Lay people transforming their lives and the world

Lay people transforming their lives and the world:

Cardijn’s vision of the lay apostolate at Vatican II

Stefan Gigacz

Ph.D. Student

MCD University of Divinity

Melbourne Australia



Vatican II: 
Teaching and Understanding the Council After 50 Years

September 20-22, 2012
University of St. Thomas, St. Paul Minnesota


As founder of the Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement, Joseph Cardijn emerged as a global figure of Catholicism during the years after World War II when he embarked on a series of more than twenty major intercontinental tours that only concluded shortly before his death in 1967[1].

A confidant of every pope from Pius XI to Paul VI, Cardijn welcomed the announcement of Vatican II by Pope John XXIII, to whom he proposed the writing of the encyclical Mater et Magistra.

In 1960, Pope John appointed him to the preparatory Lay Apostolate Commission created at the pope’s express request and he continued on in this role during the Council. At the Fourth Session, Cardijn was able to participate as a Council Father after Pope Paul VI named him a Cardinal at the consistory of February 1965.

Cardijn’s personal archives in Brussels, with 102 folders specifically dealing with Vatican II, document the extraordinary work Cardijn did during the Council. They include the three speeches that Cardijn delivered in aula at the Council together with two others that were submitted in written form. The archives also include 32 hand numbered documents (including the speeches) that Cardijn evidently regarded as his most important contributions to the Council.

Drawing on those documents and on his book Towards an Apostolic Laity, compiled and published in 1963 in a bid to influence the Council, this paper will endeavour to set out the vision of lay apostolate that Cardijn developed over his lifetime of work with the YCW and that he sought to transmit to the Council.

Cardijn, founder of the Young Christian Workers movement

Born in Brussels in 1882, Joseph Cardijn grew up both in the shadow of the industrial revolution and the light of Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. Among his childhood memories, he often cited the “clatter of wooden clogs” of the child workers on their work to work early each morning. He also recalled going with his father to listen to a talk by the famous labour priest Fr Adolf Daens who perhaps inspired his desire to become a priest.

Cardijn also often repeated the story of the defining experience of rejection at the age of fifteen by his former school and catechism classmates who had gone to work in factories while he had gone to the minor seminary. It was this experience that led him to devote his life to bridging the gap between the Church and the working class that Pius XI later described to him as the greatest tragedy of the 19th century.

To understand Cardijn, it is also vital to understand his intellectual heritage, which he set out succinctly in a simple list of his reading at various stages of his career. Significantly, he begins by citing “The Lamennais School” being the disciples of the turbulent Irish-French priest who sought to reconcile the notions of God and freedom. While at the major seminary in Malines, he also came under the influence of Marc Sangnier’s Sillon (Furrow) movement for democracy – the first Catholic-inspired organisation to describe itself as a “movement”. It was from the Sillon that Cardijn learnt the “method of democratic education” that he would later develop and re-brand as the “see-judge-act” method. Later, after Malines Archbishop Désiré Mercier exiled him to teach Latin at a rural minor seminary, he travelled to Britain where he spent a fortnight in the company of trade union and co-operative leaders, many of whom were self-described “Christian socialists”.

By Easter 1912 when Cardinal Mercier finally dared to appoint him the parish of Notre Dame at Laeken, just outside Brussels, he was already an expert in social action. Within a year, he had organised a thousand women workers from a neighbourhood that his parish priest had previously ignored and launched the first groups of teenage female workers that Cardijn regarded as the first YCW groups.

Emerging from the devastation of World War I in 1919, Cardijn together with Fernand Tonnet, Paul Garcet and Jacques Meert launched the Trades Union Youth movement which in 1924 changed its name to Young Christian Workers (YCW). The next year, threatened with closure by Mercier, Cardijn sought a personal meeting with Pope Pius XI, who against all expectations gave his approval to the new movement in an event that Yves Congar later compared to the way in which medieval popes had approved the then-marginal movements of St Francis and St Dominic. The creation of the YCW, Congar wrote, was “one of the most emblematic events of our time, in which we find a prophetic initiative from the periphery, whereby a curate from suburban Brussels arrives in Rome with a letter from his archbishop and receives the consecration from the pope,  himself also animated with a prophetic spirit, by which the young movement becomes a movement of the Church itself, the prototype of the reforming creations of Catholic Action.”[2] 

By the time that World War II broke out in 1939, Cardijn’s YCW was present in 50 countries and well on the way to becoming a worldwide movement that by the time Vatican II opened would transform him into arguably the first global figure of Catholicism.

2. Cardijn – the networker and lobbyist

To understand Cardijn’s impact at Vatican II, it is vital to comprehend the extent of his global network of influence.

From 1925, Cardijn made it a policy to visit the incumbent pontiff in Rome each year, a policy he implemented without fail each year except during World War II. Thus, he knew Cardinal Pacelli long before he became Pope Pius XII. He was in regular contact with Monsignor Giovanni Montini, the future Paul VI who would make him a cardinal, from 1946[3]. He regularly met a young Fr Karol Wojtyla, who lodged at the Belgian College in Rome during the 1950s where he stayed in contact with Cardijn after first visiting him in Belgium in 1947. And although he did not meet John XXIII until he was already pope, it was Cardijn who proposed the drafting of an encyclical to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, which became Mater et Magistra[4]. It is difficult to think of any other person, who was personally close to virtually every pontiff from Pius XI to John Paul II.

