Obituary: Fr Jacques Loew

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WHEN FATHER Jacques Loew began work in the docks at Marseilles in 1941, he could little imagine that his example would be followed by hundreds of other French Catholic priests and lead to a reappraisal of the priest's vocation.

His audacious move - he had been sent by his fellow Dominican Father Lebret to study the condition of the working classes, not to join it - spawned the worker priest movement, whose pioneers sought to minister to France's secularised industrial working class. Priests took up work in such places as car factories to experience the everyday life of those they ministered to.

One visitor to Marseilles in 1947 who sought out Loew was a young Polish priest, Father Karol Wojtyla, who was inspired by the new approach to ministry. "Father Loew came to the conclusion that the [Dominican] white habit by itself does not say anything any more today," the future Pope John Paul II wrote on his return. "Living among workers he decided to become one of them." Wojtyla was certain that this "apostolic work" was the only correct way for the French church "to reach its non-believers".

But by the early 1950s the Vatican was becoming alarmed at the worker- priests' growing role in left-wing politics and what it saw as their abandonment of the traditional priestly way of life. In May 1951 Loew sent a long report defending the movement's work to Giovanni Montini, the Vatican's assistant secretary of state and future Pope Paul VI. But Pope Pius XII was unrelenting and brought the experiment to an abrupt halt in 1954.

A disappointed Loew bowed to the Vatican's instruction and quit his job, though he remained convinced that in spite of the problems, the movement had provided an effective pastoral ministry. "Of course a priest can belong to a trade union," he maintained. "This does not mean selling out your priesthood."

He did not abandon his commitment. The following year he established the Saints Peter and Paul Mission to Workers, which continued the mission among the working classes and devoted itself to training priests from among their number. The Dominican Order released Loew from its ranks to commit himself to this work.

Born in 1908, the only child in a family of non-believers of Protestant origin, Loew came to faith when he was 20 and, after first training as a lawyer, decided to enter the Dominican Order in 1934. He was ordained a Dominican priest in 1939. It was in his work at the Marseilles docks that he first had an inkling of what would become his vocation. "It was my contact with flesh-and-blood people that was my real training," he later recalled.

Loew's ministry was not confined to France. After establishing the Saints Peter and Paul Mission he visited Africa before moving to Brazil in 1964 to work in the shanty towns of Sao Paulo, where he intended to spend the rest of his life. However, by 1969 he was back in Europe and established the School of Faith in the Swiss town of Fribourg. "There was a need to educate the educators of the communities," he explained.

By now Loew was well-known for his ministry and for his many books, including Les dockers de Marseille (1944), Un mission proletarienne (1946), Les Cieux ouverts: chronique de la mission Saints Pierre et Paul (1971) and, in English, Face to Face with God: the Bible's way to prayer (1977). In 1971 Pope Paul VI invited him to preach the Lenten retreat in the Vatican.

As old age approached he retreated from the world, following a contemplative life in a succession of religious houses, in Citeaux, Tamie and in 1991, after two and a half years as a hermit in the eastern Pyrenees, he went to live in a community of Trappist nuns at Echourgnac in Perigord. "For my retirement I wanted to share a life of silence and prayer," he said.

Despite his sometimes turbulent life, Loew remained committed to his mission as a priest at the service of the community. "A priest is neither yellow, nor red, nor green, nor violet," he once said. "He is a man of God."

Jacques Loew, priest: born Clermont-Ferrand, France 1908; ordained priest 1939; died Echourgnac, France 13 February 1999.