Yves Congar and the priesthood of the faithful

Twenty-five years this week since the death of the Dominican theologian, Yves Congar on 24 June 1995! 

Although I was studying canon law in Paris at that time, I unfortunately could not go to his funeral. Just a few months earlier, however, I did attend the ceremony at which, seated in a wheelchair, he received his red cardinal’s hat from Dutch Cardinal Jan Willebrands.

Unusually, the service took place not in Rome but at the St Louis des Invalides Cathedral in Paris since Congar was too frail to travel. A former World War II prisoner of war who was then 90, he had already been ill for many years and was living at the Military Hospital near the cathedral.

Afterwards, I made enquiries about meeting Congar but by that time he was unable to receive visitors. Nearly, 20 years later, however, while researching my PhD thesis, I was finally able to “meet” him and learn more about his links to Cardijn and the JOC through his archives located at the Dominican convent in Paris known as Le Saulchoir.

As a young friar, Congar had in fact studied and taught at Le Saulchoir, which was then located at Kain across the border from Lille and not far from Tournai in Belgium.

Along with Marie-Dominique Chenu, he became one of a whole generation of Dominicans who worked closely with the emerging JOC, giving regular retreats to young lay leaders as well as chaplains.

It was this experience, which he regarded as “decisive” in his orientation as a priest and theologian, that inspired him to take up research and study into the role and position of lay people in the Church.

The most famous of his works in this field was “Jalons pour une théologie du laïcat,” the first edition of which was published in 1953 at a time when Congar’s writings were facing growing suspicion from Church authorities in Rome. In 1957, Bloomsbury published an English translation of this under the title “Lay People in the Church.”

An expanded second edition was published in French in 1961 just in time for Vatican II and in English translation in 1965.

I first read “Lay People in the Church” in about 1980 as a young YCW fulltimer worker in Melbourne. Frankly, I didn’t delve very far into its theology, which seemed far too abstract and distant from YCW work at the grassroots!

However, it did lead me to one “discovery”! The first three chapters of Part II of the book are organised around the tria munera, namely the “threefold office of Christ” as priest, king and prophet, a concept which features prominently in the Vatican II documents, which specifically endorse the notion that lay people also share in these tasks through the “priesthood of the faithful,” i.e. by baptism.

The chapters are entitled:

Chapter IV: The laity and the Church’s priestly function

Chapter V: The laity and the Church’s kingly function

Chapter VI: The laity and the Church’s prophetic function.

Congar was certainly not the first theologian to investigate the tria munera in relation to the priesthood of the faithful and the role of lay people.

Indeed, he expressly drew on the work of Paul Dabin, a Belgian Jesuit, whose book “Le Sacerdoce Royal des Fidèles” (The Royal Priesthood of the Faithful) was (posthumously) published in 1950. Dabin, who was one of a whole generation of Belgian Jesuits who had been inspired by and/or helped promote the early JOC, had in fact written extensively on the lay apostolate and Catholic Action.

He also closely studied many German Protestant theologians, who had already developed a theology of the priesthood of the faithful in the wake of the Reformation.

Closer to Vatican II, another jocist bishop, Mgr Emile-Joseph De Smedt of Bruges, had also published a 1961 pastoral letter entitled “Le Sacerdoce des Fidèles,” again with an eye on the forthcoming Second Vatican Council. This was published in English in 1963 as “The Priesthood of the Faithful.”

All these works had a significant influence on the course of Vatican II And we can see the results in the conciliar documents, e.g. Lumen Gentium §10 and Apostolicam Actuositatem §3.

Nevertheless, it was from Congar that I first learned of and began to appreciate the way in which the JOC embodied the concept of the priesthood of the faithful in its method.

In fact, it was in reading “Lay People in the Church” that I realised that the iconic JOC expression “Educate, Serve and Represent” is in fact based on the tria munera.

Thus, a prophet educates the people, a priest mediates on behalf of or represents the people and a king serves his people.

In consequence, the JOC was, as Cardijn memorably expressed it in 1935, “an organisation which is at once and inseparably a school, a service, a representative body.”

As usual, however, Cardijn never (to my knowledge) explicitly acknowledges the link between his “educate, serve, represent” formula and the tria munera. Focused as always on the young workers who were his audience, he left the task of expressing the lay apostolate in more theological language to those who were experts in that domain, a field in which Yves Congar excelled.

Stefan Gigacz


Yves Congar (Wikipedia)

Yves-Marie-Joseph Cardinal Congar (Catholic Hierarchy)

Le Saulchoir (Wikipedia)

Joseph Cardijn, The Three Truths (josephcardijn.com)

Stefan Gigacz, Congar and Cardijn: A long collaboration (Cardijn Research)

Gigacz, Stefan Robert (2017) Cardijn and Congar at Vatican II. Interface Theology, 3 (1). pp. 31-67. ISSN 978-1-925679-19-9.

Stefan Gigacz, Cardijn’s Christian Dialectic, Chapter 3 in The Leaven in the Council: Joseph Cardijn and the Jocist Network at Vatican II (University of Divinity) (Search “Congar” for his role in the Cardijn network.)

Stefan Gigacz, The Leaven in the Council (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library/Australian Cardijn Institute)


Dominican Archives Paris / Wikipedia / Public Domain