This is a chapter from a book-length interview with Bishop Georges Béjot, a former YCW chaplain, who became a Council Father at Vatican II.
— We have looked back over the first ten years of the (French) YCW, including its links with the ACJF (Catholic Association of French Youth) and the emergence of the “specialised” movements. However, beginning from the appearance of its first militants, did the YCW itself evolve during the golden period period before the war?
— Yes, indeed. It was an exciting time!
I won’t repeat what I’ve said about the 10th anniversary, which was a revelation. In fact, the years 1936-37 gave a second wind to the life of the YCW at local level. You are familiar with 1936 when the Popular Front came to power under Léon Blum, with the general strike, the factory occupations, etc. Jocist leaders experienced all these things in their workplaces.
It was an event that had a considerable impact with its threats and risks as well as its intense joys and exultations. The worker world took part in a certain number of solidarity actions. The YCW also participated in all this. I think that for young people 1936 was an introduction to worker action and an entry into the worker struggle. From that point of view, 1936 played a very great role because everyone felt involved. Factory occupations were very widespread and the results achieved visible to all.
— The factory occupations had a revolutionary tone. How were these viewed by public opinion?
— Evidently, they were resented by the bourgeoisie and by practising Catholics as a violation of property and as a genuine aggression. At the time, Cardinal Verdier surprised people by in effect endorsing them. Through his attitude and statements, he sought to calm emotions, avoid repression and enable it to be recognised that workers actually felt a little bit at home in an enterprise as a result of their work. All that was not formulated very explicitly but in any case Cardinal Verdier’s intervention at the time was decisive and determining
— Had the YCW through its national representatives already made any public statements regarding those events?
— No, I don’t remember any. Jeunesse ouvrière (the YCW paper) certainly reported on it but, off the top of my head, I don’t remember any statement. The events gave more to the YCW than it was able to give itself. It was through its belonging to the working class that the YCW was impacted and through its local rootedness at the grassroots that it experienced it!
Moreover, it was from the grassroots that another important aspect contributed to give the YCW its second wind. I am speaking of the review of life.
Here, we need to recall that in the beginning, a jocist section meeting comprised three parts: Gospel reading, enquiry campaign and review of influence. The reading of the Gospel was quite a trial for the chaplain, e.g. people spoke of the parables of the Parisian and the Republican instead of the Pharisee and the publican!
I mean that the reading was often difficult and grumbling. Moreover, the chaplain’s role had to be discreet, simply helping clarify the meaning, providing some background to elicit reports of facts of life. His compensation was to experience some genuine “fioretti.” The findings were quite moving.
The enquiry campaign was the yearly theme at national level. It focused attention, including the observation of facts, on one aspect of life, e.g. work, the neighbourhood, leisure, love… Relevant facts were meant to be reported to “national.” This was the job of the secretary. And the paper, Jeunesse Ouvrière, drew its raw material from that information.
Finally, the “review of influence.” This involved each person expressing themselves on the influence they were able to exert during the preceding fortnight. Going around the table was often disappointing and very quick. What initiatives? What remarks had been made? And alls this was done from the perspective of “We will make our brothers Christian again!” All jocists were thus meant to act as leaders who influenced their “milieu”? Some leaders simply stayed silent. It was a difficult time that often ended the meeting badly…
… Until the day that a militant in one section spontaneously decided to report not facts of influence but facts of life in which he had discovered the wealth of the worker milieu, the workshop of his workmates in his neighbourhood and even in his own family, which was actually quite proletarian and not at all “Christian.”
A few souvenirs to illustrate this, souvenirs that I remember well because I have so often cited them already!
This young guy had studied at a technical school and had a genuine qualification. He was working in a clockmaker’s workshop. He saw a young kid who was having a hard time at work, doing filing. He thought of going to help him but, to do that, he had to stop what he was doing, leave his place, clean his hands, etc. And while he was hesitating, a comrade beat,the greatest bum in the workplace, beat him to it,” he emphasised. What a lesson that was!
One day, returning home at midday, the road was being repaired in front of his house and a few workers were spreading tar. There was a detour for heavy trucks but it was a difficult detour with a hairpin bend. A truck arrived that wanted to keep going ahead… on the freshly laid tar leading to an altercation. The truck started to move and one of the workers blocked it with his body risking his own life.. Respect for good work!
In November, he announced that “my father had attended All Saints Mass” (like people go to Easter Mass). This was a surprise since we knew that his father did not practise his faith at all! But, no, his father did not go to confession or to communion. No, he didn’t go to church or even to the cemetery… However, at home he switched his radio from all kinds of music and light songs and only listened to serious programs! That was his All Saints!
Facts like this, shared at the end of the meeting, changed the climate, lightened the atmosphere and gave us wings to return to everyday “militant” life.