Moreover, during his annual Rome visits, Cardijn not only visited other Vatican officials who would occupy important posts by the time of Vatican II, he made it a point to visit seminaries and universities where he addressed multitudes of future theologians, bishops and leaders of Church opinion. Taken together with the fact that he also spoke regularly at Louvain, another great international centre of Catholic learning, and his numerous international voyages, it is clear that by Vatican II, Cardijn personally knew literally hundreds of Vatican II bishops. Moreover, he also knew the Roman milieux far better than most Vatican II bishops whose contacts in Rome were limited to their ad limina visits. Moreover, there were twenty Council Fathers who had previously been national chaplains of the YCW.

Similarly, many of the leading theologians at Vatican II had also been closely with the YCW or the other specialised Catholic Action movements. Cardijn had worked with MD Chenu from the late 1920s, with Yves Congar from the early 1930s, with the Belgians Albert Dondeyne (ICMICA), Francois Houtart (YCW), Gerard Philips (YCS), Gustave Thils and many others.

In addition, Cardijn had been heavily involved from the 1930s in the development of the network of emerging international Catholic lay organisations that led after World War II to the creation of International Catholic Organisations (ICO) Conference. And he was a leading figure at the first two international lay apostolate congresses held in Rome in 1951 and 1957 as well as in the COPECIAL, the lay apostolate co-ordinating group created by Pius XII in 1952[5].

Moreover, the International YCW organised an international pilgrimage that brought 32,000 young workers from around the world to Rome for a Mass in St Peter’s Square on 25 August 1957, an event that captured the imagination of the Catholic world of that time. The first International Council took place immediately afterwards and was followed a month by the Second World Congress on the Lay Apostolate.

Thus, by the time Pope John XXIII called Vatican II, Cardijn was a prestigious international figure with an unparallelled worldwide network of contacts among the bishops and theologians of the world. As the Council unfolded, he did not hesitate to make extensive use of it.

Nevertheless, he was by no means a universally loved figure. From the beginning, he faced a struggle for recognition from other bishops in Belgium and, as we shall see, this also extended to his own bishop at the time of Vatican II, Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens.

Preparing the Council:The proper and irreplaceable role of lay people

Cardijn welcomed the Council as soon as it was announced in January 1959. With the International YCW, he began immediately to prepare for it.

On 26 September 1960, Cardijn and the IYCW International Secretariat organised a meeting with the International Federation of Christian Worker Movements (FIMOC) and the French Action Catholique Ouvrière (ACO) to discuss plans for the Council. According to IYCW president Romeo Maione, these included establishing a working commission “to prepare a list of bishops convinced of the worker apostolate”, “to study each commission in order to prepare points for our friends”, “to study how to pass on the preoccupation for the worker apostolate in the decisions of the Council” and even to establish a secretariat in Rome for these purposes[6].

A month later on 26 October 1960, the IYCW itself organised a special consultation with chaplains and lay leaders from the various continents to prepare the Council themselves.

For the IYCW it was a matter of drawing on “our competency and our originality” to raise awareness among Council Fathers of “the mass of young workers to be saved” and “the role of lay people in the Church as we conceive it”[7].

Here Cardijn himself emphasised “the necessity of the worker apostolate”, “the worker problem and the Church”, and the fact that workers themselves must solve these problems. Cardijn also pointed to the need for a Roman secretariat “to study the problem of lay people in the Church”[8].

Two weeks later, the IYCW Executive Committee meeting in Amsterdam from 2-13 November 1960 issued a statement highlighting the working and living conditions of 300 million young workers around the world and calling for the Council “to define clearly the proper role of lay people in the Church and the world, the need for their apostolic and the mission of lay apostolic movements”[9].

By February 1961, Cardijn was writing to the YCW national movements asking them to complete a survey form for the newly established Pontifical Commission for the Lay Apostolate[10]. On 3 July, Liverpool Archbishop John C. Heenan wrote to Cardijn acknowledging the letter from Cardijn and local YCW leaders and welcoming their interest in the Council. Later he would become an important ally inside the Council.

The same month, Cardijn also wrote to Monsignor Jan Willebrands of the Pontifical Secretariat for the Union of Churches raising the issue of working with Christians of other denominations as well as non-Christians[11]. Both Willebrands as well as Cardinal Bea would later express their “real satisfaction” with the ecumenical interest of the YCW.

By July 1961, the IYCW had compiled the reflections of a series of leaders which they sent to the Cardinal Felici, secretary-general of the Council, and to the various commissions. In a document clearly drafted in large part by Cardijn, the IYCW leaders emphasise “the apostolic role of lay people in the Church: its proper and irreplaceable task of witness and leaven at the hear of secular realities and the positive role which is their own in the building up of the Church itself”. Once again, the leaders insisted on the urgency of the worker apostolate in the current world situation and the need for workers to take their own responsibility in their struggle. The leaders emphasised the need for priests to work with the movement and called for the establishment of “an institution in the government of the Church” to study the issue of lay apostolate in the world and “the promotion of an authentic lay apostolate incarnating the Gospel message in the life of the world today”[12].

On 11 July 1960, this was sent to Cardinal Felici and all conciliar commissions, the officials of which almost all responded positively and warmly, the only exception being Fr Sebastian Tromp, who somewhat coldly replied that most of the reflections did not concern the Theological Commission but that it would nevertheless keep them in mind!

