The Pact of the Catacombs

By Stefan Gigacz, 16 November 2020
Jesus as the Good Shepherd from the early Christian Domitilla Catacombs. Image: Wikimedia Commons


The Pact of the Catacombs and the Pietralata Message: A Challenge for the Australian Church

As the Synod for the Pan-Amazon region drew to a close in Rome 2019, around 150 participants led by Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes met in the Domitilla Catacombs to celebrate Mass and adopt a new “Pact of the Catacombs” pledging to defend the people and territory of the Amazon and renew the Church’s preferential option for the poor.

They drew their inspiration from the original Vatican II Pact of the Catacombs proposed by another Brazilian, Archbishop Helder Camara, and signed by 40-odd bishops following their own Catacombs Mass on 16 November 1965.

Renouncing “the appearance and substance of wealth” and pledging to “live according to the ordinary manner of our people,” the bishops vowed not to “possess any properties or other goods in our own names nor will we have bank accounts or the like.”

“We will give whatever is needed in terms of our time, our reflection, our heart and our means to the apostolic and pastoral service of workers and labour groups and to those who are economically weak and disadvantaged,” they promised.

“We commit ourselves to sharing our lives in pastoral charity with our brothers and sisters in Christ, priests, religious and laity so that our ministry constitutes a true service” and “we will make an effort to ‘review our lives’ with them,” the bishops concluded, citing the “review of life” of “see-judge-act” method for reconciling faith and life developed by Joseph Cardijn, the founder of the Young Christian Workers (YCW).

Indeed, of the 34 original signatories of the 1965 Pact of the Catacombs whose names are known, at least 21 were former chaplains of the YCW and/or its counterparts, including the Young Christian Students (YCS), the Young Christian Farmers (JAC) and their adult equivalents.

Helder Camara himself had been a founding chaplain of the YCW in Brazil, who as a bishop became responsible for promoting “Specialised Catholic Action” at a national level. He credited Cardijn and the YCW with helping change him from the very conservative young priest he had been to the leading progressive bishop he became at Vatican II.

As the Council drew to a close, Camara sought to ensure a personal and collective commitment by the bishops to implementing the momentous changes that Vatican II foreshadowed. Thus, he proposed two special concelebrated masses, one dedicated to the poor and the other to workers, where he and his closest collaborators would pledge to do so.

For the Mass for the Poor, he brought together the conciliar bishops who belonged to the “Jesus Christ and the Church of the Poor” group. For the second Worker Mass, Camara requested Cardijn, who had recently been made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI, to host it in his titular church of St Michael Archangel at Pietralata, a working class parish of Rome.

During this mass, the concelebrating bishops would “take a vow prepared by yourself based on the vow that you yourself made upon the death of your father,” Camara suggested to Cardijn, recalling the latter’s own personal consecration of his priesthood to the workers as his father lay dying of  industrial disease in 1903.

Reluctant to make himself the model, Cardijn and his colleagues instead insisted that Camara and his team draft a vow of their own, leading to the document that we know today as the first Pact of the Catacombs.

Although up to 500 bishops later added their signatures to the document, the Pact remained little known out of Latin America. Only since the election of Pope Francis has the Pact begun to emerge from this relative obscurity.

Similarly, Cardijn’s Worker Mass, which took place the next evening, 17 November, the eve of the promulgation of the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, has also escaped attention, even from historians.

So too has the “Pietralata Message” adopted by the 20-odd celebrating bishops,including Enrique Angelelli, the Argentine bishop assassinated in 1976 for his defence of the peasants in his rural diocese of La Rioja and beatified by Pope Francis this year.

In their message, these bishops, all former YCW chaplains, sought to emphasise “the extent to which lay people are keen to understand their own proper role in the world as sons and daughters of the Church” and their capacities for “apostolic responsibilities.”

“Our hope is that all our episcopal brothers will become increasingly conscious of the possibilities of the laity, and particularly the worker laity, who are the hope of the Church in the world today,” the bishops wrote.

Observing that the great majority of the world population lived in poor, working-class areas, they highlighted the difficult conditions of life they faced, including low salaries, unemployment, malnutrition, illiteracy and housing problems as well as young people’s uncertainty over their futures.

And they insisted on the need for action by “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.”

“We dare to think that the exercise of a living collegiality will ensure the expansion… of all the movements devoted to the promotion of an apostolic laity in the midst of popular milieux,” they concluded, calling for a “decisive” commitment by the Church to this project.

Taken together, as they were originally intended, the Pact of the Catacombs and the Pietralata Message offer a vision of Church understood as a partnership of clergy and laity personally committed to sharing their lives with the poor and acting to transform the world.

With less than a year to go before the Plenary Council, it is a vision that also offers a serious challenge to the Australian Church.

Stefan Gigacz is an Honorary Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Divinity and Secretary, Australian Cardijn Institute.

With thanks to Stefan Gigacz.


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