It was a change of perspective that bore great fruit before it ever justified its inspiration. Instead of reflecting on oneself, a person discovered the wealth of his milieu of life. It provided a different perspective that in turn led to another approach that was more genuine and realistic. It spread like wildfire from section to section after that leader became a regional leader.
This was the leader who criticised the term “review of influence” and began to speak of “review of life. Thus, the review of life was not a “method” conceived at the summit by informed educators and proposed by the movement but an inspiration from the grassroots, born from the experience of militant, apostolic life. And we can date its birth to 1936.
— But how could such a personal and local experience have such a broad impact to the extent that the “review of life” has since become a commonplace?
— That’s the benefit of an organised, let’s say organic, movement like the YCW.
First, the experience was the object of a long maturation process at federal and diocesan level. It did not take hold initially, far from it. It was the subject of opposition, particularly from chaplains. It was at odds with sound doctrine. After all, what could believers learn from unbelievers?
I also had to convert myself to the process in order to learn from the worker world and benefit from its wealth.
It was here that I discovered that the lay apostolate could also teach us priests something. I would go as far as saying that I was formed in the school of that militant who became a federal leader and eventually president of his local federation. My responsibility was actually to share with him. I would even spend whole Saturday afternoons with with every fortnight.
It was a genuine sharing in which I learned what we would today call the autonomy of the apostolic laity, not just the autonomy of the lay person in his temporal commitment, which is accepted, but his autonomy in apostolic action and even in the expression of his Christian faith.
— Could you provide a few concrete examples of that?
— I will quote a few reflections such as these. “The imitation of Christ… that says nothing to me. Christ is not beside me for me to lean on him and for me to imitate him, Christ is in me.” “Christ is in our mates.”
Holding his “review of life” notebook, he said: “This is the four Gospels in one.” (At the time, there was a book on sale in bookshops that comprised the four Gospels). He often spoke in paradoxes. “We are poor people, the wealth of the masses.”
I particularly remember one retreat for trainee teachers – students at a teachers’ college. Prior to the war, it was a real seminary for militant secularism – Christians found themselves in an uncomfortable missionary position.
The students wanted to understand the Jocist experience and invited the federal president to come and spend an evening with them. The latter began by asking questions. “What do you think a Jocist is?” And by a series of questions, he obtained answers from them enabling him to provide a positive identity photo of a militant based on the YCW slogan, “We will remake Christians of our brothers.”
Then after a long silence and an offended look, he said: “Actually, no, that’s not it at all! Jocists are poor guys who place themselves in the school of the masses to meet the Lord there.” And to gather facts in abundance with the joy of a harvester.
At the end of that “historic” evening in which the disconcerted retreatants sought to get back their breath, three of us priests had stayed up till late that night to examine the paradox. I had to have a deep understanding of that adventurous Jocist leader in order to make myself the guarantor of his approach as a lived apostolic and spiritual experience.
Locally at least, the experience grew stronger, morale was regained both in the local sections as well as in the federal committee with a YCW that was present everywhere both in worker action as well as at the conscripts’ ball.
— And beginning from that, how did this inspiration spread?
— That local maturity had a broader impact through chaplains’ meetings, at least as I saw it! First, there was a regional session in Franche-Comté, where Canon Charles Bordet, the assistant chaplain and friend of Fr Guérin, was literally won over. The sessions that then followed throughout France had an insistent echo of this change of perspective. The review of life supplanted the review of influence. The “wealth of the masses” became a slogan that became popular throughout the movement prior to the war.
Nevertheless, it took time for the process to spread. Having become a fulltime YCW worker on the eve of the war, our adventurer did not meet with the agreement he had counted on from the General Secretariat, with the exception of Fr Guérin and the chaplains.
In any event, the war was not able to prevent the taste for the review of life that was developing based on a better oriented perspective. I remember militant sessions in 1940, following the debacle, in a France that was cut in two by the line of demarcation.
Demobilised at Castres, as a first step, I had rejoined the Secretariat General in the South Zone at Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon. From autumn, sessions were held at Limoges, Grenoble and Annecy.
A session for chaplains was held at Lyon, where Frs Dewitte and Bordet asked me to speak about the review of life. I spoke briefly on the doctrinal basis of the process to the point of embarrassing those who had placed confidence in me. Nevertheless, it showed that momentum was growing and research under way.
Providence spared me some time for reflection. Returning to my diocese during the occupation and called upon by Fr Guérin to take up regional responsibility, my health faltered as I rode by bike and raced the clock to catch trains since there was no more petrol for cars! Times had changed!
Promoted to become a country parish priest in Haute-Saône, I was thus granted a double sabbatical year as the pastor of 250 parishioners in two villages, of whom just a third were practising. I brought the same “apostolic” process that I had learned in the YCW to my ministry, this time in the rural world. It provided me with two years of discoveries and great memories.
