Joseph Cardijn, Vatican II and the New Evangelisation

Joseph Cardijn, Vatican II and the New Evangelisation


When Pope Paul VI made him a bishop and cardinal in 1965, Joseph Cardijn chose as his episcopal motto “Evangelizare pauperibus”. Indeed, it would be difficult to think of a more fitting phrase to sum up Cardijn’s sixty years of priestly apostolate with the Young Christian Workers movement that he founded.

Christianisation, rechristianisation, apostolate, mission, conquest, transformation, redemption – Cardijn never ceased to emphasise these tasks, and in particular the role of lay people, including young people, in implementing them.

The word “evangelisation”, however, does not enter Cardijn’s vocabulary until late in his career upon his return from his first trip to Asia in 1953 when he poses the question:

Has Christianity become a western, European Christianity, compromised by the errors and abuses that white people, westerners and Europeans have committed in Asia? We must not hesitate to study this problem. But above all, we need to revise the methods and means of evangelisation in the face of the needs of Asia and the new structures of the world. The social problem… demands attention.[1] 

In fact, this is classic Cardijn thinking applied to the circumstances of Asia. And yet it is also the same Cardijn who is and was so often misunderstood, including by the future Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens[2], who interpreted Cardijn’s concern with social action as somehow separate from the missionary work of evangelisation. This division between the two men and their respective positions would continue right through and beyond Vatican II.

Indeed, it is significant that it is in his only full book, Laymen into Action, published in 1963 in a bid to influence the work of the Council, that Cardijn for the first time uses the term “evangelisation” in a systematic way.

The aim of this essay then will be to shed light on the origins and meaning of Cardijn’s conception of evangelisation and how this was transmitted to the Second Vatican Council.

Perhaps the easiest way to grasp this is to understand the historical development of the intellectual and faith tradition that formed Cardijn’s own outlook. This can be divided into three generations corresponding with the “L’Ecole Mennaissienne” (Cardijn’s own term), the Sillon of Marc Sangnier, and Cardijn’s own generation which corresponds with the emergence of specialised Catholic Action (or the Cardijn movements).

First generation: Lamennais, Ozanam and the quest for freedom

Cardijn often recounted the story of the decisive early experience that inspired his lifelong quest to bridge the gap between the Church and the workers

Growing up in the shadow of the European industrial revolution, and influenced by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum and the example of the pro-worker priest, Fr Adolfe Daens, Cardijn entered the minor seminary of Malines in 1897.

“It was at that age that I first discovered the problems of working youth. When I returned on holidays from the minor seminary, my little classmates and First Communion companions, who were more intelligent and more pious than myself, had already had to go to work in factories or elsewhere. I found them corrupted, opposed to the Church, no longer wanting to associate with me. It was a knife wound in my heart.

“I tried to find out the causes of this loss and corruption and promised to consecrate myself to saving them. I started my first enquiries in the factories and in the neighbouring communes and I was never able to abandon them both at home and overseas for the rest of my life.”[3]

Although Cardijn recounted this story as the story of his own personal experience and that of his comrades, it is clear also that he regarded it as a metaphor for the failure of traditional methods of Christian upbringing in the face of the challenges of the anti-clericalism of the emerging modern industrial world.

In this context, it is highly significant to note where the grieving fifteen year old seminarian turned for further inspiration, namely “L’Ecole Mennaissienne[4], i.e. the freedom-loving followers of the turbulent, excommunicated French priest of Irish descent, Felicité de Lamennais[5].

Although Lamennais made his name initially as a staunch defender of the ultramontane Church in post-Napoleon France, he soon realised that there was no place for the traditional “throne and altar” alliance on which the Church (as well as the state) had so long depended. As young Cardijn had already experienced first hand, workers in particular had lost their respect for the Church’s authority.

For Lamennais, this suggested that the Church needed to build a new alliance of “God and liberty” – the catchcry of his magazine, L’Avenir – The Future. In turn, this implied freedom of the Church to educate, separation of Church and state, as well as freedom of the press, conscience and religion, ideas quickly adopted in what would become Cardijn’s homeland of Belgium as it grasped independence in 1830 from the Netherlands. These ideas also had implications for other countries such as Ireland and Poland, both Catholic, both under the yoke of foreign powers.

Thus, there was danger also and the Holy See was only too aware of these dangers. In 1832 Pope Gregory XVI published Mirari Vos which condemned not just freedom of the press but freedom of conscience as an “absurd and erroneous proposition”. Two years later, the same pope would write a second encyclical, Singulari Nos, specifically condemning Lamennais’ thunderous Paroles d’un croyant written in protest against the earlier encyclical.

But whereas Lamennais’ insistence on defending these freedoms led to his alienation from the Church, others of his followers – Lacordaire, Montalembert and a young Frederic Ozanam adopted a more patient and conciliatory path[6].

Born in 1813, Ozanam was only eighteen when he visited Lamennais on the eve of the latter’s departure on his fateful 1832 journey to Rome. But while he maintained his personal sympathy for Lamennais, he did not allow himself to be swayed by Lamennais’ own growing disenchantment with the Church.

On the contrary, Ozanam set out to realise the substance of Lamennais’ vision while remaining within the fold of the Church. He saw the need to separate spiritual and temporal powers, which he believed would lead to “the emancipation of the spiritual power so long in submission to the temporal”[7].

Although he taught for a while at the Stanislas (University) College in Paris, Ozanam preferred to establish his academic career as a historian at the Sorbonne despite its reputation as an establishment hostile to the Christian faith. This choice would much later make Ozanam would become the model of the modern lay apostle witnessing to his faith in the midst of a secular (and secularised) world.

Moreover, as Ozanam’s letters show, he was quick to realise the deeper meaning of the social forces then at work. Although poor and oppressed, the emerging working class represented the wave of the future, Ozanam believed. Thus, when the revolutionary year of 1848 arrived, he backed the cause of the revolutionaries, despite a keen awareness of their follies. Indeed, he saw the revolution as “the final deliverance of the Church by the secularisation of the state”.