Despite the warm responses, the IYCW were in no way fooled that their battles were won. Over the next few months, they began to reflect on how to apply their YCW lobbying techniques to influence the Council. Thus, in March 1962, they launched an enquiry among YCW movements on the issue of the Eucharistic fast, which had been an issue pre-occupying YCW movements for many years. The aim was to mobilise the local movements to lobby their own bishops on the issue and to obtain a reduction of the fast to one hour. It is clear that this was a tactical measure to involve the local movements and also the local bishops because Cardijn himself was already writing to Cardinal Masella of Pontifical Commission on the Discipline of the Sacraments seeking the reduction of the fast to one hour[13].

An uphill battle in the Pontifical Commission on Lay Apostolate

Meanwhile, as soon as the Pontifical Commission on Lay Apostolate (PCLA) was created in June 1960, Cardijn wrote congratulating its new president, Cardinal Fernando Cento, who had previously been nuncio to Belgium from 1946  to 1958 and thus already knew Cardijn well[14]. Two months later, Cardijn accepted his own nomination as a member of the Commission.

A few days later, following the IYCW – ACO – FIMOC meeting, Cardijn wrote on 27 September to the secretary, Monsignor Achille Glorieux, whom Cardijn also knew well from the COPECIAL, seeking his advice on “the creation of a sub-commission composed of leaders and militants to submit to the Pontifical Council the point of view, experience and desires of lay apostles themselves”[15]. Glorieux replied on 3 October that it was too soon to propose such a commission since none of the commissions themselves had started work[16]. This reply evidently caused at the IYCW because as International Secretary wrote to a colleague on 15 October asking: “Didn’t Msgr Glorieux understand that Cardijn was proposing the creation of a sub-commission by the organisations?”[17]

It was a telling and ominous misunderstanding, evidencing the mindset that was characteristic of even the most open Vatican officials. Nevertheless, both Glorieux and Cento were both very favourable and welcoming to proposals and papers from Cardijn. Over the next two years of preparation, Cardijn would send a total of 15 written proposals to the PCLA on various aspects of what would eventually become the draft text on the lay apostolate.

Cardijn wasted no time sending in his first paper for the commission on 30 October on “The apostolate of lay people”.This develops the points already being made by the IYCW in its own submissions, particularly concerning “the proper and irreplaceable role of lay people”, and “the essential problems of the life of lay people and their present dimensions”. As usual, Cardijn is extremely down to earth in listing these issues: “What is the goal of my life? Am I in good health? What relations do I have with my parents or children? Does my housing meet my desires and needs? Do I have a trade? Do I participate in (political) life? What will happen with population increase? Etc”.

“Lay people must become conscious both of the problems and the solutions in which they are involved as a matter of course in order to be able to commit themselves as Christians, freely and with love, as a response to their mission and earthly responsibility,” Cardijn proposes in a characteristic phrase[18].

In his second note dated 16 December 1960, Cardijn appears to be already reacting to what he perceives as an over-analytical approach on the part of the Commission.

He insisted that “the apostolate of lay people has two essential, primordial and inseparable aspects, namely 1. Its relationship with God, Christ and the Church; with the plan of God in the work of Creation and Redemption; 2. Its relationship with the fundamental problems of man and the world, with their influences and their depth, in their total dimension.” [19]

In his third note dated 15 December 1960, Cardijn insisted again on the need “to begin from two initial realities”, namely the Church, its mission and its composition on one hand, and “the life, the needs of all people, created by God and having a mission, a vocation received from God”[20]. Thus, Cardijn argued, the Council should start from the objective of that apostolate, which is “the rediscovery and realisation of the divine mission of every person and of all human institutions”. Hence, the need for formation in this apostolate.

His fourth note only a week later and written while he was on mission in Lomé, Togo, called for collaboration between lay people and priests working together to deal with all the various problems of life and development which all have “a human, moral and religious aspect that determines the value of their solution”.[21]

Cardinal Cento and Msgr Glorieux clearly appreciated these early notes and asked for copies to circulate to members of the PCLA. Nevertheless, Cardijn was clearly starting to become preoccupied with the direction that the PCLA was already taking. So he asked his secretary Marguerite Fiévez to write to Pietro Pavan enclosing a copy of the notes that he had previously sent to John XXIII for the drafting of what would become Mater et Magistra as well as the documents he was writing for the PCLA[22].

Cardijn’s next note dealt with the work of the IYCW, quoting a series of pontifical letters and addresses given to the YCW by Popes Pius XI and Pius XII, all of which approve and laud various aspects of the work of the YCW, including its see-judge-act method[23]. Significantly, Mater et Magistra will already pick up on the method, presumably through the work of Pavan.

In Note 6, Cardijn addressed another controversial point that will cost much time in the PCLA, namely the notion of the “mandate” for Catholic Action organisations. Here Cardijn was adamant that this in no way implied a monopoly for any particular organisation.

“The mandate of the Hierarchy to a Catholic Action organisation is limited to the mission confided,” Cardijn wrote. “It does not give a monopoly, nor does it give an international organisation a power above the power of the local Hierarchy; it is more an order of mission, than an encouragement or an approval.”

The objective was “to officialise a private mission and to guarantee it to the subordinated hierarchies, who maintain all their power of jurisdiction and to stimulate the members of the organisation,” Cardijn insists[24].

Note 7 took up the religious formation of leaders[25], a point of fundamental importance to Cardijn. From Note 8, Cardijn started to comment directly on draft texts of the PCLA, and his concerns were clearly growing.

The Commission was working on a very theoretical set of documents that endeavours to classify lay apostolate activity into action promoting the reign of God, social action and charitable action. For Cardijn it was completely the wrong approach.

