“Mission among the Workers,” Pedro Arrupe (1980)

In February 1980, a group of sixteen European Jesuits representing the “Mission Ouvière” (MO) met in Rome. MO members had devoted themselves to assisting workers. The meeting in Rome was intended to provide Pedro Arrupe with firsthand accounts of the conditions experienced by these workers. His remarks to the MO gathering, as appearing below, outline the group’s nature, basic characteristics, and attitudes, as Arrupe hopes that the event would, among other accomplishments, “help dissipate the cloud of vague suspicion that emanates from some quarters” about the organization.

For more sources from Arrupe, please visit The Arrupe Collection.




As I set out to write these notes on our recent meeting my first thought is the happy memory of the days we spent together. I am grateful to yon for giving me so much spiritual joy by accepting my invitation to meet in this House of the whole Society and spend two days in reflection, exchange and shared prayer. I regret only that your work commitments obliged us to have so short a meeting; by I nourish the hope that this meeting will be followed by others. I really look forward to this and have great interest in it.


Searching for the reason why I was so happy to be with you—because on the outside it was just one meeting more among the many I have with representatives of the different apostolates in which the Society is engaged—I believe I can identify two : first, the special circumstances of your mission which, while perhaps no more arduous than others carried out by so many companions in the Society, does present, as I shall explain later, certain especially problematic characteristics and, therefore, merits particular care and consideration on my part.


Secondly, and I want to be frank about this, because paradoxically—for several reasons and different people being responsible—the MO has been somewhat out on a limb and neglected. I will not be telling you anything new when I say that in some quarters—Jesuit, ecclesiastical, lay—feelings about it are more violent, both for and against, than for most other types of apostolate. This is something understandable; but there is room for much improvement, especially in favor of the MO itself. Here I think meetings like the one we have just finished can do much to bring out the authentic values of the MO and help dissipate the cloud of vague suspicion that emanates from some quarters, partly due to lack of communication and information.



1. Nature

Perhaps the first misunderstanding to be cleared up concerns the very nature of the MO. Like any other mission given by the Society, and to the extent it is given by it, the MO is a form of apostolate the Society recognizes as its own, promoting, directing and taking responsibility for it. The worker Jesuit, priest or not, is a member of the Society from whom he receives the specific mission to insert himself into the world of manual labor and carry out there an apostolic activity. Obviously this mission carries the same guarantees and conditions as any other in the Society with regard to origin, duration, dependency, disponibility, coordination, etc.


The worker Jesuit serves in a distinctive form of apostolate which has its place in the wide range of activities undertaken by the Society to serve those whom St. Ignatius referred to in general terms as “souls” and who today constitute the vast masses of men and women in the working world, in special need of understanding, promotion and evangelization. It is an advanced form of the Society’s effort to serve faith and promote justice, which our Jesuit identity requires of us and which, at different levels, inspires other social apostolates, of assistance, reflection and, to some extent, shapes all our ministries.



2. Importance

It would be a mistake to measure the importance the Society attaches to your type of apostolate by the number of Jesuits engaged in it. There are many and obvious reasons why this mission can be entrusted to no more than a well prepared minority. The MO’s importance stems from a different series of considerations.


It is a vanguard apostolate since it tries to carry the witness of manual labor to areas not penetrated by other forms of evangelization and where circumstances can even prevent or advise against any open proclamation of your task to spread the Gospel. The importance of your work from this point of view is twofold: on the one hand you are like a bridge-head to a continent still awaiting discovery; on the other your experience is of great value and should be integrated b the sum of experiences feeding the Society’s reflection and discernment at all levels.


It is an apostolate directed towards vast masses of men and women in today’s world. The universality of apostolic action is not only a question of availability to go anywhere and carry out any mission. It has a geographic and even a demographic dimension as well: large numbers should carry a proportionate weight in the Society’s planning. The Exercises and the Constitutions are built round this twofold notion of subjective and objective universality. And the Society’s history abounds, especially in its most glorious pages, in pioneer missions to huge masses of hostile or indifferent people, in full knowledge and awareness of the great disparity between means available and objectives pursued. (Counter-Reformation Europe, the 16th century missions in Africa and Asia, etc.)


