Celebrating Mass at our workbenches with Oscar Romero

“How beautiful will be the day when all the baptised understand that their work, their job, is a priestly work, that just as I celebrate Mass at this altar, so each carpenter celebrates Mass at his workbench, and each metalworker, each professional, each doctor with the scalpel, the market woman at her stand, is performing a priestly office!”

This was the preaching Saint Oscar Romero in a 1977 homily cited recently by Daniel P. Horan.

“How beautiful will be the day when all the baptised understand that their work, their job, is a priestly work, that just as I celebrate Mass at this altar, so each carpenter celebrates Mass at his workbench, and each metalworker, each professional, each doctor with the scalpel, the market woman at her stand, is performing a priestly office!”

This was the preaching Saint Oscar Romero in a 1977 homily cited recently by Daniel P. Horan.

It is impossible here to overlook the uncanny similarity of Archbishop Romero’s words with those repeated on so many occasions by YCW founder, Joseph Cardijn, who in 1933 explained the objective of YCW formation as follows:

“Leur vie de travail et toute leur vie journalière doit devenir une prière, une Messe, une Communion prolongées, de manière qu’ils y deviennent prêtres et hosties avec l’unique Prêtre et l’Unique Hostie, offrant ‘par Lui, avec Lui et en Lui,’ l’hommage de toute leur vie à la glorification de la Très Sainte Trinité.

“Ainsi leur banc, leur tour, leur métier, leur table de travail devient un autel sur lequel ils offrent leur sacrifice uni à celui de leur Rédempteur, participant ainsi véritablement au Sacerdoce Royal dont ils sont conscients.

English translation:

“Their (i.e. the young workers’) working life and the whole of their daily life must become a prayer, a Mass, a prolonged Communion, so that they become priests and hosts with the one Priest and the One Host, offering ‘through Him, with Him and in Him,’ the homage of their whole life to the glorification of the Most Holy Trinity.

“Thus their bench, their shift, their profession, their work bench becomes an altar on which they offer their sacrifice united to that of their Redeemer, thus participating truly in the Royal Priesthood of which they are aware.”

Six years later, in 1939, Cardijn’s assistant, Fr Robert Kothen, took up the same theme in almost identical fashion:

“The table, the dwelling, the work-bench, must become the altar upon which the working class offers the sacrifice of its toil by uniting itself to the Eucharistic Sacrifice of Christ the Worker.”

After World War II, Cardijn continued to proclaim this Eucharistic ideal. The YCW stood for “an ideal of life and environment,” he stated in a 1945 speech, “A YCW of the masses to the scale of the world.”

“The factory was not a brothel, but a temple,” he continued. “The workbench, the lathe become an altar on which this lay priesthood prolongs the sacrifice of the Mass.

“In receiving the Host which we offer, we consecrate, we transform into the very Saviour of the working class, all the workers unite themselves to Him so as to create, in their environment of work, the mystic Christ who, by His labours and sacrifices, continues the work of redemption.

“Without work, there can be no host, no chalice, no altar stone, no priestly vestments; without work, there can be no churches, no religion, no worker’s family to give to the Church the priests, the missionaries, the apostles she needs, for those who tomorrow will exercise that irreplaceable complementary apostolate without which she cannot fulfil her mission,” Cardijn concluded.

By now the notion of the workbench as the worker’s altar had become a principal theme in many of Cardijn’s talks, a theme that he would continue to develop over the course of 24 intercontinental voyages that would take him to every continent between 1946 and 1967.

One of those early voyages in 1948 in fact took him to El Salvador, where young Fr Oscar Romero was now serving as a parish priest in the eastern diocese of San Miguel and soon to become a seminary professor in the city of San Salvador.

Whether Fr Romero (again) heard Cardijn speak we do not know for certain. What is clear, however, is that Cardijn’s visit was big news for the local Church as it was for every city and country that the YCW chaplain visited during that period.

Moreover, Romero clearly absorbed Cardijn’s teaching to the point of systematically organising his homilies in the form of Cardijn’s see-judge-act and there is every likelihood he promoted it in the “apostolic groups” he organised in his parish.