Even more significantly, for Ozanam, it was also a historic opportunity for the Church to reach out and evangelise the new, emerging working class – to “evangelise the working class”[8]. This would be achived by “cross(ing) over to the barbarians, i.e. to democracy, to the party of the people[9]” as he proposed in a series of remarkable articles and letters written in the midst of that revolutionary time[10].

Thus, democracy had become the way forward for the Church, Ozanam claimed. “We are not socialists in the sense that we don’t want an overthrow of society but we do want free, progressive and Christian reform,” he explained[11].

“Better to rely on the people who are the true ally of the Church, as poor as she is, devoted, blessed as she is with all the blessings of the Saviour”[12].

And although he had no illusions as to the price of this option, Ozanam maintained his confidence even at the height of conflict during the summer of 1848.

“I have always believed in the invasion of the barbarians and I believe in it more than ever now,” he wrote. “I believe it will be long, murderous but destined sooner or later to bend under Christian law, and consequently, to regenerate the world,”[13], he wrote.

In this context, it is no surprise that Ozanam and his collaborators (Lacordaire and Henri Maret) on the journal L’Ere Nouvelle, which they had founded in support of the revolution, met with nothing but incomprehension and hostility from the majority of French Catholics, even though they did have the support of Archbishop Denis Affre, tragically shot dead at a revolutionary barricade in Paris on 27 June 1848[14].

However, Charles de Montalembert, who had also once shared Lamennais’ dream of freedom, turned against the Ere Nouvelle team, going so far as to seek Ozanam’s condemnation by Rome[15]. In a September 1848 address to the National Assembly, he even warned the workers against further revolt. “Resign yourself to poverty and you will rewarded and compensated eternally,” he said, while noting that the Church counselled (not compelled) the rich to give alms[16].

For Lacordaire, Montalembert had betrayed his own life’s work[17]. But for Montalembert, the choice lay between Catholicism and socialism. “There is no middle way, it is necessary to choose between Catholicism and socialism,” he wrote later[18].

With Catholics firmly against the revolution, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was elected president initiating a chain of events that eventually led to his coronation in 1852 as Emperor Napoleon III.

Henri Guillemin sums up the outcome:

Through the fault of French Catholics, expressly and primarily through the fault of Montalembert, de Falloux and Louis Veuillot, the evil had been done: the rupture, the fatal divorce between the Church and the people, which Pius XI would call “the greatest tragedy of the Church in the 19th century”.[19]

It was no accident that Pius XI would make this comment to Joseph Cardijn during their historic first meeting in March 1925 in which the pontiff approved the establishment of the Young Christian Workers movement. It signalled that the pope, born in Milan as Ozanam had been, shared Cardijn’s analysis of the events of 1848 and by implication, the course of action necessary.[20].

Racked by tuberculosis, Ozanam did not long survive this disaster, dying on 8 September 1853, just a few months before Lamennais, who followed him to the grave on 27 February 1854. Although the hopes of a generation had been crushed, their dreams lived on in literary form, particularly through the writings of Ozanam and Lamennais whose complete works, letters and biographies all but dominated French Catholic literature in the late 19th century[21].

The second democratic generation: The Sillon and its democratic method

The memory of Ozanam, in particular, lived on at Stanislas College in Paris, where he had taught for five years from 1840-44 at the request of its then director, Fr Alphonse Gratry[22].

Stanislas College then also enjoyed status as part of the French university system. Indeed, it was the only Catholic institution to enjoy such status[23]. And even after the foundation of the Institut catholique de Paris in 1875, Stanislas under the Marianist Fathers continued to maintain an important intellectual tradition epitomised later by the teaching of a young Maurice Blondel who taught philosophy at the college from 1891 while working on his famous 1893 doctoral thesis L’Action[24].

The whole atmosphere of the 1890s was highly charged. Pope Leo’s 1891 Rerum Novarum had caused a stir with its defence of worker rights. A year later in 1892, another encyclical Au milieu de sollicitudes challenged French Catholics to abandon their hopes of restoring the old monarchy and to unite under the Republican government[25].

In his philosophy dissertation of that year, a young Marc Sangnier wrote:

The Christianity of which we are the humble albeit convinced servants has not taught us to fear democracy… Christianity contains three democratic maxims… The Church, which can exist under any system is never more at home than in a society created in its own image, formed by its teachings, which declare all men free, equal, brothers….[26]

Although unstated, the imprint of Ozanam and the generation of 1848 is unmistakable[27]. No surprise then when in 1893 a group of students led by Marc Sangnier began to organise weekly meetings to discuss these issues. Initially known as the Crypt, the group quickly drew a following[28]. Very loosely structured, the Crypt nevertheless slowly developed a pattern of work: commenting on the Gospels during meetings, invited guest speakers and organised debates. In addition, faithful to their inspiration, the former Crypt leaders also sought to “aller au peuple” – to reach out to “the people” – through visits to poor areas of Paris, leading eventually to an organised program of outreach to young workers who participated in the activities at the patronages (youth clubs) organised in many parishes[29].

As the Stanislas students moved on to further studies, they took the Crypt model with them, launching similar groups at the Sorbonne, the Ecole Polytechnique, even, as Marc Sangnier did, in their army barracks, which they did by extending it to their work to the young workers in the patronages.

Soon these new study circles were beginning to develop the characteristics of their own reality-oriented observation method.

“We do not discuss abstract or vague subjects,” wrote Marc Sangnier in 1898, “because these young people are just coming into contact with the realities of life, are telling their friends what they see, what strikes them; they talk about what they are doing themselves at the youth clubs or in the workers circles.”[30]

From this period, the magazine Le Sillon founded in 1894 by Paul Renaudin, Augustin Léger and Marc Sangnier morphed from a literary and philosophical journal into an organising tool for the growing number of action-oriented study circles[31].

In terms that anticipate Cardijn’s see-judge-act, Marc Sangnier described the purpose of these circles.

