Christ of the Breadlines, woodcut by Fritz Eichenberg

In the factory, not the sacristy: meet today’s real priests

Exhaustion, low pay, lack of opportunities for promotion, insecurity, the threat of redundancy…

These are all realities for workers today.

But to what extent are priests in touch with these struggles?

Is the Church called to insert itself even deeper into the world of work?

They’re just a couple of the questions raised by today’s ‘worker priests’ and pastoral assistants, the heirs to a venerable Church social justice tradition with roots back to the 1940s.

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Driving the news

In an interesting must-read reflection on the ‘worker priest’ movement, Hugh Williamson in the Church Times spoke to some participants in the recent International Meeting of European Worker Priests in Herzogenrath, Germany.

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Living like Jesus

“Priests have such a high social status, and I wanted a job distinctly different to that”, said Father Lionel Vandenbriele, a French priest who works as an ambulance crew member and emergency operator.

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“It’s tiring work, and I know now what it’s like to not be in control of your working hours”, he added, reflecting on his 7-12 hour shifts.

“People came to me as a priest often at three key times: baptism, marriage, and funerals. These were important moments, but I felt the need to really share the daily lives of people I live among. It’s, of course, about trying to live like Jesus of Nazareth”, Vandenbriele said of his second vocation.

“I wish the Church would step out of its usual preoccupations with structures and ask the question: ‘How can we come closer to people in their ordinary lives?'”

But today’s ‘worker priests’ are not just ordained men.

Faith and daily life

Dutch theology graduate and former Catholic pastoral worker Anne-Marieke Koot decided to become a cleaner and home-helper to be there for people in her community.

She also takes and preaches at occasional church services.

But unlike some of the priests she knows, she never puts herself on a pedestal, or takes care only to present her best side to people.

“I’m missing the space in church to talk about faith in daily life”, Koot added.

Church on the “wrong side”

For her part, German temp agency worker Maria Jans-Wenstrup always felt she was out of touch with people and on the “wrong side” in her 25 years as a nun.

“God is everywhere, and especially where people are treated badly, where life is difficult. Being present there makes a difference, even if you can’t say what it is. It’s about valuing people who are invisible”, she said of her step outside the convent and into the world of work.

Down to the “normal” world

Although she still helps at her local parish, Wenstrup worries that the Church can’t really relate to the realities of ordinary working people.

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It’s a concern shared by Swiss newspaper printer and community activist Urs Haener.

Haener said he wanted to become a priest but decided, in the end, to use the theology he had studied “in the normal working world”.

“I wish that the Church would have a view on what changes in the world of work mean, such as precarious work and working hours”, he lamented.

“At least trying to be better informed would be a start”.

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