And Cardijn repeated the same idea in a 1951 article later incorporated into his 1963 book, “Laïcs en premières lignes,” translated in 1964 as “Laymen into Action” (and republished more recently as “Laypeople into action.”

The lay apostolate, Cardijn wrote, “is an indispensable complement to the priestly apostolate, which can only achieve its end fully and completely if laymen are faithful to their own apostolate.”

“When this happens, the Mass offered by the priest at the altar will become a Mass prolonged on all those altars of secular life: the worktable, the loom, the lathe, the joiner’s bench, the typist’s desk,” he continued in words that unmistakably foreshadow those of Romero.

Vatican II

Meanwhile, Cardijn kept hammering his workbench as altar theme, eventually incorporating it into his 1963 book, “Laïcs en premières lignes” (English title: Lay people into Action), published during the Second Vatican Council.

The lay apostolate, Cardijn wrote in that book, “is an indispensable complement to the priestly apostolate, which can only achieve its end fully and completely if laymen are faithful to their own apostolate.”

“When this happens, the Mass offered by the priest at the altar will become a Mass prolonged on all those altars of secular life: the worktable, the loom, the lathe, the joiner’s bench, the typist’s desk,” he continued in words that unmistakably foreshadow those of Romero, who perhaps read the Spanish edition published in 1965.

Australia

Indeed, this whole notion of the workbench as altar and the Eucharist as a prolongation of human work was fundamental to Cardijn’s theology of work.

“No food without work! No housing without work! No Church without work! No Mass without work!” Cardijn told a large crowd the Catholic Social Week in Ballarat in 1966.

“Yesterday the Melbourne YCW organised an open-air rally,” he noted. “The Auxiliary Bishop was there to celebrate Mass. But there was no table. And then, before thousands and thousands of young people and adult people, two carpenters came with wood and made the table; and then two girls came with the linen and covered the table with linen; and then other workers with candles; and then the printers with the Mass book; and then some farm-workers came with the wine and bread; and then some workers with ornaments for the Bishop. All workers! And without that work, no Mass!

“And then the Bishop put on his vestments, and Mass began. And then during the offertory, with all the you no workers, he offered, with the bread and with the wine, the work of humanity. And that work of humanity was consecrated by Christ to become more and more the food of humanity, the spiritual food, the intellectual food, the material food.

“Without work, no food, no intellectual food, no university,” he concluded.

Influence

Indeed, this whole notion of the workbench as altar was fundamental to Cardijn’s developing theology of work, as pointed out by British theologian Patricia Kelly in a 2013 article.

Others also followed Cardijn’s example, beginning with his assistant chaplain, Robert Kothen, would take up the same idea in almost identical words:

“The table, the dwelling, the work-bench, must become the altar upon which the working class offers the sacrifice of its toil by uniting itself to the Eucharistic Sacrifice of Christ the Worker.”

How to doubt then that Romero, who also systematically organised his homilies in the form of the see-judge-act, was once again channeling Cardijn?

As the Australian Plenary Council draws near, Cardijn and Romero’s theology of human work may also provide a useful starting point for deepening our reflection on the Church’s mission and contribution to society.

Stefan Gigacz

(Article updated 24 March 2021)

SOURCES AND REFERENCES

Daniel P. Horan, US bishops could learn a lot from St. Óscar Romero (National Catholic Reporter)

Joseph Cardijn, La formation eucharistique de jeunes travailleurs (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Joseph Cardijn, A YCW of the masses to the scale of the world (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Joseph Cardijn, Laypeople into action (ATF Press)

Robert Kothen, The Young Christian Workers (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Patricia Kelly, The workbench is your altar (2013, International Eucharistic Congress 2012. Proceedings of the International Symposium of Theology/Academia)

Stefan Gigacz, Blessed Oscar Romero and the See, Judge, Act (Cardijn Research)

Stefan Gigacz, Rutilio Grande: The Cardijn priest who ‘converted’ Archbishop Romero (Cardijn Research)

St Oscar Romero (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

IMAGE

Giovani Ascencio Ardón y Raul Lemus- Grupo Cinteupiltzin CENAR El Salvador / Wikipedia / CCA BYA SA 3.0


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