Question by Tobit Adu Bredu:
My Lord Bishop, can a Diocesan priest, as part of his evangelisation duties, also partake in industrialization by setting up and running companies in order to cater not only for the spiritual needs but also the physical and economic needs of the children of God by providing employment, education and financial stability to the people?
Answer by Bishop Joseph Osei-Bonsu of the Konongo-Mampong Diocese, Ghana
In answering this question posed by Tobit Adu Bredu, it will be necessary for us to have a brief look at the idea of “worker priests”. It is important to learn from history so that we avoid the temptation to reinvent the wheel.
The term “worker priests” is a name given to Christian clergy, mostly Catholic, who are sent by their church officially to enter the full-time work force, there to exercise an apostolic vocation.
Although the term has been used loosely to refer to any member of the clergy or religious (there are worker nuns and lay brothers as well) who work outside of traditional religious vocations, this broader definition is not quite correct. More precisely, the type of work defined by the title “worker priest” is oppressive work among the urban and rural working-class people.
Although the movement had its forerunners, it began in earnest in Belgium and France during the Second World War. People realized gradually that most of the people who worked in industry were outside of, even against, the church.
This led some members of the Church to call for more radical ways of reaching such people. Some of the clergy challenged the status quo and called for special non-parish missions in the midst of the working class. Seminarians, clandestine chaplains, and prisoner-of-war priests returned from German imprisonment asking for a priesthood that would toil to earn its bread. The movement was given support by Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard of Paris. His support of the various radical missions to the working-class people in the 1940s was essential to their creation and survival.
At first, the worker priests lived in the working-class ghettos of Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Lille, and other cities without gainful employment, but gradually they convinced their bishops that factory toil was essential to a full “incarnation”, i.e., identifying fully with the marginalized and exploited workers by adopting their lifestyle in toto, just as Christ through his incarnation became one of us.
However, they soon became union militants and active partisans of the peace movement. They worked for substantive social change, led strikes, were arrested in peace marches, and were elected to important trade-union posts. Their brothers and sisters in solidarity were often grass-roots Communists, and most of these working priests joined Communist-led unions instead of the less radical unions linked to the Catholic Church.
The worker priests set aside their clerical attire and left their clerical dwellings to take jobs in factories and on construction sites, sharing the living conditions and social and economic problems of their co-workers. Their experiences incited some of them to become politically active, joining their fellow workers in various demonstrations in such matters as housing, anti-racism, and peace.
Traditional Catholics were scandalized, and pressure was put on the French and Vatican authorities to close down the movement. Pius XII, caught up in the anti-communist cold war crusade and concerned that the church would lose control of its priests, ordered France’s three leading Cardinals to put brakes on the experiment.
In spite of a massive outcry of protest in France, the worker priests were ordered to lay down their tools and turn in their union cards by 1 March 1954. Approximately half obeyed, half did not. In spite of Vatican suspicion and right-wing Catholic hostility, the ailing Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard defended the worker priests and their colleagues.
The story, however, did not end with this tragedy. Worker-priests were restored by decree at the Second Vatican Council, and today they are found in countries throughout the world among Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox clergy. The vision of their incarnation is expressed vividly by one of their pioneers:
“I commit my life and offer all that I am … to become and to be a true worker while, at the same time, a priest among the workers, just as you have been a man, God among men (sic). To take up and carry in my priestly heart their entire life, work, poverty, struggles, sufferings and hopes, the humiliations of their most base conditions …. To place my destiny with their destiny and my life with their life and to be in communion with all their aspirations”.
Today, it is somewhat common, though not the rule or norm, for religious brothers and sisters, and for some religious order priests, even some in contemplative life, to have learned and to practise, to a greater or lesser degree, some trade or profession apart from the sacred sciences like philosophy or theology.
These include education, medicine, law, nursing, farming, accounting, business, lab sciences, etc. They do this either full-time or part-time. Any such training and work is carried out with the permission of the Bishop or Superior. The place where the individual is to go for admittance and the training, and the place of employment, must also give its consent.
We have seen that it is possible now for priests and religious to engage in some trade or profession besides the sacred sciences like philosophy or theology. But I do not think that there should be a return to those times when worker priests who lived in working-class ghettos were union militants, who led strikes and who were elected to important trade-union posts and who associated with grass-roots Communists.
In the light of the foregoing, let us now address the question posed by Tobit Adu Bredu about a diocesan priest “setting up and running companies in order to cater not only for the spiritual needs but physical and economic needs of the children of God”. Let us begin by defining what the primary duty of a priest is.
For the Second Vatican Council, preaching the word of God is the primary duty of the Catholic priest. In Presbyterorum Ordinis, subtitled the “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests”, one of the documents produced by the Second Vatican Council and promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 7 December 1965, we read,
“Since no one can be saved who does not first believe,…priests, as co-workers with their bishops, have the primary duty of proclaiming the Gospel of God to all. …In this way they fulfill the command of the Lord: ‘Going therefore into the whole world preach the Gospel to every creature’ (Mk 16:15)…and they establish and build up the People of God” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 4).
Will the preaching of the word of God be fully achieved if the priest does what our questioner is proposing? I am not sure. How much time will he have for his priestly duties? I envisage what Tobit is proposing to be a full-time job. Moreover, how is the average priest going to find money to set up and run companies as Tobit is suggesting?
Even if the priest has the money to do this, I think it will be better if the project becomes the project of his diocese or the religious congregation. In this way, the bishop or the superior of the congregation will be able to entrust the setting up and running of the companies to competent lay people.
The priest could be involved in some way but that should not be his main occupation. In this way, the priest will be able to concentrate on his primary work of proclaiming the gospel. This will also ensure that the spiritual, physical and economic needs of the children of God, which are close to the heart of Tobit, are catered for, as people will benefit from employment, education and financial stability.
In this connection we may refer to the passage in Acts where the apostles got deacons chosen for the daily distribution of food to widows so that they could concentrate on the preaching of the word of God and on prayer:
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.
3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them (Acts 6:1-6).