LAITY SET OUT TO END A FRENCH CRISIS
Jean S6guy TWO articles published lately in this pager dealt with the present shortage of priests In France. I would like to show that this " dearth of sacerdetal vocations " does not necessarily mean a spiritual crisis, hot iSither reflects a new understanding of the mission of the laity and of the specificity of its influence and action. which gives the most encouraging hopes for the future of Catholicism in that country.
French lay people I speak, of course, of the responsible part of them-have now a better tinderstanding of their rights and duties in the Church than they had only twenty years ago. Consequeldly. they play a far • more irnpurtant part in Church life than they did formerly.
Any French boy or girl of fifteen belonging to a Catholic Action movement now knows that dedication to God's service does not mean necessarily entering a religious older or receiving the priesthood. But at the same time they are conscious of the particular priesthood they have received at baptism, of the responsibilityand strength which has been entrusted to them at Confirtnation. and want to act in accordance e ith their royal dignity of witnesses of Christ.
Such an attitude carries in itself momentous consequences.
TO this new attitude we owe the -••• active and fruitful apostolate now going on in for exarople, student quarters. All who take part In it and they are thousands admit it as a matter of fact that apostleship requires sanctity and science.
Consequently, they read spiritual books, follow annual retreats. and attend theological lectures organised by university chaplains.
Before, or just after the 1918 svar. such activities on the part of ley students was considered abnormal and laughed at by most of the most regular churchgoers.
As a result of this change in outlook, it is by no means uncommon today to hear students of the SOYbonne discussing a point of religion or of the spiritual life as they %ally down the boulevards, or have a drink at a cafe near their alma mater,
Any of the chaplains could tell you the number of converts ftom materialism indifference or hike
warmness such conversations bring in, and that in spite of the comparatively small number of priests engaged on that particular field, This student apostolate is not restricted to academic circles. nor to France only. Many of these lay apostles help in their parishes, by teaching catechism or taking care of youth movements. Some also spend their holidays working in shops, in factories, or in the country, and there again, among pebple of different social conditions, hey do not allow the Word of God to be bound. The same ellen they go to foreign countries, either on holidays or to teach or study. For them, it is not necessary to be a priest to bring the "good tidings" of Redemption to one's neighbours, and the priests who form and guide them all acknowledge that they could not do themselves a hundredth of what these lay apostles do.
QTUDENT apostolate does not constitute, of course, the only kind of lay apostolatc in France. Workers started evangelising their fellow-men before there existed any school or university Catholic Action.
One knows how popular the J.O.C. (Y.C.W.) movement has become between the two World Wars, and specially after this last one. This movement does not always achieve the same spectacular results as student Catholic Action does. It also demands from its members far more energy and selflessness. No J.O.C. local section has ever
been started without big difficultiee and a great deal of sacrifice on the part of the pioneers. No sympathy can be expected either from the mass of the workers or from the employers.
Though this situation has been changing a little for some years now, it still constitutes an impact which makes lay apostolate necessary to the exclusion of any other forms.
That explains why priest-workers are very careful not to betray their sacerdotal character until they have been accepted by their companions as ordinary Catholic lay militants. The apostolate of the paganised working masses is too hard and difficult for any of the Jocistes to think of the priesthood instead. Leaving the workshop for the seminary would mean complete segregation of these young men from their fellow-workers, and one Catholic less on the plants. Most love their neighbours too much to do that, and to their admirable abnegation we owe the results achieved so far. We should not forget that Jociste influence has been preponderant in P.o.W. camps. where between 1940 and 1945 many received the Faith from them. The part they play in Christian trade unions -whose members are not all active or even nominal Catholics-in the administration of
social services and the yatious trade boards where the hardly-won contidence of their friends sends them. accounts for the spreading of Catholic social principles among people who would probably never hear of them otherwise. What they do in their own fields no priest could do. And one will understand that except in extraordinary cases they can have no idea of leaving the workers' world for the seminary. That would, in a sense, mean desertion. and they are consciousitthat the working class cannot afford Politicians THETHE same principles apply to engaged in politics. Some, perhaps many of them, would have chosen the priesthood to devote themselves to their neighbours and to God, had they lived twenty to forty years ago. Today. they think they do an equally important work by being M.P.s or mayors.
In their own capacity they help It) spread God's Kingdom by having better laws passed or by adminis
tering towns or boroughs in a Christian way.
Priests cannot take their place except they abandon for a time the spiritual care of their flocks-that is to say, their very calling.
Let one remember the anti-clerical policy of the French Government in the nineteen hundreds, the gradual elimination of Catholics from all responsible posts in the political, social and military life of the nation, and compare it with Catholic influence today in the same places. After such a comparison, one will soon have to admit that in spite of a greet shortage of priests, the Church in Trance is exercising an increasing influence in most quarters, owing to the tine spirit of responsibility in her laity.
In the country
WE have said nothing, so far, of the country. where the situation is not so brilliant today as it was a century ago.
Anyhow, it would be wrong to assume that the Correze and the Creuse "departments ' in which Fr. Stephen .1. Rothe is working are really representatiee of the conditions of all rural districts.
