Pietralata: The forgotten Mass and Message

If the Mass for the Poor and Pact of the (Domitilla) Catacombs have remained largely forgotten until recently – at least outside Latin America, Cardijn’s Worker Mass and corresponding Message, which took place at St Michael Archangel Church in Rome’s working class Pietralata neighbourhood on 17 November 1965, have languished in even greater obscurity.

(See Helder Camara’s original proposal for two masses here: Cardijn Camara and the Pact of the Catacombs)

Held on the eve of promulgation of the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, for which Cardijn and many other JOC and Specialised Catholic Action chaplains had laboured for so long, the Message adopted by the participants naturally focused on the lay apostolate, in particular of workers.

Prior to the Mass, the 20-odd bishops, most if not all of whom were former JOC chaplains, met to discuss a short draft text of what would become the Pietralata Message.

After amendments were sent to Archbishop José Tavora, a former Brazilian JOC national chaplain, who had worked closely with Cardijn throughout the Council, the message was finalised the following day.

Read the full final text here:



A conscious and responsible laity

It begins with an explanation of the event and the message:

“[W]e met together as several bishops – former jocist chaplains, representing some sixty Council Fathers from five continents, gathered around Cardinal CARDIJN in the Church of St Michael, the worker parish of Pietralata in the suburbs of Rome for a Eucharistic concelebration in thanksgiving for the forty years of apostolic action of the JOC.

“Having shared the toil of the bishops of the whole world during the Second Vatican Council, we now address ourselves with confidence to them in order to associate them in our joy and to express our pastoral hopes.”

These hopes evidently revolved around the promotion of the lay apostolate, particularly among workers:

“Our joy, as jocist chaplains, is to have discovered the extent to which lay people are keen to understand their own proper role in the world as sons of the Church and how much they wish to show themselves capable of assuming their apostolic responsibilities among their brothers.

“Our hope is that all our brothers in the episcopate will become increasingly conscious of the possibilities of the laity, and in particular the worker laity, hope of the Church at the heart of the world today.”

Here, the Pietralata bishops appear to be echoing §1 of Apostolicam Actuositatem itself, which notes that:

“An indication of this manifold and pressing need [for the lay apostolate] is the unmistakable work being done today by the Holy Spirit in making the laity ever more conscious of their own responsibility and encouraging them to serve Christ and the Church in all circumstances.”

As we have seen in previous blog posts, this in turned echoed  the Sillon definition of democracy as the social system that tended “to maximise the civic conscience/consciousness and responsibility of (everyone).” See Sillon founder Marc Sangnier’s 1906 article explaining this definition: 

Christianisme et Démocratie

Indeed, Cardijn, in his first speech to the Council on religious liberty just a few weeks earlier had himself articulated his intervention in a similar way.

Religious freedom is “not an end in itself” but “a necessary means for education in liberty in its fullest sense, which leads to interior liberty, or liberty of the soul by which a man becomes an autonomous being, responsible before society and God, ready if necessary to obey God rather than men,” he told the Council on 20 September 1965.

“This interior freedom, even if it exists in germ as a natural gift in every human creature, requires a long education which can be summarised in three words: see, judge and act,” he continued.

And this was central to the work of Cardijn’s lifetime of work with the JOC:

“If, thanks be to God, my sixty years of apostolate have not been in vain, it is because I have never wanted young people to live in shelter from dangers, cut off from the milieu of their life and work,” he added.

“Rather I have shown confidence in their freedom in order to better educate that freedom. I helped them to see, judge and act by themselves, by undertaking social and cultural action themselves, freely obeying authorities in order to become adult witnesses of Christ and the Gospel, conscious of being responsible for their sisters and brothers in the whole world.”

Moreover, in a paragraph that seems directly inspired by Cardijn’s conciliar speech, §12 further expands on this point specifically in relation to young people:

“Their heightened influence in society demands of them a proportionate apostolic activity, but their natural qualities also fit them for this activity. As they become more conscious of their own personalities, they are impelled by a zest for life and a ready eagerness to assume their own responsibility, and they yearn to play their part in social and cultural life.”

The JOC and the worker milieu

With all this in mind, the Pietralata Message focused on making this real in the worker milieu, among workers, particularly young workers, and hence the need for the JOC.

Thus, the Message continued:

The popular milieux of the cities and the countryside in effect comprise the great majority of the world population.

It would be vain to insist on the particular attention that their conditions of life (low salaries, unemployment, malnutrition, illiteracy, housing) and the problems posed by urban concentrations, migrations from the rural and worker world, difficulties specific to girls and young women, as well as the uncertainties of youth before their future.

What we can attest that in the action, humble as it is, of workers, both young and adult, to deal with these situations and to attempt to resolve them, through the testimony of their love, they give their brothers in labour access to the revelation of Christ, and, through the contagion of their example, open the way of Salvation to them.

This is the specific and unceasingly renewed experience in every continent of a genuine JOC.

We wish to express our conviction to all our brothers in the episcopate that by offering the decisive support that many of them have had the opportunity of providing to the implantation of the movement in their dioceses, we dare to think that the exercise of a living collegiality will ensure its expansion, as well as that of all the movements devoted to the promotion of an apostolic laity in the midst of popular milieux. Its most immediate fruit will be to ensure to grassroots militants and to all leadership levels the assistance of the chaplains that they need for their apostolic formation and their perseverance in action.