“Every citizen must: 1° Know the state of the country; when the situation is bad, he must 2° seek solutions; and lastly, having found the solutions, he must 3° act.”[32]

Fortified by the success of these initiatives, the veterans of the Crypt soon began to set their sights higher.

On 15 October 1899, Marc Sangnier issued an “Appeal to youth”[33] inviting young workers to form study circles as “genuine foyers of energy” where they would learn to study by studying and to act by acting.

In a sign of things to come, Marc Sangnier also invited the leaders to meet together “share their experiences” and “learn from each other”. Within three years, Sangnier and his colleagues were ready to launch the first national congress of study circles which was held in Paris on Saturday 23 February 1902 at the Sillon offices in Boulevard Raspail.

By the 4th National Congress in 1905, the study circles had begun to identify themselves as the movement known as Le Sillon, in effect, perhaps the first time that a Catholic-inspired intiaitive had adopted such a title for itself.

Even more significantly, the Sillon had begun to refine its own methods based on its definition of democracy as the social system that “tends to maximise the consciousness and responsibility of everyone”.

Developing the sociological observation method pioneered by Frédéric LePlay, the Sillon teams transformed it into a participative method of raising consciousness of social conditions among students and workers.

“Our way of studying social facts also contains something very special,” Sillon counsellor Brother Louis Cousin explained.

“The composition of our groups is such that they may be considered as a kind of complete sample of the whole of society; the typical worker or intellectual, proletarian or bourgeois is someone of our own great family with whom we are in complete heart to heart communication; moreover there are usually a number of representatives of each type with us so that we have a complete range of personalities; therefore whoever studies each personality will know each person in depth; no aspect of his life will escape notice; the student will know not only who they are, but what they think, what they desire, what they fear.”

“In such conditions, study ceases to be external observation; it becomes consciousness. Isn’t that truly original? Isn’t that a real distinguishing mark of the Sillon?” Cousin asked[34].

Citinq Montesquieu in his Esprit des lois, Cousin noted that “virtue is particularly necessary to the Republic”.

“Doesn’t such virtue suppose consciousness and responsibility? he continued[35]. Thus, the Sillon leaders transformed LePlay’s social enquiry method into a “méthode d’éducation démocratique” or democratic method for raising the consciousness and responsibility, i.e. developing the democratic virtues and capacities, of its leaders.

By 1907, the movement had begun to reach out to non-Catholics while in 1908, the Belgian Paul Tschoffen from the Sillon team at Liege introduced the term Sillon international.

None of this was without pain, and conflicts with conservative Catholics led by the forces of the Action Française soon emerged. French bishops became increasingly disconcerted by a lay movement that appeared to be out of their control, fears that soon reached the Vatican.

In 1908 the Extraordinary Section of the Secretariat of State at the Holy See, that bane of modernism, Monsignor Umberto Benigni, privately warned a former Sillon chaplain that “Marc Sangnier is like a kind of mollusc that needs to be crushed because if cut into pieces each fragment will live on and multiply in an even more unhealthy state.”[36]

The writing was on the wall and the judgment of Pope Pius X came down in a letter to the French bishops, Notre Charge Apostolique, dated 25 August 1910, listing a litany of alleged failings of the Sillon including the taint of socialism and revolution and most serious of all “escaping the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical authority”.

As a result the pontiff called on the Sillon leaders to make the sacrifice of resigning their posts and placing the movement in the hands of the diocesan bishops.

To the surprise if not consternation of the Sillon’s enemies, that is exactly what the Sillon leaders did, but it was the death warrant for Marc Sangnier’s movement. Later Pope Benedict XV would encourage Marc Sangnier to relaunch the movement but the Sillon’s time had passed and many of its key leaders had perished on the battlefields of World War I.

Nevertheless, true to its name and charism, the Sillon had sown the seeds of the future and these would soon germinate in fields not far to the north of France.

The third democratic generation: The “see-judge-act” of the Cardijn movements

Young Joseph Cardijn began to read about the Sillon in 1903 soon after he arrived at the Malines Major Seminary[37].  Later he would tell Marc Sangnier: “You would need to appreciate the loving capacity of a virgin heart aged 20 years to understand the explosion of enthusiasm that such reading could inspire in the soul of a young seminarian!”[38]

Four years later in the summer of 1907, while studying sociology at Louvain, he was sent by Professor Victor Brants to visit the Sillon study circles at Lille and Roubaix and take part in a congress at Amiens.

“At Lille and Roubaix, we had the pleasure of participating in meetings of the study circles of the Sillon (5), where we saw those young people, students, workers and employees, loving each closer than brothers, assisting each other to develop their consciousness and to exercise their responsibilities. And during the Social Week at Amiens… we understood that people could fight you, and on occasion strike you but that each test no matter how painful it may have been would never be an occasion of death but a source of new inspiration.”

However, before Cardijn could return to Belgium, he received news that he had been posted by Archbishop Desiré Mercier to teach Latin at a rural minor seminary at Basse Wavre, 30 km outside of Brussels. Later, Cardijn would speak of this banishment as a “providential” preparation for his future work and it also served to protect him from becoming too involved in the Sillon as the movement faced its own problems.

Yet, when finally in 1912, Mercier appointed him to the parish of Our Lady at Laeken on the edge of Brussels, young Fr Cardijn did not hesitate to surround himself with collaborators who had themselves been formed by the Sillon[39].

Victoire Cappe, who had founded a Needleworkers Union (Syndicat de l’Aiguille) on the model of its French counterpart at Lyon, had learned the Sillon methods in her home town of Liege. Similarly, 17 year old Fernand Tonnet, who would go on to become co-founder of the Young Christian Workers movement had already learnt the Sillon methods from the local curate in the town of Quievrain on the France-Belgium border.

Moreover, as soon as World War I was over, Cardijn wasted no time in inviting Marc Sangnier himself to visit Brussels as an “international apostle”, which he did in February 1921.

