The worker-priest movement, which became popular in France in the 1940s, has all but disappeared. But one “young” priest is keeping the tradition alive.
Father Lionel Vandenbriele is not your typical priest.
The 40-year-old native of Bailleul, a small town in French Flanders about two miles from the Belgian border, is also an ambulance care assistant, a sort of paramedic.
That may seem odd to some, but he sees himself as just an “ordinary man” who happened to decide to join the ministry.
“Faith was an essential part of my family life, a good breeding ground for the future,” says Vandenbriele, who is the second of four siblings.
Growing up, he was an altar server.
“What we once called an altar boy,” he says with a smile.
He recalls that the priests were happy. And after he made his confirmation and continued helping out in his parish, he began to think about priesthood.
After getting a degree in chemistry, he entered the seminary in 2000 and was ordained presbyter for the Diocese of Lille in November 2009.
Vandenbriele became interested in the idea of being a worker-priest after he learned about the movement in a class on Church history.
“I wanted to work and live like the others,” he recalls.
“I shared this with my bishop [Laurent Ulrich] and he asked me to present him with a professional project,” Father Vandenbriele remembers.
“I’ve always been interested in healthcare and I wanted a quick course in a sector where there was work. The job of ambulance care assistant ticked all these boxes,” says the priest with the chestnut brown beard and blue eyes.
Four years after graduating, he doesn’t regret his choice.
“These are the same working conditions as a laborer, cashier or sweeper,” he says.
“We do our shift, sometimes at night, and transport people all day long; it’s a tiring job,” Vandenbriele says with a sense of satisfaction.
He is one of only 15 or so worker-priests who still exist in France. They work in the fields of education, healthcare and construction.
It’s a double vocation for Father Vandenbriele. He says he made this choice “out of love for Jesus Christ and for the men and women of the working class of our time”.
He says he also thought about becoming a fireman.
“Firefighters are more recognized than ambulance care assistants,” he explains.
“We are not considered caregivers, The Ministry of Health issues our diploma, but we are attached to the Ministry of Transport,” says the worker-priest.
Father Vandenbriele likes to recharge his spiritual batteries by spending a few days with the Trappist monks at Mont-des-Cats Abbey in Belgium or Tamié Abbey in Savoy.
Wherever he goes, he always has his bible and “life book”, a sort of daily journal in which he writes things that touch or move him.
“I’ve been doing this since the seminary. It’s a way of praying,” he says.
At the moment, he is simultaneously reading Le Cantique des Cantiques by French biblicist and Greek scholar, Jacques Cazeaux, and — “for relaxation” — a work by Franco-Belgian novelist, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt.
Father Vandenbriele’s other hobbies are cycling and tending to a small patch of garden he rents near his home.
But he works in an old mining area, “a region with another culture, and a lot of solidarity”.
“I like to hear the former miners tell their stories,” the priest says.
“We listen to them before and after the consultation that will bring them good or bad news,” says the ambulance care assistant, who always works with the same two colleagues.
“This daily life in the midst of people who are sometimes a thousand miles away from the Church moves me forward in my faith,” continues Father Vandenbriele.
“Colleagues have only recently discovered that I am a priest,” he reveals.
“It is my celibacy that they often question. Some of them sometimes ask me to pray with them or for them. A colleague asked me to accompany her to the Eucharist,” he explains.
Vandenbriele was put on short-term unemployment for two months because of the coronavirus pandemic and is well aware that some of his colleagues are worried about their health and their financial situation.
“I’m privileged, with no dependents, and I pay a modest rent,” he says.
Sociable and solitary, discreet and committed, the young man in his forties is appreciated for his simplicity.
“Lionel creates an equal relationship,” says Stéphane Haar, a good friend who coordinates missionary activity in Lille Diocese.
“He is a man and an activist, like any other, who wants the laity to take their rightful place,” says the diocesan official.
Father Vandenbriele thinks the Church may have missed the boat on the COVID-19 lockdown.
“We could have developed celebrations of the word, become more creative,” he muses.
But, even so, he is not worried about the future of the Church or the vocations crisis.
“There will always be priests in the sense of shepherds, even as the ministry evolves,” he says confidently.
“Whether the priest is married or single, whether the ministry is permanent or not, is that really the main issue? The main thing is the call to live out one’s baptism.”
Reproduced with permission from La Croix International and Fanny Magdelaine.