In July 1961, a group of YCW leaders from every continent produced a document that was shared with the Commission and sent to many bishops. Clearly, Cardijn was the driving force behind this document and it once again emphasises the reality lived by people around the world and the irreplaceable role of lay people in transforming that world[26].

This widely circulated document signaled that Cardijn has lost hope of having an impact inside the Commission and was now looking for allies to influence its direction from outside.

On 9 August, he wrote to Archbishop Guano, president of Italian Catholic Action, sharing his “preoccupations” that also “seemed to be yours”[27].

Meanwhile, Cardijn battled on, insisting apologetically on the “proper and irreplaceable role of lay people” in a series of letters to Msgr Glorieux. Finally also on 28 December 1961, he wrote to Cardinal Cento apologising once again but adding that “my conscience pushes me to launch this appeal”[28].

A day later, he wrote to another Commission member, Cardinal Gabriel Garrone of Toulouse, another ally and supporter of the YCW and Catholic Action movements, who had in fact published a short book on Catholic Action in 1958. Garrone replied on 9 January, agreeing with Cardijn and noting that Glorieux had spoken of bringing together a “petite équipe” (small team) in “a private manner” to discuss the problems. In effect, it seems that Glorieux is frustrated by what is happening but is constrained by his role from taking any overt position.

Meanwhile, Cardijn continued to send notes insisting on “the proper and irreplaceable role of lay people” until March when Glorieux finally thanked him for his latest batch of notes and informed him that there would be no need to send any more as they would be too late to affect the drafting process.

In July the draft documents were sent to Council Fathers in preparation for the opening of the Council on 12 October 1962.

The opening of the Council

With the Council opening only days away, Cardijn put the finishing touches to his book Laïcs en premières lignes in September ready for publication in French in April 1963. As Cardijn recognised, he was simply repeating what he had previously been saying throughout his life. But “I wanted to say once more, and forcefully, that which my conscience considers to be the will of God: The world needs lay apostles and the Church must form them!”

On 8 October, the incoming president of the IYCW, Bartolo Perez of Brazil, and new vice-president Betty Villa of the Philippines together with Cardijn sent a letter to Pope John XXIII expressing their desire to work for the success of the Council, but also taking the opportunity to emphasise directly to the pope the importance of the irreplaceable and proper, personal and community role of young workers and the need to clarify “the mission of the apostolate of lay people and the organised laity in the Church”[29]. The letter would be widely circulated in the YCW, providing another opportunity to get the message across.

Meanwhile, the IYCW also wrote to national movements requesting leaders to offer up their work each Friday as a sacrifice for the success of the Council, responding to Pope John’s earlier call for penance. One month later on 13 November 1962, Cardijn celebrated his 80th birthday, which provided him with yet another platform for projecting his message to the Church and to the people of the world.

There appears to be no record of Cardijn’s activities during the opening session of the Council but it is certain that he was active meeting bishops and particularly working with the YCW and the movements to mobilise opinion within the Church.

Over the next few months, Cardijn and the YCW leaders drafted a new, more developed series of proposals for the Council Fathers that had been “requested by several bishops”.

In February 1963, Cardijn and the IYCW began to send copies of this document to various bishops and commissions. The files of the IYCW note in particular the sending of copies to Bishop Manuel Larrain of Talca, Chile and Archbishop Eugenio Araujo Sales of Natal, Brazil.

The tenor of this six chapter document can be summed up in its five proposals on lay apostolate:

1. That a general effort, systematic and far-reaching, be made throughout the whole Church to make the necessity and importance of the lay apostolate for a Christian solution to the most urgent problems facing the world understood.

2. That a solemn declaration be made by the Council, officially confirming the value that the Church attaches to the lay apostolate.

3. That the Council urgently invite all of the laity to work for the Kingdom of God in their daily life, as a requirement of the sacraments of baptism and confirmation which they have received; and that the Church give them the explicit mission to “construct a world such as God wants,” according to the words of Pius XII.

4. That these solemn declarations specify the exact content of the lay apostolate, for which the lay people are indispensable and irreplaceable in the Church, that is, in their daily temporal life, in the human milieu in which they are providentially placed – family, profession, civic life, cultural institutions, etc.

5. That a new Roman Dicastery be created and made responsible for instigating this conception and this expansion of the lay apostolate in the Church; that it be charged with actively promoting the formation that is indispensable to the laity if it is to carry out its mission and its own apostolate in temporal life.[30]

In effect, these are the major points that the IYCW will work on for the rest of the Council.

Slow progress in the Conciliar Commission on the Apostolate of the Faithful

In February 1963, Glorieux informed Cardijn of his official “billet” (ticket) as a peritus in the Council Commission that succeeded the PCLA.

To the surprise of many including Msgr Glorieux, the new commission took the name of “Commissio de fidelium apostolatu” – Commission for the apostolate of the faithful” – dropping reference to the term “laity”.

The same month, Cardijn’s secretary and former IYCW secretary, Marguerite Fiévez, and former IYCW president, Patrick Keegan, were among the first group of lay people chosen for a “consultation”[31].

In April, the Central Commission of the Council approved the draft text “De apostolatu laicorum” for printing and distribution to the bishops[32].

