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  • Writer's picture香港基督教工業委員會

Revisiting the Experience of the Workers Priests

Hans Lutz, Board Members of Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee

During my three weeks quarantine after my return from Switzerland I had the time to read a 600 page history of the French workers priests’ movement. Their history is relevant to me personally as it was an important element leading to my involvement in URM.

In 1943, in the midst of the Second World War, there appeared a book with the title “France, country of mission?”. It pointed out that from the church’s point of view, the population of France could be divided into three categories: People who practiced their faith, people who were indifferent to religion but had retained certain aspects of the Christian tradition, and people who were estranged from Christianity. Generally speaking, the working class of eight to nine million persons belonged to the third group. The parishes in working class areas formed a closed circle separate from society. They were incapable of reaching out. Therefore there was the need for mission, not with the aim of integrating people into the existing parishes, but of bringing to life the gospel in the midst of the working class. The book had the effect of a wake-up call.

The second trigger for the movement of the workers priests came from the priests and theology students who returned from Germany at the end of the war. There were those who had been made prisoners as members of the defeated French army and were put to work in Germany. There were those who had been deported for their involvement in the French resistance and placed in concentration camps. Finally there were theology students who were recruited to work in Germany and priests who went there under cover to minister to the 700’000 French workers who had been brought to Germany as part of the Compulsory Work Service. They found themselves immersed among ordinary people and experienced that any separation between them and ordinary people has ceased to exist.

With the support of the hierarchy a new missionary enterprise in the region of Paris was started at the beginning of 1944. The idea was for priests to move from preaching the gospel to living the gospel among the working class. It was not to bring new people into the existing parishes, but to plant the church among workers. From 1947 onwards the movement spread to other cities. The priests discovered that there were so many qualities among the working class they had previously not known: solidarity, hope for a new society, confidence in the good in humanity, working for peace in the world. They also found common ground with Communist militants.

It has to be noted that at that time, before Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church was very different from today. The priest was set apart from ordinary people. He was wearing the cassock. The liturgy was in Latin. It was a time of the Cold War and Rome did not like to see the workers priests entering into friendly relations with Communists. Pope Pius XII at that time declared: “If I have to choose between apostolic effectiveness and priestly integrity, I have chosen the latter.” Then Rome ordered all workers priests to stop working as from 1st March 1954. This was a bombshell drawing attention from far beyond the church. The reaction of the workers priests was not unanimous. There were those who submitted to the decision of the pope and others who defied him and continued their existence as workers. It took eleven years and the arrival of Pope Paul VI until permission was granted for “a small number” of priests to resume full time work. However, in 1979 there were ten times more workers priests than in 1954 and the movement remains alive.

In Hong Kong over the years a number of Catholic priests have sought work in a factory. They gained experience of factory life and could get close to their work mates. But these efforts – precious as they are for those undertaking them- are very different from a life-long immersion into the working class. The only religious in Hong Kong who come close to the life of the workers priests are the Little Sisters of Jesus.

The working class at the height of industrialisation in Hong Kong in the 1960s and 70s was very different from the in France. It lacked the long tradition and revolutionary experience of the French workers movement. While many French workers were ignorant of the church’s message or hostile to it, the majority of Hong Kong workers felt that the preaching of the church was irrelevant and sometimes the subject of jokes. Yet, the CIC experienced again and again that the person of Jesus Christ moved workers to decide to follow him.

Since the 1960s and 70s the economy of Hong Kong has been transformed. Gone are the districts with factories employing hundreds of workers. Grass-root workers are dispersed in different locations. Yet, Hong Kong remains a mission field. The task of translating the message of the gospel so that it can be accepted by the mentality of workers remains.

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