In fact some of these like Brittany, Alsace. and others. maintain quite a respectable "staff " of country priests, while also supplying the overseas missionary fields with quite a good number of candidates, ft remains, however, that 14,000 French parishes have no resident priest,
Even so. the situation must not be thought hopeless. No true appreciation of It can be made until statisticians supply us with the comparative figures of the population of those now priestless areas, at the
beginning of country desertion, and today. Such a comparison would almost certainly prove that filling all vacancies would mean waste of priests. The problem of re-evangelising the countryside has. in fact, not been tackled seriously until recent
years. Supplying the spiritual needs of the numberless masses of deeChristianised town-dwellers seemed more urgent.
After the last war, two congregations-one of men, one of women-. • were founded by a Dominican, Fr. Epagneul, to meet the needs of the country. They are only beginning their real work, but much can be expected from them. The masculine members of this congregation. priests and laybrothers, known as the Petits Freres des Campagnes, live in communities situated in the centre of the areas under their supervision. From there they regularly • visit their different parishes, always ready to go wherever and whenever they are called on.
THE continual presence of the priest in his parish is not considered as essential in the work of this new congregation. There must obviously be some at hand for preaching and the administration of sacraments. But they rather rely on the local laity to teach catechism, take care of church buildings, prepare them for 'festivals, carry on parish administration, organise prayer or discussion meetings in private homes, etc.
For that work, suitable people cannot always be found on the spot. But laymen and women come from other parts. I heard recently of a young woman. a university graduate, abandoning the prospect of a reasonably comfortable lift in the teaching profession to be a lay missionary in the Correze department.
Her first work in the village she was sent to where the church had not been used for years, consisted in bringing together the few who had kept the Faith, and teach catechism to their children. These were stoned by their playmates. and their parents were looked upon as mere pariahs. But she held fast.
Now the village has received a mission, the church is used again regularly, all the people have been talked to personally. Souls have been gained, and the harvest goes on in spite of the seasons.
MOST, if not all missions, both in the country and in towns are now preceded by the coming of lay missionaries who take a part or full-time job on the spot and contact the inhabitants of their area before the mission really -starts.
All their spare time is spent talking with Catholics, to whom they explain the aims and means of the mission, with whom they pray, from whom they receive information about the town, its people and life; with non-Catholics, too, with whom they try to entertain friendly sera lions, in order to decide as many. of them as possible, to go 10 instructions and meetings.
When the mission begins. they help on the material side, organising processions and feasts in the church or in the open. They also help on the spiritual side, acting as " readers " during Mass and in para-liturgical functions where they also conduct the singing.
They visit the sick. entertain the old, extending Christ's solicitude to all, being really other Baptists, true heralds of the Church and of her King.
The work of these lay people should not be overlooked. In fact it is so important that missionary priests wish to receive more and more lay help. Without it great numbers of people would never hear of Christ.
WE should not think. however, '7 that France is being re-Christianised today or tomorrow by these lay workers and by. those of the laity engaged in social or political
activities. All certainly do ,their hest, hut all is not always for the hest in all they do.
A certain portion of the people working in the political field or in trade unions sometimes show a tendency to a certain type of anti-clericalism which seems to be the fashion specially among the younger. But it is possibly more of a velleity than a dangerous reality. reflected in words more than in deeds-the reverse of the old (but by no means apostolic) tradition, which prevailed so long, of letting priests do all while the laity remained peacefully indifferent. though extremely polite. of course.
Very often. too. lay helpers lack a fully satisfactory synthesis of all the various truths of the Faith. Some want more psychology or apparent joy.
But all these shortcomings originate in the fact that lay people had been considered for centuries as second-zone members of the Church 2 situation to which man of them did not object, after ail. Having taken no real interest in the real work of evangelisation they are a little awkward in their first attempts.
As goodwill and holiness are not absent, we can hope that grace and time will do much to remedy all these lay shortcomings, the more so as practical steps have already been taken to offer an efficient training to lay catechisers and parish helpers.
Paving the way
I HOPE that these observations. however incomplete. will help to correct the sad impression given by the statistics published lately. France is really suffering a shortage of priests. Certain rural districts
are badly affected. But on the other hand the laity cooperate to a point unknown so far, except perhaps in the five first centuries of the Church.
It may be that France will never have the same number of priests as she had in the nineteenth century. But in a sense. were not priests. then, too numerous, and the laity consequently too inactive?
Now, one cannot hope that in a time of widespread education clerics will ever be able to exert the same influence as in centuries past. The laity become every day an increasingly important factor in evangelisation, and that tendency cannot but continue.
So I would say that. though France needs more priests, she needs above all a still more conscious and responsible laity. The Faith was brought to France, to England. to Rome herself by lay people, who were nothing but ordinary workers and merchants. What these did nineteen or twenty centuries ago, can lay people of today not do it again, and bring the Light of Christ back to their de-Christianised fellow-men? I do believe they can. I also believe that the shortage of priests in my country will not be overcome unless lay people first create a general " atmosphere" of Faith in all quarters of the nation, and especially families where Christ is lived so intensely that vocations spring from them naturally and abundantly.
We know that the laity are taking their work seriously, more seriously every day. So we may hope; for their very activity witnesses that though momentarily
,rived of priests, the Church in France is undergoing no decline but rather vigorously going ahead.