In a powerful speech of welcome, Cardijn did not hesitate to credit the influence of the Sillon on his own work, telling Marc Sangnier that “it is the privilege and the reward of the sower of the ideal of life to be unable to limit the field that he seeds or to constrain the range of his fertile gesture”.

“The winds of the air and the birds of the sky carry off this seed and deposit it sometimes far away in a field where God’s makes it fruitful and multiplies it…”

Cardijn also highlighted the Sillon definition of democracy:

“That is how, with the same spirit albeit perhaps in another form that great collective effort to raise the consciousness and the moral as well as the political responsibility of the working class, and to eradicate from our society the obstacles of the economic, political, moral, intellectual and religious orders which prevent the flowering and perfecting of this consciousness and this responsibility of the most humble of popular citizens,” Cardijn continued.

Like a musician playing variations on a favourite harmony, throughout the remainder of his life, Cardijn would return again and again to the theme of consciousness and responsibility – the basis for the exercise of human freedom.

“I am a conscious being,” Cardijn would write in 1950, “but it is not consciousness which makes the person. It is man who is conscious. Sometimes I have acted wrongly and I regret it. I am a being who can choose… Other beings are led by instinct, but I, I can decide for myself… I am free and above all I am responsible. Being responsible means that you can answer for your whole life… I am responsible, that is, I am free to act or not to act.”[40] 

Cardijn also took up the Sillon’s method of democratic education, developed it, and in effect, rebranded it as the see-judge-act method that has since become identified with his name.

This continuity with the disappeared Sillon was evident to all in the early years of Cardijn’s work. On one hand, this gave him a broad audience, particularly among those priests who had experienced the pain and frustration of having the Sillon closed down.

On the other hand, it was also a danger, exposing Cardijn’s own initiatives to the threat of sanctions from the Church. Inevitably, in late 1924, shortly after a group of Belgian priests had met to adopt the statutes of the embryonic Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne, Cardijn was called before Cardinal Mercier to defend his project.

Indeed, how could Mercier approve the emerging JOC when it was clear that it was modelled on the Sillon which had been condemned only fourteen years earlier? In effect, it seems that the cardinal did intend to close down the JOC.

Contrary to all expectations, however, Cardijn managed to convince Mercier to allow him to take his case direct to Rome. The result was the famous meeting with Pope Pius XI in March 1925 in which the pontiff not only approved Cardijn’s project, but made it his own. Yves Congar would later compare the pope’s approval with that given by medieval popes to St Francis and St Dominic, enabling the JOC to became the “prototype of the reforming creations of Catholic Action” [41].

“Not just an elite but the mass,” Pope Pius XI told Cardijn… “The Church needs the working class… The greatest scandal of the nineteenth century is that the Church lost the working class. I bless you, I support you. Your movement is not your movement, it’s mine, it belongs to the Church. Whoever touches it, touches the apple of my eye.”[42]

This concern with the masses was characteristic of Cardijn as well as the factor that attracted the approval of Pius XI.

Four years later on 27 September 1929, during the first pilgrimage of the JOC to Rome, as Cardijn recounted, the pope developed this thinking, distinguishing traditional missions in foreign lands (the “missions of the exterior”) from the mission to reach the working class, which was one of the new “missions of the interior”.

“There are two kinds of mission in the Church,” Pope Pius told the YCW leaders. “The foreign missions in China, Japan, the Congo among the natives are one kind; but today there is another, the mission of the interior, in the factories and workshops, where there are pagans separated from the Church. And today and tomorrow, the missions of the interior will sometimes – will often be more important and more difficult than the foreign missions. Very well, you are the missionaries of the interior, the Church’s missionaries, who will bring back to Christ the working class and their workshops.”[43]

In fact, it did not take long for the nascent JOC to cross the French border. By 1927, the JOC had begun both in Paris and in Lille, often promoted by priests who had been influenced or even involved previously in the Sillon[44]. The two JOCs quickly translated their endeavours into the slogan “Nous référons chrétiens nos frères.” (“We will make our brothers Christian once again.”)

Young Yves Congar was only one of many priests seduced by the new movement[45]. Stationed during the 1930s at the Dominican convent, Le Saulchoir, then located near Tournai in Belgium, Congar along with his confreres soon made contact with the JOC.

Within eighteen months of his ordination, Congar, often accompanied by his Dominican confrere, MD Chenu, was preaching retreats for JOC leaders on both sides of Franco-Belgian border[46].

“I talked to the jocists about the Gospel. They questioned me. I tried to meet them in their concrete difficulties. They left for home on Sunday evening totally pumped.”

Later, he would describe the influence of his relationship with the JOC as “decisive”[47]. “I owe a great deal to those young guys,” he wrote later. “They taught me the meaning of the insertion of the Gospel in humanity.”

“I also owe to the JOC and our meetings with industry chaplains at Lille – among whom I met Fr Godin, one of the authors of La France, pays de mission? – a thought that perhaps ought to be nuanced a little, namely the Mystical Body of Christ in the workplace. Fr Chenu developed this theme in many articles: the Word of God and grace are incarnated in humanity, humanity taken in its historical dimension…”[48]

Despite this success of the JOC, which spread to nearly 50 countries by 1939, there were some who felt that the movement had not reached out far enough. This was the origin of the famous book by French JOC chaplains, Henri Godin and Yvan Daniel, France, Pays de mission ? Which analysed and endeavoured to offer solutions to the problem of “de-Christianisation” of the working class.

Significantly, the book identifies the problem of the “de-Christianisation of the proletariat” with “the uprooting of new city-dwellers”, i.e. “losing the powerful aid that the community of their village provided” and “failing to find other base communities to replace them”[49]. Later, this analysis would lead to the development of base communities in Latin America. However, the more short-term outcome was the move to develop worker priests in which the French Dominicans including Chenu and Congar would also play a critical role.

Indeed, the questions that emerged after World War II concerning the worker priests threatened to engulf the growing JOC movement leading Cardijn to invite Congar, Chenu as well as a series of Belgian theologians to Brussels in 1949 to discuss the issues involved.

