. One could develop the diaconate into a means to win back the de-Christianized milieu. An intelligent deacon from the working-class would, without any special theological training, be able to touch the heart of his worker colleagues with just the right words.
After World War II, several of these priests wrote and discussed the diaconate as a permanent state of life. Their work, the work of theologians such as Karl Rahner, and various movements, especially in Germany, paved the way for the diaconate as a permanent state as approved at the Second Vatican Council.

Another movement to be leaven in the everyday world was the formation of the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus by René Voillaume and Little Sister Magdeleine of Jesus to be a presence among the poor and outcast.

Their first field of presence was among the Muslims in Algeria, following their inspiration by Little Brother Saint Charles de Foucauld. But now their field of mission is among the poor and marginalized. They work and live among the people, witnessed to Christ by their prayer and their daily presence.

All these three movements, in my mind, rose from a concern to be present to those who might not be part of the church community.

The witness of the worker priests and the Little Brothers and Sisters as well as the testimony of Saint Charles de Foucauld mark my understanding of the diaconate. My ordination stole bears the heart and cross of Saint Charles.

Today, remembering Père Henri Perrin, I remember the witness of priest workers as well as many women and men religious who immerse themselves in the lives of the poor, especially the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus. 

Reflecting on their commitment with the poor and marginalized, I believe that the diaconate should always include some sort of physical presence with those on the margins of society, especially the impoverished.

We are called to reach out to those who might not come to the doors of the church. The call of Pope Francis to go out and encounter those in the margins, central to Evangelii Gaudium and found throughout his teaching, should be central to our diaconate. 


 Some photos of me in action as a deacon.
Picking coffee in the parish coffee field
Getting help in directions from a campesino
Helping change the flat tire of the pastor's car
Incensing the faithful at Mass
Baptizing a child in San Agustín

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