It is a privileged apostolate according to Ignatian norms for the selection of ministries. No one could deny that the world of the worker, the rural or industrial proletariat, the huge numbers of hired and unskilled laborers, of immigrants, of part-time or occasional workers, of unemployed, of dropouts incapable of holding a stable job … all categories found in different degrees in every country in the world, fulfill perfectly what St. Ignatius described as the first criterion for choice of apostolate: “that part of the vineyard ought to be chosen which has greater need, because of the lack of other workers or because of the misery and weakness of one’s fellowmen in it.”


The same can be said of that other Ignatian criterion to discern priorities: “to labor more intensely in those places where the enemy of Christ our Lord has sown cockle.” The world of the worker has been and still is a seedbed of ideologies whose character is a-Christian and, to a larger extent, directly atheist and materialistic as well. The working masses are wooed by ideologies opposed in many things but sharing one in common: the promise of a liberation in which any spiritual dimension is absent. People are thus instrumentalized through their material, social and political needs while being deprived of the one thing that, in the final analysis, provides their strongest guarantee and justifies all other claims: their very human dignity as sons of God.


It is an apostolate which in many countries is counted among those where “it is seen that there are not others to attend to them.” For this reason it should be preferred by the Society. What can I say to you about abandonment when I see you each day alone, like drops in the ocean, left more to your own fate than perhaps my own responsibility or that of your immediate superiors should allow? When sometimes in cities and highly cultivated environments disproportionate care is given to little circles of the devout, here are these immense multitudes with nobody “to attend to them.” I don’t know how history will judge our post-conciliar Church, but I would not like to see the same reproach as was made to the Church of the past 100 years: that of having lost the working classes. It is a difficult apostolate: agreed. There are many risks: agreed again. You know this as well as I. But can we maintain that the Church and the Society are not obliged to do more than they are doing at present?


Lastly, as I mentioned above, your apostolate is important because it offers an additional and very valuable reference point for the rest of the Society. It sensibilizes us whose mission is carried out in “safer” circumstances and exemplifies an openness to the challenge of unbelief and insertion among the poor. In this way it will help fulfill what GC 32 asks of us: “Relying on the unity we enjoy with one another in the Society and our opportunity to share in one another’s experience, we must all acquire deeper sensitivity from those Jesuits who have chosen lives of closer approximation to the problems and aspirations of the deprived. Then we will learn to make our own their concerns as well as their preoccupations and their hopes.”



3. Characteristics

The same thing that makes this mission important and meaningful also makes it difficult in that it gives a special characteristic to elements common to other missions of the Society. I shall mention a few of the main ones:


1—It is a Jesuit mission. Though I have said this already, I want to say it again expressly. With this affirmation I want to answer those who raise their eyebrows at the very mention of “MO,” who tend to look on our work as a spurious apostolate in the Society and maliciously establish a causal link between occasional failures or defections that have taken place among priest-workers and the basic theory or concept behind this apostolate. “This priestly ministry, within the unity of the presbyteral order, embraces various functions: evangelization of non believers … participation in the life and toil of workers….”


The past and recent history of the Society, and also its present apostolic labors, abound in examples of apostolates that are no different from yours except in respect of the social or working class among which they are conducted. It would not be just to accept a pioneering apostolate among intellectuals or of assistential nature with full insertion and inculturation, yet show reticence or disapproval if the medium of insertion is the working proletariat. Is such suspicion the remnant of a mentality and class prejudice we have not yet succeeded in ridding ourselves of? The carrying out of this mission (like that of any other), inexperience due to new forms and recent developments, the circumstances of certain specific cases—all these can be discussed and should lead to a healthy, Christian and thoroughly Jesuit form of self-criticism. But no one should reject a priori a form of apostolic insertion and inculturation in the world of the worker which has as its model Jesus of Nazareth and Paul the tent-maker. The worker Jesuit is not a Jesuit apart. It would be offensive and intolerable to compare him unfavorably with other Jesuits engaged in more directly apostolic work. What holds us together in the Society is our mission in whatever field it is carried out. And because the Society imparts the mission and assumes responsibility for it, it should also support and encourage those who bear its weight to persevere. And it has both the right and duty to terminate the mission should it consider this fitting in the Lord.