Meanwhile, Cardijn moved to shore up pontifical support for the movement, which he obtained in the form of an Autograph Letter from Pope Pius XII dated 21 March 1949[50].

“It is by the active presence in factories and workshops of pioneers,” the pope wrote, “fully conscious of their double vocation as Christians and workers and willing to fully assume their responsibilities without expecting any respite or rest until they have transformed their life milieux according to the demands of the Gospel.”[51]

It is highly likely that this letter, which closely reflects Cardijn’s own doctrine, was in fact drafted by him[52]. Note here in particular the reference to the need to form conscious and responsible Christian workers. Indeed, it seems probable that the Autograph Letter is also drawing on Pius XII’s Christmas Message of 1944, Benignitas and humanitas[53], in which the pope argued that “the people lives by the fullness of life in the men that compose it, each of whom – at his proper place and in his own way – is a person conscious of his own responsibility and of his own views.” (Paragraph 23)[54]

And in 1957, in his address to 32,000 young workers gathered in Rome for the International Pilgrimage of the JOC, Pope Pius XII again referred to the role of the JOC as “forming the spirit (of young workers) to make them people conscious of their responsibilities ready to take on the heaviest tasks without fear”[55].

The Vatican II Generation

 The philosopher, Leon Olle-Laprune, who was associated with Stanislas College, despite teaching at the Ecole Normale Superieure, explicitly modeled his life on that of Ozanam to the point that he became known as the “second Ozanam”.

1848 and the ‘loss of the working class’

The term “new evangelisation” may be recent, but Frederic Ozanam was referring precisely to this challenge when in 1848 he called on the Church to “pass over to the barbarians” (“Suivons Pie IX et passons aux barbares”).

Ozanam meant that just as the medieval Church moved to evangelise the Barbarians of northern Europe, the modern Church needed to reach out to the new “Barbarians” – modern industrial workers.

Much later in 1925, Pius XI would identify the Church’s failure to grasp the moment as the “greatest tragedy of the nineteenth century” – the loss of the working class.

Stanislas College

The Sillon

Cardijn and the JOC

It was no accident that the pope made this comment to a young Belgian priest, Joseph Cardijn, then seeking approval for his Young Christian Workers (YCW-JOC) movement.

With its see-judge-act methodology, borrowed and developed from Marc Sangnier’s Sillon movement and rooted in a concept of “lay apostolate” pioneered by Ozanam, the YCW sought to respond to “de-Christianisation” by “remaking our brothers Christian” (“Referons chrétiens nos frères.).

The priesthood of the faithful

Cardijn and evangelisation

Cardijn at Vatican II

For Cardijn, made a cardinal by Paul VI, the modern world called for a way to educate people in  that “freedom of the soul by which a person becomes an autonomous being, responsible before society and God”, as he told Vatican II in the first of three speeches

Seen in this historical light, Cardijn’s approach, which now underpins much of Gaudium et Spes and the conciliar understanding of the role of the laity, has much to offer a Church still grappling with the challenge of a “new evangelisation”.

The lay apostolate of lay people

Conscious and responsible

Conclusion: An anthropological vision of the democratic person

[1]        « Les chrétiens sont restés à la frange, au bord, à côté parfois à distance; ils ne sont pas le levain dans la pâte. En contemplant l’Asie, on se pose question : le christianisme est-il devenu un christianisme occidental européen, blanc, compromis avec les erreurs et les abus que peuples blancs, occidentaux et européens ont commis en Asie ? Il ne faut pas hésiter à étudier le problème. Mais il faudra surtout, devant les besoins de l’Asie et les structures nouvelles du monde, revoir les méthodes et les moyens d’Evangélisation. Le problème social à quelque point de vue qu’on le regarde — rural et ouvrier ; professionnel, économique ou social; hygiène, ressources, sécurité, durée, conditions et rétribution du travail; culture et éducation de base — exige l’attention, la participation, l’action de L’Eglise ou de ses membres. » Bulletin de la JOC Internationale, No. 32, 15 juin 1953. Note that the English edition of the Bulletin translates “Evangélisation” as “spreading the Gospel”.

[2]        In a 1953 letter to Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary, Suenens, then an auxiliary in the archdiocese of Malines-Brussels, writes: “Mgr Cardijn said that the Legion opens the way for communism in India because – he said – the best catholic forces are absorbed by the Legion, so there is no room for his movement. And the J.O.C. is the unique way to obstaculate (sic) the progress of communism since social reforms are the first need a country where people has (sic) nothing to eat. Do you see the reasoning ! In the same way ever missionary who is not doing social work is a protagonist of communism!” Fonds Suenens, Archives personnelles, Correspondance Duff-Suenens, archevêché de Malines, cited by L. Declerck and T. Osaer, Les relations entre Montini/Paul VI et Suenens, in Donnelly 2008 at p. 287.

[3]        Joseph Cardijn, Background 

[4]        Those often referred to as belonging to the « Ecole Mennaisienne » include figures such as Charles de Montalembert, ; Henri Lacordaire, Gabriel Gerbet, Maurice de Guérin. By extension, I here also include Frédéric Ozanam, who was close to Gerbet, and who met Lamennais when he was only eighteen but who was thus too young to have become more involved with Lamennais projects such as the magazine, L’Avenir. Note also that Cardijn never states what he learned frm the Ecole Mennaisienne and so I have endeavoured here to reconstruct the thought that appears to have been most significant for Cardijn.

[5]        Joseph Cardijn, Mes lectures, 1955, ( This was one of a series of biographical notes written by Cardijn in the 1950s and 1960s.

[6]        Marc Walckiers notes the importance for Cardijn while in the seminary of the writings of Lacordaire as well as of the Belgian Jesuit Victor Van Tricht, whose works included a biography of Ozanam (Walckiers, 1981 : 36). Moreover, Cardijn’s personal library now housed at the Université catholique de Louvain at Louvain-la-Neuve includes a number of Ozanam’s own books.