A week later, on 3 May, Cardijn asks Glorieux for a copy of the text and Glorieux replies on 9 May saying it will be sent as soon as ready. But he then adds a blockbuster announcement:

“You know only that, if the “Title” concerning social action is actually quite reduced, it is because a whole part of what we had prepared has been directed to a new Schema “De praessentia et actione Ecclesiae in mundo hodierno” which is under preparation by a Mixed Commission. The bishops will receive the Schema only later, at best during the month of August.”[33]

After two years battling in the PCLA to ensure that the text on the lay apostolate deals with social reality and life, suddenly, it was whisked away to another commission the existence of which he was totally unaware!

It took Cardijn over two weeks to reply on 27 May.

“I have to say that I virtually somersaulted upon learning that there were two schemas prepared… Lay people are evidently not the only ones to act in and on the world, but the apostolate of lay people is exercised in and on the world. How then to separate the two schemas? Doesn’t this by its very nature underestimate the importance of the apostolate of lay people in the world?” Cardijn asked.

And he immediately requested a copy of the draft new schema so as “to be able to speak of it to the Bishops”.

“Or if not could you tell me whom I can ask for a copy?” Cardijn continued[34].

Yet another surprise awaited him in Glorieux’s next letter.

“It seems that the title of the new Schema will be, finally, “ De munere Ecclesiae quoad bonum in societe hodierno provovendum”. This expression corresponds better in content to that requested by the Coordination Commission. It is clear that the role of lay people is essential, and this will be stated clearly, insisting on what they have that is irreplaceable. But the ensemble of chapters foreshadowed goes beyond the perspective of lay people alone; and this is why it involves a new separate Schema.

“For the moment, the texts are only provisional and need to be presented to the Commission of Coordination from the 4 June. You know that Cardinal Suenens is a member and it would evidently be better for him to inform yourself on this Schema.”[35]

This would have been an even greater shock to Cardijn whose relations with Suenens were cool not to say conflictual.

Cardijn and Suenens: A rivalry

To take a couple of steps back, the Suenens archives make it clear that tensions between Suenens and Cardijn dated back at least to the early 1950s when Suenens was a young auxiliary bishop in Brussels. Leo Declerck and T. Osaers note that this tension related to competition (or perceived competition) between the Legion of Mary and the JOC in many countries[36]. Declerck and Osaer cite a letter Suenens wrote in 1953 to Legion of Mary founder, Frank Duff:

“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 in a country where people has [sic] nothing to eat. Do you see the reasoning! In the same way every missionary who is not doing social work is a protagonist of communism!”

And in reply on 24 October 1953, Duff wrote back:

“I am much amused at the manner in which Mgr Cardijn reasons that the Legion of Mary leads directly to Communism. So it is because the Legion of Mary absorbs all the best apostolic material! That puts the J.O.C. into a peculiar light as an apostolic instrument. For if an instrument is of apostolic importance and vigour, it should as one of its virtues be capable of attracting membership to itself and that in spite of the competition of other Societies. Unlike Mgr Cardijn, Cardinal Tisserant is never tired of insisting that the Legion of Mary is of all the most efficacious for resisting atheist materialism…”

Elsewhere, Fr Declerck and Mathias Lamberigts provide further details on the Suenens-Cardijn conflict[37], writing:

“During the 1950’s, a large number of bishops and priests were reluctant to support the Legion of Mary because it was perceived as competition for the more specialized Catholic Action and which had been given a direct mandate by the episcopate. At the 2nd International Lay Conference held in Rome in 1957, Suenens had succeeded in getting Pius XII to comment on the issue in his speech. Suenens published an article on it in 1958 (in the Nouvelle Revue Théologique).”

This battle continued into the Council, as Lamberigts and Declerck explain, when Suenens blocked the appointment of a Cardijn ally, Belgian Bishop Charles-Marie Himmer of Tournai from the list of candidates for conciliar commissions. Suenens also criticised the PCLA for having failed to take account of his 1958 article on Catholic Action. Later on 9 September 1964, he would make the same criticism in aula[38].

In any event, given this relationship with his own diocesan bishop, namely Suenens, Cardijn found himself in a delicate and difficult situation regarding having an impact on the new Schema XVII. There is no evidence as to whether he attempted to contact Suenens on this issue as Glorieux had advised.

Moreover, also unknown to Cardijn, was the fact that the Coordinating Commission would on 3-4 July give Suenens the task of preparing a new draft of Schema XVII. To achieve this, Suenens called a meeting later known as the Malines meeting held 6-8 September. Among the theologians there were a number of Cardijn allies including Gustave Thils, Yves Congar, Albert Dondeyne and Lucien Cerfaux – but not Cardijn himself! Given Cardijn’s profile in Belgium and the world, not to mention the fact that it was he who had proposed and prepared notes for Pope John’s Mater et Magistra, it is hard to see this as anything but a snub on the part of Suenens.

Cardijn and the lay movements launch a campaign

Meanwhile, Pope John XXIII had taken ill and died on 6 June 1963, followed by the election of Paul VI on 21 June. Despite the loss of Pope John, the election of Paul VI was good news for Cardijn who had known him personally for decades, and was, I believe, at least as close (probably closer) to the pope as say Jacques Maritain or Jean Guitton. This also opened up a way for Cardijn to outmanoeuvre Suenens.

In any event, Cardijn knew immediately that he had to mobilise his forces. In early July, he telephoned Lille in a bid to speak with Cardinal Liénart, another long standing ally who had supported the YCW from the 1920s even before most Belgian bishops[39].