Why were the bishops so concerned to insist on worker problems and on the need for the JOC?

Here it is significant to note that Apostolicam Actuositatem contains no reference whatsoever to “workers” in the secular or working class sense. On the contrary, §6 simply refers to “co-operators in the truth” (translated into English as “workers for the truth”) with the same term used in §33.

§13 does emphasise the need to form lay people for “a full consciousness of their role in building up society” by undertaking “their domestic, social, and professional duties with such Christian generosity that their manner of acting should gradually penetrate the whole world of life and labor.” 

And §33 adds that formation needs to “take into consideration the various types of the apostolate in the milieu where it is exercised.”

But it’s hard to avoid the impression that Apostolicam Actuositatem was reluctant to refer to a class-based milieu in the sense defended by Cardijn and the JOC. The Pietralata Message thus sought to redress this weakness in the document.

Bearing in mind the way in which many post-conciliar bishops later dropped their support for the movement, the signatories of the Pietralata Message seem to have already felt the way the winds were blowing.

The difficulties over Specialised Catholic Action

Significantly, the only French signatory of the Pietralata Message, Georges Béjot, who had been one of the earliest JOC chaplains in France and who is credited with coining the iconic term “review of life,” later describe the difficulties in making “Specialised Catholic Action” understood.

In his interview book, Un évêque à l’école de la JOC, he wrote:

“Je me souviens d’une intervention du cardinal Liénart en faveur de l’Action catholique spécialisée par milieux de vie; il s’agissait de répondre à une intervention du cardinal Suenens et, pour « faire le poids », il fallait que ce fût un cardinal français qui répondît ; de plus, le cardinal Liénart avait des convictions profondes en ce domaine. En fait, comme pour noyer le poisson, le cardinal Suenens mettait sous le nom d’Action catholique toutes les manifestations et activités des laïcs, donnant par exemple beaucoup de relief à la Légion de Marie.

“Alors le cardinal Liénart est intervenu — il en fait d’ailleurs état dans ses Mémoires — faisant valoir que l’Action catholique spécialisée était vraiment un apostolat propre au laïcat, dont on ne pouvait le déposséder ; et il fallait donc que le Concile insistât sur cette vocation des laïcs à participer à l’évangélisation du monde.

“Il n’en reste pas moins que la masse des évêques était fort étrangère à cette expérience missionnaire; c’est ce qui est apparu tout particulièrement avec l’irruption de Cardijn, devenu cardinal, au Concile.”

English translation:

“I remember an intervention by Cardinal Liénart in favour of Catholic Action specialised by life milieu; he was responding to an intervention by Cardinal Suenens and, in order “to add weight,” it had to be a French cardinal who responded; moreover, Cardinal Liénart was deeply convinced on these issues.

“In fact, as if to drown the fish, Cardinal Suenens placed under the term Catholic Action all manifestations of lay activity, e.g. highlighting the Legion of Mary.

“So Cardinal Liénart intervened – as he recalled in his memoirs, emphasising that Specialised Catholic Action was a genuine apostolate proper to lay people, who could not be dispossessed of it; and it was therefore necessary for the Council to insist on this vocation of the laity to participate in the evangelisation of the world.

“Nevertheless, it remained true that most bishops were strongly alien to this missionary experience; this became particularly clear after the appearance of Cardijn, who had become a cardinal, at the Council.”

This clearly illuminates the concerns of the signatories of the Pietralata message.

The signatories

Sadly, there seems to be no complete list of those who participated in Cardijn’s Worker Mass and/or who signed the Pietralata Message, although we do have at least a partial list compiled by Marguerite Fiévez, who identified 16 signatories.

Unsurprisingly, there are four Brazilians, Jose Vincente Tavora, João José da Mota e Albuquerque, Edmundo Kunz and Antonio Fragoso.

The other two Latin Americans were Argentine Bishop Enrique Angelelli, who was to be martyred in 1976 precisely for his defence of rural peasants and workers, and the Venezuelan Feliciano Gonzalez Asciano.

Three Canadians signed, Albert Sanschagrin OMI, who had worked for the JOC in Chile before returning home to become a bishop, Gérard Couturier of Hauterive and William E. Power, the bishop of Antigonish, the cooperative centre of the nation.

Besides Béjot, other French bishops, including Marius Maziers, who sent a letter of apology, were unable to attend owing to a national meeting of bishops that evening.

Further signatories were the German Julius Angerhausen, the Spaniard Mauro Rubio Repullés, the Syrian François Ayoub and the Madagascan future cardinal Jérôme Louis Rakotomalala.

It is notable that there was not a single Belgian signatory, not even Charles-Marie Himmer.

Angerhausen and da Mota e Albuquerque were the only two bishops to sign both the Pact of the Catacombs and the Pietralata Message.

While surprising, this is no doubt understandable given the pressures that all bishops were under as the Council reached its climax with many significant documents, including Gaudium et Spes, yet to be voted upon.

It may thus have been an error to schedule the two Masses so close together amid the tumult of those closing days of the Council.

Whatever the case, now that the Pact of the Catacombs for a Church of the Poor has achieved the spotlight, I believe that it’s now high time to remember and recognise its counterpart, the Pietralata Message for a Worker Church committed to the lay apostolate.

Stefan Gigacz


One response to “Pietralata: The forgotten Mass and Message”

  1. Ernest LUNDA Avatar

    Thanks for sharing