Reviewing our lives and thinking as well as that of the church, on the issues raised by the poor and workers, and more radically by Jesus of Nazareth

Published Oct. 22, 2018 in La Croix, by Stefan Gigacz, Australia

“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.

Reflection on & Re-evaluation of Mission and Role in Light of the 1.5°C Report

Our faith, climate, and justice work are rooted in our concern for our common home and future, due to the threats posed by climate change and our beliefs in the dignity of all and the rights of all to flourish.  In this season, we take time to reorient ourselves to the life-giving path we are called to and the requirements upon us, as people of faith.

The carbon budget for 1.5°C has already been used up.  1°C of warming has already occurred and another .5°C is in the pipeline as the bulk of the extra warming Earth has received from fossil fuel burning (equivalent to 400K Hiroshima bombs daily) has been stored in and is gradually released from the oceans.  This means a rapid shift is necessary.

The time to make the transition to protect mankind from self-destruction is short.  The world’s scientists have told us that we must cut carbon emissions in about half, globally, by 2030; however we realize that neither responsibility for climate change nor the fastest action are evenly distributed.  US states & more industrially developed countries must move much faster and achieve a higher degree of decarbonization by 2030.  

As people of faith and conscience, with commitment to care for creation, all people and all life, we realize we must take responsibility to lead these shifts.  We hear the call to courage, reflection, repentance, hope, renewal and reorientation.  We start with what is needed and work backward from that, informed by science and our values, including the dignity of all life and the rights of all generations to flourish.  With faith, hope, and commitment, we find it urgent to recognize that the path we have been on to date has not brought us to the level of GHG reduction necessary and that we are committed to (2017 C. Figueres, S. Bingham et al. Nature). This is confirmed by the world’s top scholars.

As people of faith, we are responsible for our brothers, sisters, and all of creation, not just our own congregations or buildings.  We hear the cry of the poor and realize that the most voiceless and unattended by our modern societies have been the Earth and those who have lived in harmony with her for millennia.  We affirm that the energy transition can and should be accomplished at the same time as poverty reduction and restoration of the natural world.  Consistent with our values, we commit to providing leadership in making these connections, including support for people over profit and care of the commons, that which is and should belong to all.  We ask/reflect:

  • What is responsible action and our role as faith, climate, justice leaders given the signs of the times, particularly the limits of climate change?
  • Are our actions consistent with getting to the dramatic turnarounds needed in our energy system right now, in the time period needed?
  • Are we providing or proposing the level and extent of response needed?  
  • Is what we are proposing sufficient to get on a path to stay below 1.5°C, on our way to the 350 ppm of CO2 or below necessary for all life to flourish?

These questions are benchmarks for us in accomplishing the needed change in time, to address our responsibility and potential in the next few years and help guide our future reflection and planning.  

Each of the action areas below can and must be tackled on local, state, and higher levels, working with all the partners we can find to get this done.  

  • Coal plants should be shut down in the next 2-5 years in service areas in the US.  
  • Do and advocate what it will take for there to be no more investment in or support of fossil-fuel powered infrastructure.  Establish clear preferences and/or requirements that new vehicles be electric and that all utility investments should be renewable or storage, to avoid further harm, death, ill health, and climate impacts.
  • Energy investments should be redirected to wind, solar, storage,  and geothermal, efficiency improvements, training and employment, e.g.,  installation of renewables, operation of microgrids, and upgrades to buildings.  In addition to insisting on no further investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, we can encourage a just transition highlight the extractive profit and fossil fuel orientation of existing (especially corporate) utility monopolies.  For example, we can insist that any replacement assets that will be owned by the utility may not be more than 10% more expensive than assets that could be obtained from competitive bidding, within the preceding 6 months. We can support a Green New Deal for jobs.

With just 15 min/week of action, one can insist on and accomplish the above to an important degree with consistent input to reps, councilmembers, boards of utility companies and co-ops, and Public Utilities Commissions, building partnerships with other advocates to show up at key times.  Agreements on and implementation of standards for (net zero) building retrofits is often a longer, bigger lift but is addressed in proposals for a Green New Deal nationally (a 10 year decarbonization, just transition and jobs guarantee program) and some local initiatives.

  • Promote reflection, education, and involvement in other changes we need to make.
  • Address the need for jobs, economic and racial justice in the course of the transition.
  • Take leadership and responsibility for bringing clean electricity to the 1 billion who lack it, over the next 5 years.  Make partnerships for development of solar electricity and microgrids where state and private plans will not reach.
  • Promote and support healthy, low carbon and local food production, land and land rights protection, eco-/less toxic fair agriculture, and less need for transport and travel, for our food, organizations, and ourselves (greater walkability, more transit and options).  10% of the world’s GHG emissions come from tourism.  Professional travel adds yet more, all undertaken by few people.
  • Our institutions can teach about these responsibilities and opportunities and the urgency and timeline of our response, and actions that can be taken toward each at all levels of government and society.  Until then, we will work on this.

In all of the above, we seek to maximally partner with others.  We commit to continued reflection and re-evaluation of strategy, based on the science, urgency and life or death nature of our situation.  We are called to choose life for all, not something less than what is necessary for that.  As people of faith and conscience we realize that it is very late, but it is not too late. As the IPCC scientists and 1.5 C report has said, “every fraction of a degree matters.”

Organizing can and needs to occur on many levels.  Each of us are part of multiple communities.  We will speak up as members of these communities as well as play a role in transformation and leadership wherever opportunities and time allow, realizing that each of our situations are unique and it is often up to us.  At the same time we will build community, shared learning and thinking.  Toward this end, we aim to/for:

  • More seriously challenge ourselves around our role and how we get on the 1.5 C path, thinking of civil rights religious leaders who took unpopular positions and risks to do what was right and more recent youth leadership.  Even by the point of his death (he was more unpopular earlier), MLK had only a 22% approval rating.   Every year we delay getting on this path – a global average, we should be moving faster in the US – we make life more difficult and the transition more challenging for youth and generations unborn.
  • Light impact on people’s time.  People are busy and stretched thin.  We are obliged to think about how we avoid adding meetings and how we can emphasize creativity, empowerment, and support of what is both underway and emerging.  We commit to prioritization and re-evaluation, given limited time, to identify where the highest leverage impact can occur, still responsible to and focused on the size and timing of the change needed.  
  • We want to support an emerging life-giving reality, realizing how very interconnected we are.  We have a big focus on extending and supporting individual inspiration as well as finding and working with partners and understanding their reality, priorities, and interests.
  • Maximizing cooperation and minimizing cost, bureaucracy and competition.
  • Sharing knowledge, wisdom & inspiration as a networked learning community


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s