Towards a Church of the poor in Australia

In today’s Cardijn Reflection, we take a speech delivered by Cardinal Achille Liénart of Lille, France, to a meeting of chaplains of the Christian Workers Movement in 1964, i.e. right in the middle of the Second Vatican Council.

As he notes, the Council Fathers had agreed that the Church should be a Church of the poor. The future Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Today, Gaudium et Spes, then in preparation and known as Schema 17, was to take up this point.

It is a significant speech, signalling that the Church needed to make a priority of reaching out and evangelising the poor, not as objects of charity but also as subjects acting themselves for their own development.

In this text, Cardinal Liénart in fact anticipates much of the teaching of the Council, particularly as it would later be interpreted by the Latin American Church, which adopted the notion of a “preferential option for the poor.”

As the Australian Church moves towards the holding of a series of Diocesan Synods in fulfilment of the decisions of the recent Plenary Council, perhaps it may be useful to address these questions once again in the context of Australia today and with a view to how the Australian Church may better become a Church of the Poor?

Stefan Gigacz


During the meeting where the previous report was given, H.E. Cardinal Liénart gave a speech on the same subject, the text of which the editors of “Notes d’Information” are pleased to be able to transmit to their readers.

I thank R.B. for having placed us before a painful reality that we cannot ignore and that we must assume in order to fulfill our mission of’evangelisation. This problem of poor backgrounds which arises in the diocese of Lille falls squarely within the directives that come to us from the Church: the last Plenary Assembly of the French bishops gave this watchword: “the Evangelisation of those who are furthest away and the poorest”.

At the Council, as you have noticed, this question, among others, was deemed serious enough to be posed to the Fathers: “Shouldn’t the Church be the Church of the poor?” As a sign of her divine mission, should the Church show that she evangelises the poor? You know the answers that have been given, the concern that has been expressed to restore the Church to this attitude of respect and service to the poor.

Although this idea has been retained, it has not yet found its expression, but it will enter into Schema 17 (the future Gaudium et Spes) which is yet to be discussed and which will deal with the place and the role of the Church in the world. The work of the Council, which is slow but fruitful, places the whole Church face to face with its origins, face to face with Our Lord Jesus Christ who lived poor and gave the best of himself to the poor.

I wanted to tell you that the question posed at your session fits perfectly, and in the foreground, into the current research and orientations of the Church. This is not an accessory question, it is at the center and at the heart of the apostolate of the Church. I therefore recommend it to your zeal.

You are chaplains of the ACO (Christian Workers Movement) and the YCW, you are also pastors or vicars of parishes in which there are poor milieux and it is in both of these capacities that you need to study this problem.

As chaplains of the ACI and the YCW, I request you to attach the greatest importance to the work of the militants who, applying themselves to the evangelisation of the working world as a whole, are all concerned with the apostolate in the poor circles; but you will grant special concern to those of them who, supported by everything, the Movement, dedicate themselves in a special, sometimes heroic way, to action in poor areas.

They are entitled to friendly and encouraging attention from us because their task is difficult: they must help these poor communities to react against the dehumanisation that crushes them, to organise themselves despite the few human resources they offer, to defend themselves not by withdrawing in order to seek individual promotion but so that the whole milieu also rises.

I ask you to consider as one of your essential tasks to devote yourselves especially to the militants who act in these circles because they need it. We can’t just let them do it and say, “That’s fine”. They must feel that we are involved with them, that the Church is involved with them; since you are the representatives of the Church on the spot, I entrust them to you.

As you know very well, it is above all through your support and assistance as chaplains of the Christian Workers Movement, young or adult, in the review of life that you can assist them: you help them to deepen their reflection on the basis of the events that present themselves to bring out the Christian meaning and determine the spirit in which Christians must behave. I do not insist, it is part of your usual task.

On the other hand, since we have poor milieux in all our parishes, I would like to feel that the whole Church is interested in this. Although we have various activities to carry out, we should not be afraid to show them our predilection: it is a Catholic and evangelical attitude; by the very fact of their poverty and all the consequences that flow from it, the humiliation they feel, the exploitation to which they are subjected, the poor have the right to appear as those to whom the Church interest in a special way. No one should take umbrage at it, and if some do take umbrage, it is because they do not have the spirit of the Lord; we must tell them charitably but clearly.

In this way, our whole apostolate should contain this note of poverty and attachment to poverty. Cardinal Lercaro, in one of his interventions at the Council, said that the Church as a whole will rediscover its evangelical spirit insofar as it consents to enter fully into the spirit of poverty. The effort of the Church to enter into these paths of poverty thus appears as the means for her to regain a more exact awareness of her mission in the world and enlightens its whole apostolate.

In this research, let us try to avoid the faults which were pointed out earlier. For a long time, of course, the Church has taken care of the poor and we have above all practised this benevolence and there is no reason to be ashamed of this. But it also needs to be recognised that while beneficence on the part of those who give with sincerity and heart constitutes an act of virtue, it would be a mistake to consider that it is the only or even the principal form of charity.

It is necessary to note its disadvantages, if by our benevolence we maintain the poor in their state of poverty and if we exempt them from making an effort to come out of it together. Now, no one else will take them out unless they help themselves and organise themselves. Our charity may have certain merits, but it has a downside and we need to know how to see this. This will prevent us from being satisfied with it and having a good conscience or letting our Christians have a good conscience because they have given their money selflessly.

The Church has more to do to help the poor to keep their human dignity. A first point is that we must not allow poverty to dehumanise. The Church is always animated by the desire to have humankind respected and when society crushes and mutilates people, the Church reminds theme of the fundamental rights of the human person and asks society to correct itself for its abuses because that human dignity comes first.

At the same time, the church is preoccupied with the eternal destiny of men to whom she must transmit the Good News. I don’t think it can be said that our charity has greatly evangelised the poor. They accept our assistance because they need it, but they do not recognise it as a sign from the Lord; on the contrary, they conclude that the Church and Christians are rich because they give.

What is rather a sign from God for them is the charity with which the militants give themselves and sacrifice themselves to carry their problems with them and to help them organize themselves after having shared their anxieties; they then discover in these fraternally close militants Christ living in their midst. All this collective action, without yet leading them to religious practice, reopens their religious sense in their souls, makes the call of God heard and, with the help of Our Lord’s grace, evangelism advances.

The importance of this apostolate in poor milieux has not yet been sufficiently demonstrated to us: an immense field of action is offered there for our pastoral charity. The future of these circles which are entitled to our love, depends on this. It also concerns the future of the Church; this, then, is the sense in which, from the Pope down to the most humble among us, we are called to work.


Cardinal Achille Liénart, Allocution sur l’évangélisation des milieux pauvres, in Notes d’information, Association pour la Mission Ouvrière, N° 17, mars-avril, 1964, Nouvelle Série.

Cardinal Achille Liénart, Allocution sur l’évangélisation des milieux pauvres (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)