[7]        A Prosper Dugas, 1 mai 1845, in Ozanam IIII : 75.

[8]        A l’abbé Alphonse Ozanam, 15 mars 1848 in Ozanam III : 391.

[9]        A Alexandre Dufieux, 6 mars 1848, in Ozanam III : 383.

[10]        « Je crois voir le souverain pontife consommer ce que nous appelions de nos vœux depuis vingt ans — la délivrance de l’Eglise par la sécularisation de l’Etat —, passer du côté des barbares, c’est-à-dire de la démocratie, parce qu’il sort du camp des rois, des hommes d’Etat de 1815, pour aller au peuple. Et en disant passons aux barbares, je demande que nous fassions comme lui, qu’au lieu d’épouser les intérêts d’un ministère doctrinaire, ou d’une pairie effrayée, ou d’une bourgeoisie égoïste, nous nous occupions du peuple qui a trop de besoins et pas assez de droits, qui réclame avec raison une part plus complète aux affaires publiques, des garanties pour le travail et contre la misère… C’est dans le peuple que je vois assez de restes de foi et de moralité pour sauver une société dont les hautes classes sont perdues. » (A Théophile Foisset, 22 février 1848, in Ozanam III : 378)

[11]        « Mais la démocratie est maîtresse et sous toutes les formes politiques, elle poursuivra ses progrès et finira par reprendre la forme républicaine qui est la plus naturelle et la plus sincère. Nous ne sommes pas… socialistes en ce sens que nous ne voulons pas le bouleversement de la société, mais nous en voulons la réforme libre, progressive, chrétienne. »

[12]        « Il vaudrait mieux s’appuyer sur le peuple qui est le véritable allié de l’Eglise, pauvre comme elle, dévoué, béni comme elle de toutes les bénédictions du Sauveur. »

[13]        « J’ai toujours cru à l’invasion des barbares ; j’y crois plus que jamais. Je la crois longue, meurtrière, mais destinée tôt ou tard à plier sous la loi chrétienne, et par conséquent à régénérer le monde. Seulement, je suis sûr que nous assisterons à toute l’horreur de la lutte. Je ne sais pas si nos enfants vivront assez pour en voir la fin. » (31 juillet 1848)

[14]        Charles Ozanam XXXX

[15]        Guillemin 212.

[16]        « Résigne-toi à la pauvreté et tu en seras récompensé et dédommagé éternellement. » Cited in Guillemin 211.

[17]        « M. de Montalembert … détruit de ses mains l’édifice de toute sa vie et nous prépare des maux dont il gémira plus tard. », 1 May 1849. Cited in Guillemin 245.

[18]        « Il n’ y a pas de milieu, il faut choisir entre catholicisme et socialisme. » Cited in Guillemin 245.

[19]        « Par la faute des catholiques français, par la faute nommément et au premier chef de Montalembert, de Falloux et de Louis Veuillot, le malheur s’est accompli : la coupure, le fatal divorce entre l’Eglise et le peuple, ce que le pape Pie XI appellera « le plus grand malheur de l’Eglise au XIXe siècle ». Guillemin 249. (My translation into English.)

[20]        « L’Eglise a besoin de la masse ouvrière… Sans la classe ouvrière, l’Eglise n’est pas l’Eglise du Christ… Chaque jeune travailleur a une valeur infinie…etc. Oui, tuez-vous pour les ramener à l’Eglise. C’est le plus grand scandale du XIXème siècle, c’est que l’Eglise ait perdu la classe ouvrière. Je vous bénis, Je vous soutiens. Votre mouvement n’est pas votre mouvement, il est le mien, il est celui de l’Eglise. Celui qui y touche, touche à la prunelle de mes yeux… ». Cardijn, Rencontre avec Pie XI

[21]        Oeuvres complètes de A.F. Ozanam, Lecoffre, 1873, edited by Jean-Jacques-Antoine Ampère. Lettres de Frédéric Ozanam, Lecoffre, 1865 and subsequent editions as well as multiple editions of the works of Lamennais.

[22]        Although there is not enough space in this article to develop the role of Gratry, his influence in this story must be acknowledged.

[23]        Caron 28.

[24]        Caron 32.

[25]        « Nous croyons opportun, nécessaire même, d’élever de nouveau la voix, pour exhorter plus instamment, Nous ne dirons pas seulement les catholiques, mais tous les Français honnêtes et sensés, à repousser loin d’eux tout germe de dissentiments politiques, afin de consacrer uniquement leurs forces à la pacification de leur patrie. » (Leo XIII, Au milieu de sollicitudes, 16 February 1892).

[26]        « Le Christianisme dont nous sommes les serviteurs inutiles, mais les serviteurs convaincus ne nous a pas appris à redouter la démocratie… Le Christianisme contient les trois maximes démocratiques… L’Eglise, qui peut vivre sous tous les cieux n’est mieux à sa place nulle part que dans une société faite à son image, formée par ses leçons, qui déclare tous les hommes libres, égaux, frères… ». Cited in Caron 43.

[27]        Jeanne Caron mentions Lamennais, Ozanam, Maret and Gratry as having influenced Marc Sangnier, adding that « l’idéologie du Sillon procédera en partie de leur inspiration ». (Caron 42) Marc Sangnier’s biographer Madeleine Barthélémy-Madaule also confirms this influence.

[28]        « On nous permit de nous réunir chaque semaine dans une salle souterraine, que l’on appelait la « Crypte », et là, nous parlions de tout et de rien, avec inexpérience et avec audace peut-être mais avec cette conviction qu’il fallait faire quelque chose et que si nous ne demandions ni succès ni gloire, mais seulement la consolation d’être de bons et dociles ouvriers de Jésus-Christ, Il exaucerait notre prière. Les conférences de la Crypte étaient ainsi fondées. » Marc Sangnier, La Crypte de Stanislas, in Le Sillon, 1897.

[29]        Caron 50 et ff.