2—Insertion. Full insertion in the working class seems a necessary condition for achieving the objectives pursued by the worker Jesuit. This means place and type of dwelling, disposal of working day and lifestyle in general must be as far as possible the same as those of the people among whom one works. Such identity conditions the value of witness given and the possibility for apostolic work. The worker Jesuit is like the gospel leaven which cannot ferment the mass unless it is mixed and dissolved into it. There is no question here of an apostolate by remote control or juxtaposition: what is required is identification and assimilation. The worker Jesuit has to experience for himself the uncertainties of the labor market, the poverty and limitation of cramped living quarters, social pressures which undermine his dignity and rights as a person, insecurity, subjection to enforced timetables and unreasonable production quotas, and the harshness of human relations that flows from all this, etc. Only at this price—and in spite of considerable distance from his companions due to cultural and spiritual background—can he consider himself less unfitted to spread from within the world of the worker the values he has come to offer. I say this because, without wishing to subtract in any way from the merit of your option, your status of workers by choice prevents you from total identification with those who belong to the working class by birth or through necessity. There are two insurmountable differences: you have joined the working class with the impetus that comes from a “mission” fully accepted, with an intellectual baggage and development of your faculties that, interiorly at least, must set you somewhat apart. This is true even to the extent that you are more alive to situations your companions accept with a certain resignation and fatalism. Secondly, your spiritual life, maintained with that fidelity proper to a son of the Society in all situations, especially the more difficult, is a permanent source of faith and eschatological hope that gives meaning to your life. These things are lacking to many of your comrades.


3—Inculturation. The purpose of insertion is to achieve inculturation. If this does not take place, the insertion is more than make-believe. A purely phenomenological identification with the life and activities of the working class is not sufficient: it is necessary also to learn and assimilate its cultural or sub-cultural values: its mental patterns, its emotive feelings, its typical reactions, its behavioral norms of loyalty and rejection, its moral values, its concept of man, family and society, its attitude towards anonymity, its use of leisure, its capacity for comradeship, in short, all those elements which make up the working-class culture, so rich in human and spiritual values that are often not properly appreciated or developed. Only in this way, “if we have the patience and the humility and the courage to walk with the poor, we will learn from what they have to teach us what we can do to help them.”


As I have already indicated, this insertion and inculturation in depth enables the worker Jesuit to make a valuable contribution towards vitalizing with insights drawn from real life other forms of apostolate in the Society, especially those which, either through reflection or action, are trying to serve faith and promote justice. And in a special way it can serve as a stimulus for other Jesuits to insert themselves among the poor and experience poverty, things the last Congregation singled out as elements of renewed and ongoing training for the whole Society.


4—The identification with the working class presumed by this insertion and inculturation must, however, be achieved leaving intact another previous and more important identity: our Jesuit identity and sense of belonging to the Society. Only in this context does our “mission” make sense: in no circumstances should it degenerate into a breaking away from. The gradual and subconscious loss of this identity and sense of belonging has unfortunately taken place in more than one case and is one of the reasons why there are objections to the very idea of the MO. I had occasion to say something about this process of “disidentification” in my talk on Our wiry of proceeding. When a case occurs in which the mass seems to have absorbed the leaven to the extent of neutralizing it, there is only one thing to do: reverse the process. This is a task not only for superiors but also for those involved, individually and as a group. They have a more realistic notion of what is taking place and it is their duty to help superiors carry out their main responsibility which is the “cura personalis.” In this way they will be defending the true values of the MO.


