Current Issue #488

Modern Times: French priests could show politicians the way to voters’ hearts

Modern Times: French priests could show politicians the way to voters’ hearts

With public trust and confidence in politics at a low ebb, politicians could reverse that trend by working more deeply within their communities, says Andrew Hunter.

Representatives photographed in the local pub or going for a walk in a tracksuit can give the appearance of the everyday, but, for many voters, the corridors of power of our democracy appear very distant to everyday lives. And if voters see the lives of politicians as being distant from their own, trust that public policy reflects an understanding of everyday lives is diminished.

For a decade between 1944 and 1954, some of the most decorated priests in France worked as manual laborers. The worker-priest experiment was ultimately ended by orders of the Church, which was concerned by the increasingly politicised lives of the worker-priests. But the insights of those priests who participated in this initiative remain valid, and recall the distance between workers in modern Australian society and those who represent them in the cathedral of our democracy: parliament.

The chronicles of this decade-long experiment make for fascinating reading. One account of this period described how, little by little, the “slow, mounting indignation of weary bodies, air-starved lungs, unquiet nights…” penetrated the souls of the worker-priests. Ecclesiastics may only be interested in the transformation of the soul, but many worker-priests became preoccupied with the emancipation of the workers with whom they lived.

The era of the worker-priests coincided with a relative decline in power of the Church. Universal education eroded the monopoly of the clergy as the education class and fount of knowledge. This placed them in a privileged position that was eroded as the communities to whom they were ministering became more educated. The worker-priest experiment signalled a revolutionary approach in which the labouring class educated the clergy in life’s realities.

One worker-priest described how he came to see that everything around him — the paving stones, the drains, the clothes, the aeroplanes that flew overhead — boiled down to labour. He expressed his desire to give the world “a beauty that matched the hard work”.

This is a penetrating sentiment worthy of our attention today. Is public policy best designed to enhance productivity, or to bring beauty to the lives of the masses? For the work of the people to benefit society, it must surely bring beauty to the lives of all people.

In the year of my birth, the Parliamentary Labor Party included three farmers, three academics, four medical practitioners, five tradesmen and five teachers, as well as a journalist, merchant marine officer and a shearer, Mick Young, who represented Port Adelaide. Politicians who enter parliament today come from a narrower set of fields, with less experience working alongside the constituents they were elected to represent.

In this context, it is important that their lives remain intertwined with those of fellow community members. Such immersion in community life requires more than appearances at disparate community events, important as that is. Drinking at the local pub, participating in the life of the local sporting club, shopping where your neighbours shop, makes for more active and informed political representation. Though members of the government’s executive invariably work incredible hours in address of their portfolios, active engagement in the community remains a natural part of life for some. For others, it never was to begin with; engagement in the community is endured for the sake of appearances.

A worker-priest wrote to a bishop of Limoges in the early 1950s that he had to live the aspirations of the proletariat “so as to make them truly our own, along with its fatigues, its humiliations, its struggles, its oppressions, its splendours”. It is important for the political class and the bureaucrats who serve them, as well as the commentariat and intelligentsia, to remain steadfastly connected with the people who have most at stake in the legislation passed in our parliament. It is the path to true representation and comprehension.

The worker-priests may have compromised the role of the priesthood as it was traditionally understood. Once confronted with the realities of working life, they worked with considerable energy to destroy the social and economic imbalances they experienced firsthand. Their politics was inspired by religious motives, as well as reason. Experience of modern realities in communities on the fringes of Australian society could deliver a similar epiphany.


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