Although unable to make an appointment to see Liénart, Cardijn took the opportunity to send him a list of his points via his secretary, Msgr Palémon Glorieux:

“We ardently wish that the Council Fathers will clearly express their desire to see realised the double aspect of the apostolate of the laity: the proper aspect and the co-ordination aspect from the base to the summit. That this desire be above all expressed for the world of work and that a Commission – dicastery or central institution – be created to ensure the execution after the Council, in intimate collaboration of the laity and the Hierarchy of every continent”.[40]

Simultaneously, the IYCW was working to bring together the youth specialised Catholic Action movements, leading to the publication in August 1963 of a document “Specialised Catholic Action among youth” in three languages and distributed widely among the bishops. Once again, the document concluded with a list of proposals focusing as usual on the need for formation for an apostolate “in the daily environment” or milieu of each person, as well as calling for a Roman Secretariat to study the lay apostolate[41].

At the end of September 1963, the IYCW held a special meeting of leaders in Rome to study the Council, and evidently to lobby for the movement’s goals and objectives.

It is clear that the decision to launch Schema XVII had succeeded in mobilising the lay movements.

From Schema XVII to Schema XIII

Cardinal Suenens vision for Schema XVII was clearly a theologically oriented document and this is what the Malines meeting prepared.

As Fr Roberto Tucci, who took part in the drafting of Schema XVII/XIII, stated:

“Most (Council Fathers) considered that the schema treated the subject form almost exclusively “theological” point of view, i.e. starting from Revelation leading to theological conclusions, whereas some Fathers and experts desired that the document, if it was to find an audience among modern men, should follow the example of the encyclicals Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris, by employing a style and arguments accessible to all and thus flowing from natural morality.”

Moreover, since it “left aside any allusion to the most serious problems facing humanity today it lost its bite and did not meet the expectations of people of our time,” Tucci noted[42].

The result was that the Malines text “roused the wrath of (Cardinal) Garrone”, who as we have seen  was a Cardijn ally, and many other Council Fathers[43].

Moreover, it is clear that Cardijn and the lay movements were lobbying hard by the time of the Second Session of the Council in October 1963.

As mentioned, the IYCW held a special meeting at the end of September, which was followed by its Executive Committee meeting in Rome from 6-13 October.

Cardijn’s notes for this period also list many meetings with bishops from various countries and continents, including such notable figures as Bishop Larrain, Bishop Helder Camara, Archbishop Araujo Sales, as well as Cardinal Garrone[44].

In December 1963, French Bishop Jacques Ménager of Meaux, also close to the Catholic Action movements, had launched some ideas for a new draft. By February 1964, this was under way, with a notable role of MD Chenu, a Cardijn ally from the late 1920s[45]. Soon after a group of priests associated with the Mission de Paris became involved, as did Canon Pierre Haubtmann, the rector of the Catholic Institute of Paris, and a former national chaplain of the Action Catholic Ouvrière, and “a set of advisers connected with the Jocist group”[46].

Within months, Haubtmann had been appointed as editor of Schema XVII, and Cardinal Garrone had taken over as chair, with other Cardijn allies such as Archbishop Marcos MacGrath of Panama also heavily involved in the process[47].

The principle of the “signs of the times” was introduced, which signified “a shift in theological method from the deductive approach that had been used to the inductive approach employed in the Zurich schema” which emerged at a January 1964 meeting in Zurich[48].

Cardijn’s role

These were evidently very positive developments from Cardijn’s point of view. However, he continued to write to Msgr Glorieux seeking copies of the various drafts, and there is no doubt that he continued to feel somewhat excluded from the actual drafting process.

Moreover, the problem was that the apostolate of lay people was now “dealt with in three different schemas: lay people in the Church, the Church and the construction of the world, and the lay apostolate”[49].

In any event, there was no going back for the Council.

Cardijn continued to play a major role in the Commission on the Apostolate of the Faithful. Despite his dissatisfaction, slowly he began to have an impact.

By the Third Session of the Council in October 1964, his allies among the bishops again came to his support. In particular, Bishop Emile Joseph De Smedt of Bruges, whose sister Livine had been a YCW fulltimer “propagandist” emphasised in his speech in aula that the “best way of forming (young people) was applied at the beginning of the century in the Young Catholic Workers movement with its principle ‘See, judge, act’”[50].

By this time, also, there were many lay auditors including Keegan, who was the first to address the Council, Bartolo Perez, the then current president of the IYCW, as well as a number of other ex-YCWs and people from the specialised Catholic Action movements.

Cardijn also had the ear of Pope Paul VI. In fact,  Cardijn wrote a 60 page paper on dialogue for Paul VI to assist in the drafting of his first encyclical Ecclesiam Suam[51]. Even so, it was still a surprise to many, and Cardijn most of all, when the pope appointed him as bishop and cardinal at the consistory of February 1965.

This meant that Cardijn was now a Council Father, free to intervene in aula in the Fourth and final Session of Vatican II. With the encouragement and assistance of Yves Congar, who had been inspired by Cardijn and the YCW as a young priest, Cardijn prepared five speeches for the Council[52].

Unfortunately, he was not able to deliver his speech on lay apostolate, although he did submit it as a conciliar document.

“During the sixty years I have lived with young workers,” Cardijn began in a typical deceptively simple address, “I never met any who are immediately concerned with spirituality and moved by supernatural ends.

“But from the beginning I took an interest in their work and their lives. I asked what they were thinking, what they thought about their work, their housing, their recreation and all the various aspects of their lives. We started to become friends. We searched together how to improve, to help others. We met together as militants to do this review of life. Together we made recollections and retreats…  Little by little they began to understand the need for the sacraments, the mass and communion to unite themselves with Christ, to live with Him, by Him.