My parishioners were not insensitive to the unusual approach of their parish priest. I noticed this during a visit by a Jocist leader, seeking supplies, who spent the whole day travelling through the village to find eggs. At midday, he returned to the presbytery and reported to me as a compliment the following statement from the mother of a prisoner who I had never seen at the church: “Oh, our parish priest, it’s all the same to him whether we practise or not!” At the time, I was quick to respond: “Don’t ever tell that to the archbishop!”
We had another different visit, this time by Fr Henri Godin, who was originally from a neighbouring village, Audeux, and who had come directly from the General Secretariat, where Fr Guérin had appointed him as federal chaplain to North Paris. He had already published several small books of Gospel meditations which experienced great success among the chaplains and militants. It was a great day of sharing in intimate friendship.
There was another visit, this time from Fr Guérin himself. He came to ask me to give a talk at the chaplains’ meeting that was to take place at Avenue Reille, Paris, in September 1943 with the federal chaplains from the whole of France. The demarcation line no longer existed following the generalised occupation that had occurred after the Allied landing in Africa.
It was a matter of describing “the fundamental method” of the YCW from this perspective: “Beginning with the resources of the masses in order to promote Christian action.” The advantage of this title is worth noting.
In fact, it was a matter of nothing less than a reflective testimony drawing on doctrine on the review of life. It was an audacious adventure that I did not turn down. The whole of my talk appeared in the first issue of Masses Ouvrières in 1944, a non-numbered edition that was published prior to the first issue of the magazine.1 Moreover, it caused me quite a bit of trouble that I later wrote about in the 300th issue of the magazine.
— Could you explain those difficulties for me? What was the climate of the time and did they also have an impact during your long career as a bishop?
— That text was included in my dossier by a censor concerned about my doctrine when I was nominated to become a bishop. That dossier, evidently, followed me throughout what you call my “career” and prevented me from being appointed as a diocesan bishop on several occasions.
This story is so picturesque that it’s worth interrupting our dialogue for a moment. The censor was from the same religious family as Fr Teilhard de Chardin. Was this the reason that he saw a connection between my doctrine and that of the eminent Jesuit?
In any event, the fact was that I was imprudent if not impudent enough to use the term “milieu” in relation to the Trinity, which was obviously a reference to Teilhard’s book “Le Milieu Divin” (The Divine Milieu), a book that was circulating in polycopied format at that time without approval by the Magisterium.
However, in reality, I simply wanted to draw a link between person and milieu of life for the formation of militants and Persons and Trinitarian milieu, a link defining the Divine Person as subsistent relationships within the Unity of nature. In fact, it was Maurice Zundel who had inspired me, not Teilhard de Chardin! However, all this honourable company did not displease me! They saved me from formidable responsibilities and from my eventual subjection to a poorly fitting yoke.
However, if you agree, let’s return to the September 1943 training sesion at Avenue Reille.
My talk, which was actually attended by Cardinal Suhard, was not followed by any discussion with an intervention by the cardinal at the end of the session taking its place.
Curiously, however, the question came back the next day. A professor from the new seminary of the Mission de France, which was being launched at Lisieux, was giving a talk on a current issue.
The issue was how to find a balance between prayer and action among overworked Jocist chaplains. Beginning with the book by Dom Chautard, L’Ame de tout apostolat (The Soul of the Apostolate), that debate, which is still current, found itself on a path very distant from its finish line. The Mission de France, with its baptismal grace, was looking for a solution. However, the talk left the audience unsatisfied. And discussion languished until until midday.
With my rank of country parish priest, I hesitated to mention what I knew. Eventually, however, as Fr Guérin rose to close the session, I asked for the floor. My conviction had been strengthened recently during a retreat that I had done at the Acey Trappist Abbey where I had found an enlightening little book by a Trappist, Fr de Besse on “Praying the faith.”
Action and contemplation were in fact so well linked in that book my reflection to the point that I realised that he had described the review of life! Based on this testimony, I intervened expressing surprise that none of the illustrious chaplains present had offered the review of life as a solution to the issue raised. In the space a few words, I placed the review of life in this perspective.
The session ended in a bit of a stir and I was asked by several of those present to hold an improvised session after the meal… in the Montsouris Park!
To my mind, that year 1943 marks the irreversible adhesion of the YCW to the review of life, as an expression of its missionary approach. It was much more than a “fundamental method,” or a doctrine that needed to be submitted to theological agreement. Rather it was subject to a faith perspective, a meeting of the Lord in the work of Salvation in the world acting in the hearts of all people.
1Magazine published by the national chaplaincies of the JOC-JOCF and ACO. See page 101.
SOURCE (ORIGINAL FRENCH VERSION)
Georges Béjot, The Review of Life (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)