5—Coordination with the Church and Society’s pastoral planning. Those sent to the MO are not there on their own responsibility. Like any other group of Jesuits in any other type of work, they should be and feel themselves to be part of an overall plan. The special characteristics of this apostolate make regular contact with the hierarchy and superiors perhaps more difficult but, precisely because of this, more necessary. Such contacts should be seen as a service of support and help for individuals and the mission as a whole. They presuppose a sincere and open conscience, a genuine sense of companionship and team spirit, humility and constructive optimism. Opposed to these, on the other hand, is a certain sufficiency which disdains the advice of others, a messianical radicalism which looks on itself as complete and indispensable, and even a type of independence which is sometimes the result of total insertion in a different milieu. In the complaints one sometimes hears from worker Jesuits of abandonment and lack of interest on the part of “established” communities, it is not always clear who was the first to cut or block channels of communication.



4. Attitudes

From the importance of the MO and its special characteristics I have just listed, there follows logically a set of personal attitudes for someone assigned to it that I would like to comment with you. Obviously they are not exclusive to the MO but common also to other missions of the Society.


1—Mission, yes; self-destination, no. In any mission, the selection of the person sent is a matter of enormous importance and responsibility. Normally it should be preceded by a discernment in which the Lord’s call is clearly heard, together with its acceptance and the Society’s readiness to receive the offer made. This offer-obedience relationship should be determined in open dialogue with as many participants as are necessary. The superior’s role is to verify the legitimacy of the call which, to be authentic, must be accompanied by the necessary qualities, human as well as spiritual, and their “proper use” in the light of the overall apostolic plans of both Society and hierarchy. Consequently, a natural inclination is not, of itself, enough; nor a strongly felt attraction; nor a prophetic stance within the Society or the Church lacking the first hallmark of any au then tic prophecy, namely charity; nor even a generous urge stemming from the immense needs experienced in one’s first apostolic ventures or from bonds of brotherly attachment to those already engaged in this type of apostolate. The experience I wish to share with you tells me that, however sincere it may be, generosity alone is not enough for this type of mission. The responsibility for more than one failure must be attributed not only to the victims themselves, but also to superiors who haven’t taken all the measures they should have in deciding on so important a destination. On the other hand, I have been touched to hear your words of gratitude to the Society for the confidence placed in you by entrusting you with this “mission.”


2—Adequate training. It is a gross mistake to think that a less rigorous form of training is required by those who carry the Gospel to the world of the worker. This is to undervalue that world unjustly and ignore the problems that are at stake. Whoever thinks in this way is already showing a certain lack of suitability for this type of mission. As a matter of course, the Jesuit in the MO will have to face discussions on basic issues and confrontations with other ideologies. He will have to promote the interests of the working class. To do all this, good will is not enough. Even for his own interior life (and not only spiritual) a solid foundation for integrating and reflecting on his experiences is essential. Furthermore such a preparation is indispensable if he is to contribute anything more than anecdotes or personal adventures, however intense, for the apostolic reflection of other Jesuits, as I mentioned above.


Speaking here of formation, I wish to place special emphasis on the religious, spiritual dimension of our training. I spoke before of my own experience, but perhaps I should appeal to yours: without spiritual depth, without an apostolic motive continually renewed through a genuine interior life, without strength to resist so many sources of attraction to which you are necessarily exposed, the MO, in so far as it is an apostolic mission, is, to say the least, nonviable. Every form of adaptation or accommodation required by circumstances is possible. But the maintenance of your sacramental life and of your lived religious identity is not negotiable. This responsibility can be a grave one. And not to take the necessary means when it is lacking can be a blameworthy act of omission on the part of superiors. On the other hand, I have been immensely pleased to hear some of you say that your life of work is a valuable source of inspiration for your personal prayer and for meeting the Lord. This interaction between prayer and apostolic activity is the very essence of a true Ignatian spirit. I exhorted the whole Society to this in my letter on the subject. Now I earnestly exhort you again.