“We cannot transform the world without them. THEY are the Church in the world of today, together with their families, as well as their influence in all the key posts of national and international life but most of all at the grassroots, in ordinary and daily life,” Cardijn told the Council Fathers[53].

This implied the “absolute necessity and irreplaceable importance of the apostolate of lay people”.

But in order to form such lay apostles, Cardijn insisted, “we must first of all be convinced of this fundamental truth, namely that  the apostolate of lay people is the lay life of lay people” from local to international level, as well the “divine value” of that life and the “transformation that must take place with, by and in Christ and the Church, with the resources of the Church (prayer, sacraments, etc.) but which are incarnated in the affairs of the world.”

Vatican II ultimately did accept this vision of the lay apostolate, although undoubtedly in less elegant and less forceful terms than Cardijn’s own. Lumen Gentium recognised the “special” role of lay people in making the Church “present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth”[54] while Apostolicam Actuositatem opens with a reference to the “proper and indispensable role” of lay people[55].

Cardijn’s undelivered speech on priestly ministry also offered a corollary to his emphasis on lay apostolate.

“The starting point is listening to people and striving to understand, to love them and and accept them as they are,” Cardijn says[56].

His two speeches on Gaudium et Spes set out the concrete challenges that were so close to his heart and to his conception of the lay apostolate and the adoption of the Pastoral Constitution vindicated his vision.

Similarly, his speech on religious freedom offered an anthropological vision of the human person seeing, judging and acting for the transformation of their lives and the world that is also largely taken up in Dignitatis Humanae, in which his friends and colleagues Pietro Pavan and Emile Joseph De Smedt played such a role[57].

A  Roman secretariat for the lay apostolate

Nevertheless, not all of Cardijn’s vision was adopted at the Council. Perhaps, his most significant “failure”, if that is the right word, was in failing to establish a “democratic” Roman centre for the lay apostolate that would directly involve the lay movements.

It is therefore worthwhile recalling his vision for such a secretariat, set out in one of his Council notes:

“1. Most of all this Centre should have a role of information, formation, liaison and animation. In particular, it should on one hand inform the hierarchical authorities on the current trends, problems, and experiences of the lay apostolate; while on the other hand, it should welcome and faithfully communicate the inspirations and suggestions of the Hierarchy to lay leaders. Ultimately, it should be the summit of dialogue between Hierarchy and laity within the Church itself.

Thus, it is not to be the Secretariat of the Hierarchy for controlling or supervising the laity but it should much more be (a) a secretariat of the laity for the Hierarchy, and (b) a secretariat of the laity in view of collaboration with other institutions and organisations outside the Church.

2. This Centre with the various components that it would comprise (Commissions,Assemblies, etc.) should be the expression of the apostolate of lay people in the Church,based on the continents and races – for youth as well as for adults – for the various milieux o flife and modes of lay life – in view of the problems of coordination and collaboration with public and private institutions at the multiple levels of apostolic action – etc.

This is why it cannot be a superstructure, a sort of umbrella body imposed from outside or artificially but should be a peak body, a summit supported by a real and palpable base…

3. As a result, its direction and leaders must also come and rise from the base, in full submission to the Hierarchy. The fact that its leaders will both come from the movements and will be able to speak in their name, and at the same time will be nominated by the Holy See will evidently provide a test of the value given to the role of lay people in the Church.

The importance and need for a genuine apostolate at the base cannot be exaggerated if we wish to avoid building on sand and deluding ourselves….

5. In reality, this Roman Centre for the lay apostolate must above all help, sustain, unite, make known the initiatives taken by others, rather than organising these itself. Most of all, it must “be available”, know how to receive rather than give, to learn rather than teach, to value existing apostolic potential rather than launching its own initiatives.”[58]


Despite his battles and his age, Cardijn’s contribution to the Council was recognised by his peers.

South African Archbishop Denis Hurley summed up the impact of Cardijn and the YCW as follows.

“The amazing thing is the effect it had on theologians and first of all the French theologians,” Hurley said, “especially two very prominent men: Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu.”

“These theologians, struck by the experiences of the YCW… began to revise all their theology and that caused enormous disturbance, upset and unrest in the Catholic Church in France just before, during and just after the Second World War.

“It is amazing the effect the Young Christian Workers had on these theologians and how through their work the whole Catholic Church was revolutionised,” he concluded[59].

Others such as Helder Camara, who had also been a YCW chaplain, shared this view. He therefore proposed to the “Church of the Poor” group that they should honour “the Workers’ Cardinal”.

Thus, as the Council drew to  close, on Sunday 17 November 1965, the eve of the promulgation of the conciliar Decree on the Lay Apostolate, Camara and his colleagues, organised a special Mass at Cardijn’s titular church of St Michele in the working class Rome suburb of Pietralata.

It was a fitting tribute to his work.



Draft for a counter-proposal


The laity of the whole world wishes for a world secretariat at the Holy See to establish an ongoing dialogue with the Bishops concerning the apostolic problems of lay people of all races, all peoples and all continents:

  • To obtain the insights, encouragement and orientation from the Holy See;
  • To set out the real and concrete problems of life of all lay people for the Holy See;
  • To establish an ongoing dialogue and collaboration between all organisations in order to better understand the range of issues, to better unify the efforts and search for solutions, and to better extend their influence to the mass of peoples.


1. The organisations of the different continents would come to an agreement on the formation of a coordination team, in permanent contact with the various countries, the various dioceses and local organisations.

