René Rémond and the influence of the JEC-YCS

It’s often very difficult to measure the social impact of a movement, including movements like the YCW or the YCS.

However, in this interview with Aimé Savard, the late French political analyst and historian as well as member of the Académie Française, René Rémond, (French version) offers some insight into the way the French JEC (YCS – Young Christian Students) transformed his own outlook relative to the conservative environment in which he grew up.

During the 1930s, there was a kind of war of religion inside Catholicism between those who were close to the positions of the Action Française or – and it was not necessarily synonymous – of a nationalist, conservative and patriotic Right, and others who were trying to explore newer paths of a Catholicism more open at the level of international relations.

Q: Bathed very early in this ambiance, thanks to the YCS, were you always considered as belonging to a certain camp, as being from one side?

Yes. But without that experience, who knows if I would not have found it natural to line up in the camp that was more faithful to traditional positions, at least from the point of view of moral values rather than social engagements? Thanks to the YCS, my adolescence was a little bit in rupture with what remained what still remained dominant in Catholicism. The official positions – those of Pius XI or those of the ACJF (French Catholic Youth Association) – were marginal with respect to a clergy that evolved slowly. The attitude of the bishops changed more quickly than that of the clergy through the initiative of the pope. A Cardinal Liénart and others were in the process of transforming the episcopacy from the inside. However, I often felt myself in rupture – let’s say more in disagreement – with the vocabulary, the sentiments, the ideas that were transmitted in so many sermons. I remember my irritation in an upright and conformist quite comfortably off parish, where the faithful belonged to those who used to be called the ruling classes.”

I suspect that there are many more not only in France but around the world who underwent similar or even greater transformations.

Indeed, as a young priest, the renowned Brazilian Bishop Helder Camara belonged to a Brazilian movement that was very close to the positions of the Action Française. Camara, who was also an early YCW chaplain in Brazil and became a great disciple of Cardijn, says that he underwent a conversion experience that seems linked to his involvement in Catholic Action.

Similarly, the great Vatican II theologian Yves Congar, and, I believe, many others.

It is interesting also to note that during the 1930s, according to René Rémond, people saw Pius XI as a progressive figure. A good example of how necessary it is to understand people within the context of their own era!

Lastly, also significant to note the transformative role among the French bishops played by Cardinal Achille Liénart, known as the “red bishop” of Lille for his support for workers, and also a pioneer YCW chaplain before becoming bishop. It was also Liénart in the first actual meeting of session of Vatican II, who moved to suspend the vote on membership of the various conciliar commissions that were to be established. It was this intervention that wrested the initiative from the Roman curia, who thought they had the Council wrapped up, and handed the power over to the bishops 

PS: And here’s the original French version of the Rémond interview:

Dans les années 30, il y avait une espèce de guerre de religion à l’intérieur du catholicisme entre ceux qui étaient proches des positions de l’Action Française ou — ce n’était pas nécessairement synonyme — d’une droite nationaliste, conservatrice et patriote, et d’autres qui tentaient d’explorer les voies plus neuves d’un catholicisme ouvert au plan des relations internationales.

Baignant très tôt dans cette ambiance, grâce à la J.E.C., vous vous êtes donc toujours considéré comme appartenant à un certain camp, comme étant d’un côté ?

Oui. Mais sans cette expérience, qui sait si je n’aurais pas trouvé naturel de me ranger dans le camp d’une certaine fidélité à des positions traditionnelles, du moins du point de vue des valeurs morales, plus que dans celui des engagements sociaux ? Grâce à la J.E.C., mon adolescence s’est trouvée un peu en rupture avec ce qui demeurait dominant dans le catholicisme. Les positions officielles — celles de Pie XI ou celles de l’A.C.J.F. — étaient marginales, en effet, par rapport à un clergé qui évoluait lentement. L’attitude des évêques se modifiait plus vite que celle du clergé, par l’initiative du pape. Un cardinal Liénart et d’autres étaient en train de transformer l’épiscopat de l’intérieur. Mais je me sentais souvent en rupture — disons plutôt en désaccord — avec le vocabulaire, les sentiments, les idées que véhiculaient tant de sermons. Je me souviens de mon irritation dans une paroisse bien pensante et conformiste, assez aisée, où les fidèles appartenaient à ce que l’on appelait les classes dirigeantes.

Stefan Gigacz



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