France, Belgium, Chile – a web of influence

One of the most famous Catholic books of the 20th century, France, pays de mission? created a sensation when it was first published at Lyons in wartime France in September 1943. Its authors were two JOC chaplains, Henri Godin and Yvan Daniel and it had a preface from French national chaplain, Georges Guérin.

Filled with statistics, the book showed how the existing structures of the French church had caused it to lose touch with the people, in particular working class people.

The book was one of the principal factors that led to the expansion of the worker priest movement, which in turn led to the creation of the Mission de France, a prelature or kind of trans-territorial diocese for priests who would become “missionaries” inside France.

So it’s a little intriguing to discover that just two years earlier, Saint Alberto Hurtado, the recently canonised Chilean worker advocate as well as another priest greatly influenced by Cardijn, had published a book similarly entitled Es Chile un país católico?, or Is Chile a Catholic country?

According to Wikipedia, “the book published statistics revealing a lack of priests assigned to the working class and rural populations, including detailing parishes that had 10,000 laypeople assigned for one priest covering huge geographic areas. His solution was to increase and better educate the clergy, however, this never came to be.”

In other words, a very similar sociological approach to that taken by Godin and Daniel. Which raises the question: Is there any link between the two books?

One certain connection is the fact that the authors were all trained in sociology, a rising discipline in Catholic universities and seminaries during this period.

It also turns out as early as September 1926, a certain J. Dassonville had already published an article in the Jesuit social action publication Dossiers de l’Action Populaire which already bore the title “France pays de mission” (without the question mark however). Significantly, it was also through the pages of these Dossiers that the JOC first became widely known in France after an article La Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne en Belgique was published on 10 March 1927.)

According to Dassonville, “il est évident que l’évaluation de la France catholique à 36 millions de croyants, ne reste sur aucun fondement. Y-a-t-il seulement 36 millions de baptisés?” 

Translation: “It is clear that the evaluation of Catholic France at 36 million believers has no foundation. Are there simply 36 million baptised?”

Dassonville also quotes Léon Harmel, another of Cardijn’s mentors:

“Léon Harmel se scandalisait et se désolait de constater que ce siècle, Le XIXe, était le premier où les pauvres soient contre l’Eglise”.


“Leon Harmel was scandalised and devastated to note that this century, the 19th, was the first where the poor were against the Church.

He adds:

“Si l’on a pu voir, en 1848, des prêtres et des évêques bénir des arbres de la liberté, le socialisme et le communisme d’aujourd’hui sont violemment antireligieux.”


“Whereas in 1848, there were priests and bishops who blessed the trees of liberty, the socialism and communism of today are violently anti-religious.”

In any case, it’s very clear that Dassonville’s sociological approach is very similar to that of Godin, Daniel and Hurtado.

And it also turns out that Fr Dassonville had been stationed at Hautmont, a Jesuit centre in Roubaix, near Lille, on the French-Belgian border, one of the birthplaces of the French JOC, where Canon (and future Cardinal) Achille Liénart was chaplain. (And Godin also studied in Lille.)

It even happens that Hautmont is located right next to the Collège Maxence Van Der Meersch, named for the author who wrote a famous novel on the JOC, Fishers of Men (Pêcheurs d’hommes).

Seventy years before the World Wide Web and ninety years before Facebook, it’s amazing to discover how connected these social activists all were – from Belgium and France to Chile and beyond.

Stefan Gigacz