2018: From the Vatican II ‘Church of the Poor’ group to the Synod meet on young people

“Twelve bishops gathered with Cardinal Pierre-Marie Gerlier for the first meeting,” reads a contemporary report on the origins of group of bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that took as its motto, “Jesus Christ, the Church and the Poor.”

These prelates “reviewed their lives and their thinking, as well as that of their churches and the Church, on the issues raised for them by the poor and the workers, and more radically by Jesus of Nazareth, the Carpenter,” the report continues.

Best remembered for the “Pact of the Catacombs” they later adopted, these bishops wanted to ensure that the Council tackled the “anguishing” issues of poverty, the working class and world development.

Convened by Bishop Charles-Marie Himmer of Tournai, Belgium and Bishop George Hakim of Galilee (later Patriarch Maximos V), the group first met on Oct. 26, 1962 at the Belgian College in Rome. Cardinal Pierre-Marie Gerlier of Lyon was the group’s president.

Inspired by Pope John XXIII’s phrase “the Church of the Poor,” members saw themselves operating “as an extension of” John’s 1961 social encyclical, Mater et Magistra (Church as Mother and Teacher of All Nations), following the see-judge-act method pioneered and popularized by Joseph Cardijn.

Since so many members of the Church of the Poor group (as it became known) had previously been chaplains to Cardijn’s Young Christian Workers and other Catholic Action movements, it was only natural that they would take up this method in doing their own “review of life.”

In their meetings, they therefore began by sharing the personal actions that they had taken or were involved in.

In one noteworthy example, Bishop Manuel Larrain of Talca, Chile, a co-founder of the Latin American Bishops Conference, “sold the solitaire stone from his pectoral cross for a vocational school.”

Similarly, Colombian Archbishop Tulio Botero Salazar of Medellin, Colombia, “left his episcopal palace for a more humble residence.” He said he was inspired to do so by Father Riccardo Lombardi, founder of the “Movement for a Better World.”

Another unidentified bishop from a developing nation wanted to “get into the skin of a poor man begging for his food.” Feeling unable to do so in his home diocese, he disembarked at Genoa (northern Italy), forwarded his clerical garb to Rome and went begging in the streets accompanied by a Little Brother of Jesus.

At another level, Brazilian Bishop Eugene Sales of Natal “stopped the construction of a cathedral to first build a residence for workers and organized a range of agrarian and social reforms, his church offering an example of sharing.”

Meanwhile, in his industrial and mining diocese in Belgium, Bishop Himmer sent more priests to work as chaplains to worker movements, while Hakim launched housing cooperatives for poor Arab workers, both Muslim and Christian, and blessed the foundation by Paul Gauthier of the Companions of Jesus the Carpenter.

Not all the examples cited in their report necessarily came from members of the group, although many certainly did. But what is striking is the way they sought to base their reflection on personal experience – the events they had lived and the actions they had taken.

They continued to do this over the course of the entire Council, challenging and encouraging each other to take their actions further, with others moving into more humble lodgings, placing their episcopal palaces at the disposition of the poor, etc.

Even Pope Paul VI himself likely drew inspiration from their actions in renouncing his papal tiara, which in turn motivated a group of US nuns to sell their gold consecration rings to raise $20,000 for the poor.

And they continued in this vein after Vatican II with the Latin American bishops in turn adopting the see-judge-act at their famous 1968 conference in Medellin, Colombia.

In fact, it was at Medellin that the bishops first used the expression “new evangelization” to characterize this new approach, later embodied by the martyred Bishop Enrique Angelelli and Saint Oscar Romero.

I thought of all this after learning that the Synod assembly on young people is also following the Cardijn “see-judge-act” method in its deliberations. “Recognizing, interpreting and choosing pastoral paths” is the Synod’s adaptation of the method, as recorded in the Instrumentum Laboris.

Indeed, there is much that would have pleased Cardijn in the Synod’s method of work, particularly its inductive approach of beginning by “listening” to the experience of young people.

Its emphasis on vocation, accompaniment and a holistic or integral perspective as well as its concern with “the fabric” of daily life also has much in common with the Young Christian Workers founder’s approach.

Yet, is there something missing from the way the Synod assembly is applying the see-judge-act?

Here, I think it is relevant to note how the Church of the Poor group sought to apply the method in their own lives. They began not with a sociological analysis of the situation of poverty in the world but by “reviewing their (own personal) lives and thinking.”

Simply put, they applied the see-judge-act to their own clerical lives just as they had previously done with teams of young workers, young farmers and students in their home parishes around the world.

That was the context in which they sought to extend its application to the Church institutionally in the drafting of Schema XIII, which would become Gaudium et Spes  the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.”

French Archbishop Arthur Elchinger explicitly acknowledged this at the Fourth Session of the Council, characterizing Gaudium et Spes as the Church’s effort to “make its ‘review of life’ in relation to the world.”

What implication does all this have for the current Synod assembly on young people?

It is evident from the Instrumentum Laboris and from press reports of the Synod sessions that it has done excellent work in attempting to understand and respond to the lived experience of young people today.

To what extent, however, have the assembly’s participants – bishops, experts and auditors – sought to share, evaluate, inspire and be inspired by their own personal experiences of working with young people?

No doubt much of this has happened in an informal way. But the example of the Church of the Poor group clearly illustrates the value and power of doing this as part of a systematic, organized and regular “review of life.”

As the Synod assembly nears its conclusion, there is still time for its participants to draw on this model. Here is how they could do so.

Each Synod participant will need to commit to a specific, reviewable personal action that he or she is going to take after returning home to implement its conclusions.

At the local level, each participant will need to form (or join) and work with a team of their peers to review and develop that action.

And they will need to commit to maintaining contact/networking among themselves and their teams to follow up on the implementation of the Synod resolutions at the global level.

For all the importance of the Synod assembly’s concluding document now being drafted, it can only be a first step. As the Church of the Poor group members understood, the see-judge-act of the institutional Church needs to be founded on that of its leaders and members.

That is how Cardijn’s method was intended to work. It is also what he meant when he told young workers that “we are not making a revolution, we are the revolution.”

Stefan Gigacz is a researcher with the Australian Cardijn Institute, Australia.


Stefan Gigacz, From the Vatican II ‘Church of the Poor’ group to the Synod meet on young people (La Croix International)