[30]        « Dès lors, on ne discute pas sur des sujets abstraits et vagues, car ces jeunes gens qui viennent d’être mis en face des réalités de la vie, viennent dire à leurs camarades ce qu’ils ont vu, ce qui les a frappés; ils leur racontent ce qu’ils font eux-mêmes soit dans les patronages, soit dans les cercles d’ouvriers. » (Bulletin de la Crypte, 1898, No. 11: 184).

[31]        Caron 104.

[32]        « Tout citoyen doit : 1° Connaître l’état de sa patrie; lorsque la situation est mauvaise, il doit 2° chercher les rémèdes; enfin, les rémèdes trouvés il doit 3° agir. » (Le Sillon 1899: 306)

[33]        « C’est tout de suite, camarades, qu’il faut nous mettre à la besogne. Méfions-nous des phrases creuses et du vain murmure des mots sonores qui endorment les courages.

Pour la plupart, vous faites partie de groupes organisés. Il faut développer la vie de ces groupes ; qu’ils deviennent de véritables foyers d’énergie, de véritables écoles d’initiative et d’apostolat ! Vous devez trouver là ce qu’il vous faut pour être a votre époque de bons chrétiens et de bons citoyens.

Or, vous avez besoin de savoir et vous aurez à agir. On apprend à savoir en étudiant. On apprend à agir en agissant. Pour faciliter vos études, nous vous ouvrons de grand coeur notre première « salle de travail ». Vous y trouverez non des maîtres, mais des conseillers et des amis qui n’auront pas de meilleure joie que de vous être utiles et de travailler fraternellement avec vous.

        Que chaque groupe envoie donc un ou deux représentants à nos petites réunions de chaque mois, tout intimes et cordiales : ils rencontreront des amis, trouveront des collaborateurs, feront part de leurs expériences, s’instruiront de celles des autres, puiseront courage et réconfort et partiront mieux armés contre la lassitude de la lutte quotidienne. Il ne s’agit, bien entendu, en aucune façon, de porter atteinte à l’autonomie absolue de chaque groupe. L’amitié, tel est le seul lien qui doit nous unir, et la diversité même de nos amis sera une des conditions de la fécondité de notre action : unité n’est pas uniformité. » (Marc Sangnier, Appel à la jeunesse, 15 octobre 1899) (Marc Sangnier, Le Sillon, Esprit et Méthodes, Sillon, Paris, 1905, 202p.)

[34]        Cousin 1906: 98-99

[35]        « Il faut remarquer, en outre, que cette définition, si elle appartient bien au Sillon comme formule, n’exprime néanmoins que ce qu’on a toujours entendu sous le nom de démocratie : Montesquieu dans « l’Esprit des Lois », et les deux cardinaux français déjà cités (chap. n, § 2), en établissant que la vertu est tout spécialement nécessaire à la République, ne disent pas autre chose que nous : la vertu ne suppose-t-elle pas conscience et responsabilité ?

La démocratie est donc pour nous, dans son essence, ce qu’elle est pour les juristes, les économistes, les philosophes, les théologiens qui l’ont étudiée. L’originalité du Sillon est dans sa manière de tendre à la réalisation de la démocratie, point dans sa manière de la concevoir. » Cousin 1906: 125)

[36]        Former Sillon chaplain, Abbé Jean Desgranges details the conversation with Benigni in his memoirs. However, there is no evidence as to whether this was passed on to Marc Sangnier. (Desgranges XXX.)

[37]        Cardijn, Mes lectures, 

[38]        Cardijn, Accueil à Marc Sangnier, 5 février 1921 ( )

[39]        Gigacz, 1997.

[40]        Cardijn, Person, Family and Education, I. The human person, 1950. 

[41]        « Dans le dernier tiers du XIIe siècle et les premières années du XIIIe, nous voyons tour à tour venir faire consacrer à Rome leur initiative réformatrice Pierre Ferdinand, Jean de Matha, les chefs des Lombards, Durand de Huesca et Bernard Prieur, d’autres prédicateurs itinérants, Humiliés, Vaudois, pauvres catholiques, enfin François d’Assise et Dominique de Guzman. Le Saint-Siège fait sienne, et ainsi catholicise, leur initiative; il lui donne un statut, une position d’Eglise, souvent avec hardiesse et une générosité étonnantes. Les exemples pourraient être ainsi multipliés. La création de la J.O.C. en constituerait, de nos jours, l’un des plus symptomatiques : où nous aurions l’initiative, périphérique et prophétique s’il en est, d’ un vicaire de la banlieue de Bruxelles, qui se rend à Rome muni d’une lettre de son archevêque et là rencontre, de la part d’un pape qu’animait, lui aussi, l’esprit prophétique, une consécration par laquelle le jeune mouvement devient un mouvement de l’Eglise elle-même, le prototype des créations réformatrices de l’Action catholique. Magnifique création, ouverture pleine de promesses du développement : œuvre prophétique née du double prophétisme conjugué de la périphérie et du centre. La hiérarchie, elle aussi, est prophétique et sait ne pas éteindre l’esprit. » (Congar, Vraie et fausse réforme dans l’Eglise). Later, Congar expanded on this thought in a letter to Marguerite Fievez in 1975 : « La rencontre de son inspiration et de ses premières réalisations avec l’idée de Pie XI sur l’Action Catholique m’apparaissait comme l’exemple parfait de l’assomption au sommet d’une inspiration d’en bas, la synthèse des deux : ce qu’avait été, au début du XIII siècle, le cas de Dominique (et de François) accueilli par Innocent III. Je voyais là un trait exemplaire marquant la vie d’Eglise : je l’ai dit dans Vraie et Fausse Réforme dans l’Eglise, Paris, 1950, p. 284-85. » (Archives Cardijn, 1970/8)  

