The Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Jesuit Curia in Rome


English   Español   Français   Italiano  



In the European working world,” recalled the history of the Social Apostolate published in Promotio Iustitiae in 2000, “a post-World-War-II mission of reconciliation gave birth to the Workers’ Mission with its dynamic commitments within the important labour movement.” On the occasion of its seventh European meeting at Strasbourg in August 2001, the following article recounts the birth of the Jesuit Popular and Workers’ Mission, traces some of the significant moments of its history, and concludes with the current situation.









History of the Jesuit Workers’ Mission


Noël Barré, S.J.



Roots of the Workers’ Mission


During the 19th century, industry developed and along with it the working class. There was certainly a dialogue of sorts between the Church and workers, and some Christians were very concerned about social issues, but we know that a gap grew between the labour movement and the Church. Jean-Claude Dhôtel, in his book Les jésuites de France, quotes a Jesuit from the end of the 19th century: “We should no longer satisfy ourselves with hearing the confessions of the devout, directing pious congregations and giving academic speeches; we need to throw ourselves amongst the masses…. We are no longer accustomed to going amongst the masses because we were not allowed to.”[1]


Jesuits would take part in the founding, support and development of working-class efforts that proliferated. There were Catholic Worker Circles, Worker’s Gardens, the Boatmen’s Charity (Douai), the Seamen’s House (Bordeaux). In keeping with Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum (1891) on the condition of the workers, in 1903 Fathers Leroy and Desbuquois founded Action Populaire which would support apostolic initiatives to benefit workers.


During the 1920s and 1930s, new ways appeared of evangelising the working-world: at the initiative of Abbot Cardijn, the Young Christian Workers (Jeunesse Ouvrière Chretienne – JOC) was founded in Belgium. From the very beginning, Jesuits took part in this chaplaincy in Belgium and in France where Fr. Guichard was the first chaplain of the women’s JOC. Fr. Desbuquois supported Abbot Henri Godin, co-author with Yvan Daniel of the book France: a missionary country? (1943). In 1934, he wrote him: “Remain true, persevere in your idea of a workers’ ministry. I know very well that those who devote themselves to it have to fight for it. I’ve noticed that. But a few priests have to keep on going against the current, as the Pope demands.”


In the 1940s, during World War II, the loss of Christian faith among the working class and the gulf that had grown between their world and the Church became more and more obvious to priests in the various forms of contact they had, whether freely chosen or imposed on them: prison camps, deportation camps, resistance networks, clandestine chaplaincies among youth conscripted for obligatory work duty (STO) in Germany. Missionary initiatives were then taken: Mission de France, Mission de Paris, Worker-Priests. Out of this movement, other initiatives would arise: Catholic Workers’ Action, the Workers’ Mission. All these examples from France should not make us forget what was accomplished in Belgium and other European countries, at the same time or in the years following, depending on the particular situations.


Birth of the Jesuit Workers’ Mission (MOSJ)


In 1944, ten young Jesuits in France wrote during their Tertianship to their Provincials to call for the creation of “teams of workers’ missionaries.” Their aim: “To introduce Christ to the masses and, with that purpose, to live among them.” Their request was heard and, from that moment on, the Provincials would send Jesuits on mission into the workers’ world: to working-class parishes, to Catholic Action Groups for youth and for adults, to different kinds of presence among the poorest of the period, and to placements as workers in factories or as worker-priests.


Forty years later, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach recalled the initial intuition of what would become the Jesuit Workers’ Mission:


I would like to ask you … to remain true to the initial intuition which is to live at the heart of the workers’ world and among the poorest, to open yourselves up by living among them, by sharing, by solidarity with them. Even if we properly acknowledge and do not minimise the great social and economic developments that have occurred in the world of the working class and the poor in Europe, nevertheless through all these changes the Workers’ Mission maintains its way of proceeding: to be with, to live with, to share the life, the living conditions and the exploitation, financial uncertainty and insecurity which remain the same.[2]


True to this intuition recognised by the Society, the Jesuit presence in the workers’ world took various forms: pastoral work (parishes, chaplaincies); social and/or educational work; professional (especially manual) work with an active and secular participation (in a trade union or other group). There were Jesuit worker-priests in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, and also a few in Latin America (Venezuela, Peru), all of them closely linked to the other worker-priests in their respective countries. Only those in Belgium and France had to endure the test of 1953.