3—Humility. I wish to put you on your guard against a subtle temptation that can assail you; that of making comparative judgements between other forms of apostolate and your own and remaining satisfied with the results of your own evaluation. The apostolate you undertake—as long as it conforms with the conditions mentioned above—is certainly an advanced, arduous and praiseworthy form of that insertion among the poor to serve faith and promote justice which constitutes our modern expression of the Society’s charism. But in no way does this justify any feeling of superiority or, still less, exclusiveness. Apart from other important considerations; such an attitude would indicate a certain ingenuousness and lack of perspective, not to mention a profound ignorance and deficiency of information. Nor would it help towards that brotherly contact and integration with other communities and the Province as a whole which is of special value to you.


4—Discreet charity. The “discreet charity” of Ignatius or, in other words, discretion in charity is most necessary for you. This discretion will prevent you from becoming radicalized by ideologies and help you detect whether your apostolic outlook is becoming gradually weakened by a more secular approach or one based on an ideology of whatever tendency. I understand the tension you must experience as spectators, and sometimes victims, of heart-rending situations of all types, often massive and institutionalized. And I therefore also understand your generous feelings of solidarity with your comrades and your need to contribute to the search for a better realization of the common good and for structural reform. Here the whole question arises of industrial, trade union and political action. You are aware what limits and conditions are imposed in this respect by your status as priests and Jesuits, which takes priority over your status as workers. But I feel obliged to remind you of something I have said at greater length and to others, not always from the MO, about our political commitment. The general directives of the Church, those of the 1971 Synod of Bishops and of our 32nd General Congregation, bind us all, and it is my inescapable duty to see that the apostolic activity of the Society conforms to them. I do not intend to repeat them here. In addition, on several occasions, I have myself expressed in norms which, I believe, leave no room for doubt, what the Society thinks about the socio-political commitment of Jesuits, and I have endorsed documents and guidelines at Assistancy or Province level which apply these prescriptions even more clearly to a specific situation. I wish to make one point clear: these directives and norms are for all Jesuits, not only for those of the MO, and they apply to political parties of all shades.


This same discretion in charity should be yours in other aspects and relationships of your life. Your living conditions, your contacts with neighbors, the use of rest and leisure time, the need to establish friendly relationships, dealings with persons of the opposite sex, entering a milieu that is new, etc., —all these put you in situations where discretion as well as charity is required. I don’t think people consider me an alarmist. But I confess at times I feel worried by the “indiscretion” which some Jesuits show in their professional life. Again this observation doesn’t apply to you alone. I have made it about other Jesuits as well. For, when all is said and done, the MO is no more than another variety of the professionalization one finds in other types of activity such as, for example, teaching. What begins as a clear apostolic work—this is the only admissible starting-point—can degenerate into a professionalism totally lacking any Gospel message. Given the situations pertaining to some forms of professional work, if there is no “discretion” with regard to limits and conditions, nor a continual counter-influence of a true spiritual life, the whole process naturally ends in secularization with all its consequences.


5—Love of the Church and the Society. Why not speak of this too? You are moving in a climate where the Church, its members and its teaching are often the object of judgements ranging from disrespect to open hostility. Sometimes you yourselves encounter a lack of trust or a more or less disguised rejection from those who, affectively at least, should be sharing your concerns. Try to discern. Don’t generalize. Know that this is perhaps an inevitable, though painful, part of the work which, on the surface, sets you apart from other apostolates. And carry on within the Society and the Church this evangelizing task which both need; let them see that the poor have the Gospel preached to them in the sector where you have been sent. I give thanks to the Lord for what I have heard you say during these two days about your identification with the Society and the gratitude you feel towards its superiors for the confidence they have shown in you by giving you this mission.




That is all. As I look over the notes I took during the many hours of our exchange, I am aware that each point I have touched on could be expanded with so many other things said and heard as we lived, worked and prayed together. The final impression I have of you is seeing you leave for your work, encouraged and—if I am not mistaken—with a renewed faith in your mission and deeper experience of what it is to be a Jesuit. I beg the Lord that, for this mission of yours and for the faithfulness and joy in being his companions, he gives you his abundant graces.




Original Source:

Other Apostolates Today: Selected Letters and Addresses—III, ed. Jerome Aixala. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1981, “Mission Among the Workers,” pg. 309–321.

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