[42]        “Yes, it is necessary to kill oneself to save the working world. Not just an elite, but the mass. The elite is the leaven, the elite are the multipliers. The Church needs the working class… Without the working class, the Church is not the Church of Christ… Every young worker has an infinite value… etc. Yes, kill yourself to bring them back to the Church. The greatest scandal of the nineteenth century is that the Church lost the working class. I bless you, I support you. Your movement is not your movement, it’s mine, it belongs to the Church. Whoever touches it, touches the apple of my eye.” (Cardijn, Meeting with Pius XI 

[43]        Pope Pius XI quoted by Cardijn addressing the 1929 Joc pilgrimage to Rome. (Cardijn, Lecture 3, The Hour of the Working Class—the-worker-movement 

[44]        The classic example here is French JOC founder, Fr Georges Guérin, who had belonged to the Sillon. Pierrard 1997: ?. Moreover, Lille Archbishop Achille Liénart, who was one of the first bishops to support Cardijn, had also been sympathetic to the Sillon while a seminarian. Bruno Dumons, Compte-rendu, Le cardinal Liénart,archevêque de Lille, Esprit & Vie n°61 / juillet 2002 – 1e quinzaine, p. 25. 

[45]        « J’ai été ordonné prêtre le 25 juillet 1930. Dès ce moment, la JOC a été pour moi une cause chère. J’ai très souvent prêché des récollections, en particulier à la Fédération de Mouscron, qui venait au Saulchoir (près Tournai) fréquemment. Je ne peux pas dater mes contacts avec l’abbé Cardijn et surtout, car nos relations ont été plus fréquentes avec l’abbé Robert Kothen. De Cardijn j’ai particulièrement aimé sa conférence de la Semaine sociale de Reims, « Ita Missa est ». Il était pour moi le type accompli du rôle de l’initiative de la base dans l’Eglise. La rencontre de son inspiration et de ses premières réalisations avec l’idée de Pie XI sur l’Action Catholique m’apparaissait comme l’exemple parfait de l’assomption au sommet d’une inspiration d’en bas, la synthèse des deux : ce qu’avait été, au début du XIII siècle, le cas de Dominique (et de François) accueilli par Innocent III. Je voyais là un trait exemplaire marquant la vie d’Eglise : je l’ai dit dans Vraie et Fausse Réforme dans l’Eglise, Paris, 1950, p. 284-85. » Lettre Congar à Marguérite Fiévez, Archives Cardijn, Brussels, 1970-8.

[46]        The notes of Congar’s talks and preachings can be found in his archives at Le Saulchoir in Paris.

[47]        Puyo – Congar, 41.

[48]        « Les récollections se déroulaient dans un climat de ferveur. Je parlais aux jocistes de l’Évangile; ils m’interrogeaient; je m’efforçais de les rejoindre dans leurs difficultés concrètes. Ils repartaient, gonflés à bloc, le dimanche soir. On les entendait chanter sur plusieurs centaines de mètres, en direction de la gare de Tournai, distante de trois kilomètres du couvent du Saulchoir… Je dois beaucoup à ces jeunes garçons. Ils m’ont révélé le sens de l’insertion de l’Évangile dans l’humanité. C’est à cette époque que j’ai pris l’habitude de lier la doxologie qui termine le Canon de la messe – « par Lui, avec Lui et en Lui » — à cette incarnation du Christ dans la pâte humaine… Je dois donc à la J.O.C. et à nos rencontres avec les aumôniers du travail de Lille — parmi lesquels je connus l’abbé Godin, l’un des auteurs de La France, pays de mission? — cette pensée qui serait sans doute à nuancer : le Corps mystique du Christ à l’atelier. Le Père Chenu a développé ce thème de réflexion dans d’innombrables articles : la Parole de Dieu, la grâce sont incarnées dans l’humanité, l’humanité prise dans sa dimension historique, son devenir, son dynamisme; dans sa dimension sociale, insiste le Père Chenu, dans ses conditions de lutte des classes, dans les mouvements de libération. » Puyo – Congar, 52.

[49]        « Il semble que la cause principale de la déchristianistion du prolétariat soit bien ce déracinement des nouveaux citadins. Perdant l’aide puissante que leur apportait la communauté de leur village, ils n’ont pas retrouvé dans les autres cités d’autres communautés de base pour la remplacer. » (Godin – Daniel, 200)

[50]        Pope Pius XII, Lettre autographe à Cardijn, 21 mars 1949.

[51]        « C’est par la présence agissante au sein des usines et des chantiers de pionniers pleinement conscients de leur double vocation — chrétienne et ouvrière —, décidés à assumer entièrement leurs responsabilités et à ne connaître ni trêve ni repos jusqu’à ce qu’ils aient transformé leurs milieux de vie selon les exigences de l’Evangile. C’est par cette oeuvre positive, constructive, que l’Eglise pourra étendre son action vivifiante à des millions d’âmes qu’elle entoure d’une si ardente et maternelle sollicitude ; et c’est à cette tâche sublime que sont appelés à contribuer les jeunes chefs ouvriers chrétiens formés par la J. O. C. »

[52]        The nuncio in Brussels during this period was Archbishop (later Cardinal) Fernando Cento, who during Vatican II would become the president of the Pontifical Lay Apostolate Commission. Cf. Moreover, Cardijn was in regular contact during this period with Monsignor Giovanni Montini (the future Pope Paul VI) in the Secretariat of State. Cf. Archives of the JOC Internationale.

[53] For an English translation, see also 

[54]        The point is developed further in Paragraph 25: “From the exuberant life of a true people, an abundant rich life is diffused in the state and all its organs, instilling into them. with a vigour that is always renewing itself, the consciousness of their own responsibility, the true instinct for the common good.”

[55]        « Elle entreprend de façonner leur esprit et leur coeur pour en faire des hommes conscients de leurs responsabilités et prêts à affronter sans crainte les plus lourdes tâches. C’est que le jocisme a formé, là où il travaille depuis longtemps, des chefs chrétiens, et qui, comme tels, sont une espérance pour l’avenir social et la régénération chrétienne du monde ouvrier. » Pius XII, Discours au rassemblement mondial de la JOC (25 August 1957)