In 1953, some ten Jesuit worker-priests were the first to be affected by measures that prohibited priests from henceforth sharing the lot of workers in factories. The reasons for this prohibition are complex, and they have to do with certain delays in theological and pastoral thinking that would not be addressed until Vatican II. While this had sad and painful consequences for Christians in the working class, it also meant that all the partners in the Mission began to co-ordinate their activities more effectively. The Workers’ Mission was born of the French Church’s desire not to dwell on this setback. From now on, those who took risks for the Mission would no longer be isolated but rather supported by others: lay-people, religious, priests, bishops. The French documents relating to these years of crisis suggest that the Jesuit worker-priests had the support of their superiors and their brothers, but the trial was a difficult one: Jo de Lorgeril died as a result, others were reassigned to pastoral work (for example, Jean Lefeuvre in Chad) while hoping to resume their ministry.


The 1960s and 1970s


In the 1960s, along with other Major Superiors of France, the Jesuit Provincials worked to make it possible for the worker-priests to take up their ministry again. In 1962, Fr. Jacques Sommet, the promoter of the Workers’ Mission in the Society, wrote a letter to the French Bishops explaining why the Society supported the Workers’ Mission. This document remains completely relevant today, and certainly not only for the country in which it was written. Here are some extracts:


It is part of the Society’s true nature … to send its members all over the world, into the most difficult situations, there where spiritual needs are the most pressing and basic means are insufficient or completely lacking. … The evangelisation of the French working world, with direct involvement in its work, is today an urgent and difficult mission field, to which the Society would contribute with its participation....

Because of its formation and its spirituality, the Society is concerned to reach people in the concrete reality of their daily existence, through the circumstances that historically determine their fate. In today’s culture, a mass culture and a culture of industrial labour, the Society is necessarily attracted to this proximity with man’s condition in factories and on work-sites so that, starting from this situation of shared experience, it may offer people the possibilities and the conditions of their integral development and their salvation.

The tradition of the Society and Father General Janssens insist on the necessity of being apostolically present, with an equal diligence, among those who are the poorest as among those who have the greatest responsibilities. The Society’s vocation towards leaders and intellectuals must have its balance and counterpart in a presence in the working world so that, right within its heart, the Society can contribute to the very unification of the Church’s presence in all walks, conditions and strata of life.

In France, the Society has contributed to the Hierarchy’s apostolic concerns for the workers’ world as these began: at the start of the JOC and the JOCF, in the founding of the LOC,[3] in sending priests to work in Germany, in the worker-priest experiences until 1954, in the Houses for Young Workers … as well as in other ways, for example, the first activities of Action Populaire. The Society plans to continue this work in the new form that worker-priests offer.

Text Box: Indeed all priests are sent to co-operate in the same work. This is true whether the ministry they exercise be parochial or supra-parochial; whether their task be research or teaching, or even if they engage in manual labour and share the lot of the workers, where that appears to be of advantage and has the approval of the competent authority; or finally if they carry out other apostolic works or those directed towards the apostolate (Vatican II, “Brotherly Bond and Co-operation among Priests,” Presbyterorum ordinis, n.8).

Under Father Sommet’s leadership, the French Jesuit Workers’ Mission took shape and acquired the means it needed to become responsive and assure support and discernment. In 1965, Vatican Council II recognised the ministry of the worker-priest.


The bishops of France sent fifty priests to work in factories, specifying the conditions of ecclesial life that were to support them and keep them in communion with their local Church. Among these fifty new worker-priests, there were five Jesuits, three in the Paris area and two in Le Mans.


In Belgium, Jesuits also numbered among the worker-priests but only after Vatican II. They did not experience the same difficulties as did the diocesan worker-priests in Belgium and France in 1954. They began under the responsibility and with the support of the Provincial, but often against the opinion and preferences of the fellow Jesuits of their Province. The accidental death of Egied Van Broekhoven after two years of work seemed to “justify” those who opposed this ministry. Public opinion in the Society changed thanks to Father Arrupe and to Decree 4.


In Spain, marked by the deep wounds of the Civil War and the dictatorship of nearly forty years of “national Catholicism,” a good number of priests and religious wanted to live close to the people of the workers’ world, in order to make the possibility of being both a worker and a believer in Jesus Christ more credible by showing a face of the Church that was different from that presented by the institutional Church. They got involved in jobs at the bottom of the wage scale, in trade union life and in friendships with militant groups. The secrecy required by such activities meant that many had to abide by strict rules and painfully forego certain things. They had to pay a high price in order to be considered “one of them.”


It was in the 1970s that the largest number of young Jesuits prepared for the Workers’ Mission and took part in it, in Belgium, France, Italy and Spain.[4] A workers’ community was founded at Kreuzberg in West Berlin, Germany. During this decade, Father Arrupe asked Jean Lacan, one of the founders of the French Jesuit Workers’ Mission, to promote dialogue among all the Jesuits involved in the labour world, especially those who were working in factories. So bonds started to form between the worker communities in the different countries.


In 1975, Decree 4 of GC 32 validated the missionary initiatives undertaken by the Provinces with members engaged in the Workers’ Mission, and these companions found their basic guidelines especially in nn. 49-50:


The personal backgrounds of most of us, the studies we make, and the circles in which we move often insulate us from poverty, and even from the simple life and its day-to-day concerns. We have access to skills and power which most people do not have. It will therefore be necessary for a larger number of us to share more closely the lot of families who are of modest means, who make up the majority of every country, and who are often poor and oppressed. Relying on the unity we enjoy with one another in the Society and our opportunity to share in one another's experience, we must all acquire deeper sensitivity from those Jesuits who have chosen lives of closer approximation to the problems and aspirations of the deprived. Then we will learn to make our own their concerns as well as their preoccupations and their hopes. Only in this way will our solidarity with the poor gradually become a reality.

If we have the patience and the humility and the courage to walk with the poor, we will learn from what they have to teach us what we can do to help them. Without this arduous journey, our efforts for the poor will have an effect just the opposite from what we intend, we will only hinder them from getting a hearing for their real wants and from acquiring the means of taking charge of their own destiny, personal and collective. Through such humble service, we will have the opportunity to help them find, at the heart of their problems and their struggles, Jesus Christ living and acting through the power of the Spirit. Thus can we speak to them of God our Father who brings to Himself the human race in a communion of true brotherhood.


Here they saw a recognition of their own mission; here they also found the demands that this mission would make on them: they were not to forget that the aim of their presence and their work was to help the men whose life they shared to find Jesus Christ; nor should they forget that they were not to cut themselves off in the peculiarities of their chosen path with a particular group of men, but that they were to continue working in close connection with the entire body of the Society.


The 1980s and 1990s

Text Box: The Workers’ Mission, like any other mission given by the Society and to the extent it is given by it, is a form of apostolate the Society recognises as its own, promoting, directing and taking responsibility for it. The worker Jesuit, priest or not, is a member of the Society from whom he receives the specific mission to insert himself into the world of manual labour and to carry out an apostolic activity there. Obviously this mission carries the same guarantees and conditions as any other in the Society with regard to origin, duration, dependency, availability, co-ordination, etc.
It is a vanguard apostolate since it tries to carry the witness of manual labour to areas not penetrated by other forms of evangelisation and where circumstances can even prevent or advise against any open proclamation of your task to spread the Gospel. The importance of your work from this point of view is twofold: on the one hand you are like a bridgehead to a continent still awaiting discovery; on the other your experience is of great value and should be integrated in the sum of experiences feeding the Society’s reflection and discernment at all levels.
It is a privileged apostolate according to Ignatian norms for the selection of ministries (Pedro Arrupe, S.J., Meeting with Representatives of the Workers’ Mission, Acta Romana 18 [1980], nn. 4,7,9).

In 1980, Jean Lacan and fifteen Jesuit worker-priests from Europe were received by Father Arrupe, after which he sent all the Major Superiors a letter about the Workers’ Mission.


Father Arrupe understood that this ministry offered a crucial challenge and opportunity but he emphasised it in a bit too exclusive a manner. If in the Workers’ Mission one takes only the worker-priests into account, one is unfair to all the other actors in the Mission, and it becomes difficult to face new situations arising out of unemployment, marginalisation and exclusion which were already calling for initiatives.


And so indeed, the first European meeting of MOSJ in 1983 raised this question: should we continue our commitment to the traditional working class, or should we get involved in the world of the socially marginalised and excluded? From now on, the companions of the Workers’ Mission set up a co-ordinating committee made up of four delegates: a Frenchman, an Italian, a Spaniard and a Belgian representing Northern Europe. The subsequent meetings of the MOSJ-Europe allowed everyone to get to know each other, at once similar and different, to bring our questions and our concerns together, and to address them courageously.



Text Box: European Meetings of Jesuits in the Workers’ Mission

1983	Sant Cugat, Spain, “On the eve of GC 33, three themes: the faith-justice option, the identity of our workers’ missions, and the re-expression of our faith”
1986	Lanzo, Italy, “To deepen our shared knowledge in two senses: realities of work and socio-political realities – our spirituality and our theology”
1989	Aix-en-Provence, France, “What kind of hope do we bring into the situations of injustice and exclusion which we live and via our various solidarities?”
1992	Heverlee, Belgium, “A vision, a project for tomorrow”
1995	Loyola, Spain, “The faith-justice link”
1998	Naples, Italy, “The solidarity which goes beyond the borders of religions and cultures”
2001	Strasbourg, France, “Living in the neighbourhoods: social and ecclesial perspectives for today”

















During the 1980s and 1990s, various changes took hold:

·          Technological changes and the economic crisis produced unemployment, precarious work, poverty and social exclusion. This put the solidarity among workers, the unemployed and other socially marginalised groups to the test. Many Jesuits, particularly retired worker-priests, became heavily involved with the Movement of the Unemployed. They also made links with the Third World, participating in various solidarity groups and sometimes actually going and working in those countries, either temporarily or for good.[5]

·          The growing indifference towards religion in Western societies affected the Mission and diminished the Church’s institutional position. There are still Jesuits involved in Catholic Action Movements and in parishes.[6]

·          In large part nourished by liberation theology, there has also been a significant attempt over the last twenty years to put Ignatian spirituality at the service of the working class. This includes the Ignatian Retreat of the Workers’ Mission every summer in Spain, the course of initiation to prayer and discernment and the retreats conducted by the VOVRI group in France,[7] a group founded by Jesuits and today composed mainly of women religious. The last meeting of Jesuits in the Popular Sector (Monde Populaire) in France focused on the theme of “Access to God in the Popular World.”[8] In the Kreuzberg area of Berlin, Christian Herwartz and others began offering a retreat on the streets.

·          In an atmosphere of consumerism and individualism, militant practice has weakened.

·          The break-up of the Eastern bloc has shaken up the West where social solidarity and democracy have become fragile.

·          Europe seems to be building up with economic interests as its only concern and starting-point, to the detriment of solidarity with the most disenfranchised in our rich countries and to the detriment of solidarity with people of the Third World. Our close connections with people in Africa and Latin America keep us on the alert.

·          The presence of millions of immigrant workers in Europe has changed the realities of working-class life, both in the factories and in the neighbourhoods. Jesuits have been closely linked to these groups. Only one example: After his retirement as a worker, Herman Pillaert of Ghent (Belgium) was sent to Turkey to start a Jesuit community in Ankara, a task for which his long and close involvement with the Turkish population of his home town had prepared him. (See pages 54, 56, 58).

·          Young Jesuits, of whom there are few in Europe, are less motivated today by the world of labour. They commit themselves more readily to various forms of social work than to sharing the conditions of the lowest-paid labourers. The militant culture that the Workers’ Mission inherited in large part from secular and labour organisations is also less widespread among young Jesuits. Nonetheless, an exception must be made regarding NGOs.[9] Many of those who join the Society have had the experience of international involvement in an NGO. Here is a spirit shared by the Workers’ Mission and the younger generation. Another aspect of the Workers’ Mission has been picked up by the young and by the different Provincials of Europe: the idea of living in a community in the midst of a poor neighbourhood and of connecting religious life with social and economic reality. Such communities, often called of “insertion,” do appeal to the young today. The Workers’ Mission contributed to the creation and growth of these communities.

·          Finally, current ecclesiology assigns a new role to civil society. Relations between the institutional Church and civil society have been transformed through sharing work and living conditions with working and popular classes, and through participating in their struggle for liberation from exploitation and injustice. Within the Workers’ Mission, the Church has engaged in dialogue with civil society, not just a dialogue within each member’s personal conscience, but a dialogue of mutual respect between fully recognised partners.


All these facts were acknowledged at Heverlee 1992 and at Loyola in 1995. The original intuition of living with appears to retain all its meaning today, as was reiterated at Naples in 1998.[10] It is evident everywhere that the number of Jesuits in the Workers’ Mission has greatly diminished, and we now usually speak of the Workers’ and Popular Mission (Mission Ouvrière et Populaire).[11] This membership points to a core of the identity of the Workers’ Mission: we freely choose to get together in this group of Jesuits, and we remain close to the militant culture wherein belonging to a collective is both a sign and a method.


The testimonies and discussions that arose at the Naples meeting revealed that, despite it all, strong convictions still remain. The initial intuition “to introduce Christ to the masses and, with that purpose, to live among them” still remains valid but in a new context. If one had to describe the Workers’ Mission today, one might say: “To be with and to live withthe world of the workers, the poor and also the marginalised, to take part in common undertakings where the Church is not in a position of leadership, still seems the best way

to characterise the way of proceeding of the Workers’ Mission today, even if the forms of this living with keep changing.


The Jesuits of the Popular and Workers’ Mission are interested in making the effort to reflect on, analyse and articulate better the initiatives relevant to the Social Apostolate. In fact, a number of them are deeply involved in it in Belgium, France and Spain. A reduction of members may force us to reconsider the way we operate, but it would be unfortunate if such a revision brought an end to a form of apostolic commitment that has been important in Europe and remains so and also – why not? – with appropriate changes in many countries where manual workers and support staff still make up the majority of the active population.




M. Noël Barré                                                            Hugo Carmeliet, S.J.

Mission Ouvrière                                                        Coordinator of MOSJ-Europe

65 rue Paul-Ligneul, Appt. 51, 7è étage                      10, Elektriciteitsstraat

72000 Le Mans                                                          1070 Anderlecht

FRANCE                                                                   BELGIUM


                                                                                  +32 2 522 6145 (t & f)

[1] Jean-Claude Dhôtel, S.J., Les jésuites de France: Chemins actuels d’une tradition sans rivage, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1987, p. 63.

[2] Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., “Address to the European Jesuits in the Workers’ Mission,” Lanzo, Italy (7 August 1986).

[3] JOC = Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne; JOCF = JOC Féminine; LOC = Ligue Ouvrière Chrétienne (adults).

[4] See, for example, the different bulletins: from Latin America, Enlace: Boletín informativo de jesuitas en el mundo obrero latinoamericano; from Italy, Fogli dei gesuiti in missione operaia/popolare; and from Spain, Boletín MO.

[5] See Jean Désigaux, S.J., “To Humanize and to Evangilize,” Promotio Iustitiae 49 (March 1992), 9-13.

[6] “Chercheurs de Dieu,” Lettre des Jésuites en Monde Populaire 175 et 176 (July and October 2000).

[7] Vie Ouvrière et Vie Religieuse Ignatienne (Workers’ Life and Ignatian Religious Life).

[8] “Accès à Dieu en monde populaire,” Lettre des Jésuites en Monde Populaire 177 (March 2001).

[9] See Pierre Martinot-Lagarde, S.J., “The Promotion of Justice: A Challenge for the whole Society,” Promotio Iustitiae 53 (November 1995), 13-26.

[10] There were 73 participants: 29 from France (six women religious), eleven each from Italy and Spain, seven from Belgium, three each from Algeria and Portugal, two each from Holland and Ireland, and one each from Chad, England, Germany, Northern Ireland and Poland.

[11] The number of Jesuits in the Workers’ Mission in France can be judged by the number of those who pay their membership dues: in 2000, there were 26.