2. The various continental teams would propose permanent delegates to the Holy See for the Rome Secretariat together forming the Council and Bureau of the Secretariat.

3. From among them, the Holy See would choose a Steering Committee.


  • Childhood
  • Youth of various milieux for each continent
  • Mass media
  • Social and economic life
  • Cultural life (teaching, education, sport, free time, appropriate to various milieux)
  • Advocacy and action to and with the international organisations and institutions, UN,UNESCO, ILO, ECOSOC, FAO, WAY, ICO, UNICEF, etc.
  • Missionary, technical, intern, exchange teams


Each issue would constitute the basis for a department of the Secretariat with a permanent team, sessions and contacts, documentation and missionary activity in the continents concerned.

Coordination work would be organised by a central department comprising one or several continental delegates.

Each department would be autonomous; a central directorate would examine financial issues, efficiency, contacts, etc.

Dialogue with the Holy See would be ensured by the collaboration of delegates from the Holy See and lay delegates of the Secretariat. Dialogue with the continents would be ensured at the Secretariat by delegates, contacts, sessions. Dialogue between the continents and problems would be ensured by contacts, research in team, joint sessions of heads of departments.


The Secretariat to the Holy See would be the expression of the real laity and through this it would ensure the awakening, animation and extension of the laity necessary to meet all needs.

Directorate: Council – Steering Committee – financing – research



Coordination: Gatherings – studies – sessions – documentation – library

                ^                                                           ^

                 |                                                           |

      Delegates                                            Departments

            ^                                                              ^

            |                                                               |

Continents and continental issues: Continental teams

Jos. Cardijn

[1]        Fiévez – Meert, Cardijn, Chapter 12, A global vision—a-global-vision

[2]        « 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. » Yves Congar, Vrai et fausse réforme dans l’Eglise, 282-285.

[3]        In fact, Paul VI acknowledged being familiar with the movement since the mid-1930s. Moreover there is correspondence between Montini and Cardijn in the archives of the IYCW from 1946. Paul VI, Lettre autographe to Joseph Cardijn, 4 November 1963.—a-notre-cher-fils-joseph-cardijn

[4]        Fiévez – Meert, Cardijn, Chapter 13Cardijn at the Council—cardijn-at-the-council

[5]        Cf. Bernard Minvielle, L’apostolat des laïcs à la veille du Concile (1949-1959), Editions Universitaires Fribourg Suisse, Fribourg, 2001, 498p.

[6]        Romeo Maione, Réflexions sur le Concile Oecuménique, 26 September 1960. Archives IYCW and AC 1627.

[7]        Préparation du Concile Oecuménique, 26 October 1960. Archives IYCW and AC 1627.

[8]        Ibid.

[9]        Concile Oecuménique, IYCW Statement, Amsterdam, 12 November 1960. Archives IYCW.

[10]        Rapport en préparation du Concile Oecuménique

[11]        Cardijn, Letter to Willebrands, 8 February 1961. AC 1626.

[12]        Thoughts of a group of YCW leaders and chaplains from North and South America, Africa, Asia and Europe, July 1961. Archives IYCW.

[13]        Cardijn, Letter to Cardinal Masella, 27 February 1962. AC 1626.

[14]        Cardijn, Letter to Cardinal Cento, 9 June 1961. AC 1585.

[15]        Cardijn, Letter to Msgr Achille Glorieux, 27 September 1961. AC 1585.

[16]        Glorieux, Letter to Cardijn, 3 October 1961.

[17]        René Salanne, Letter to Paul Adam, 15 October 1961.

[18]        Cardijn, The Apostolate of Lay PeopleNote 1. AC 1576.

[19]        Cardijn, The apostolate of lay people, Note 2, 16 December 1960. AC 1576.

[20]        Cardijn, Réflexions et suggestions, Note 3, 15 December 1960 AC 1576.

[21]        Cardijn, Prêtres et laïcs dans l’apostolat, Note 4, December 1960. AC 1576.

[22]        Fiévez, Letter to Pietro Pavan, 23 December 1960. AC 1586.

[23]        Cardijn, La JOC Internationale, Note 5, Jan – Feb 1961. AC 1576.

[24]        Cardijn, De Missione Canonica and Mandato Hierarchiae, Note 6, 5 March 1961. AC 1576.

[25]        Cardijn, Formation religieuse et soutien des dirigeants, Note 7, April 1961. AC 1576.

[26]        IYCW, Thoughts of a group of YCW leaders, July 1961. AC ????

[27]        Cardijn, Letter to Archbishop Guano, 9 August 1961. AC 1586.

[28]        Cardijn, Letter to Cardinal Cento, 29 December 1961. AC 1585.

[29]        Cardijn, Perez, Villa, Letter to Pope John XXIII, 8 October 1962.

[30]        IYCW, Some proposals concerning the lay apostolate solicited by several bishops, February 1963. Archives IYCW.

[31]        HVII, 2: 440.

[32]        Glorieux, Letter to Cardijn, 25 April 1963. AC 1607.

[33]        Glorieux, Letter to Cardijn, 9 May 1963. AC 1607.

[34]        « Je dois dire que j’ai un peu sursauté en apprenant qu’il y avait deux schémas séparées : « De apostolatu laicorum » et « De pressentia et actione Ecclesiae in mundo hodierno ». Les laïcs ne sont évidemment pas les seuls à agir dans et sur le monde, mais l’apostolat des laïcss’exerce dans et sur le monde. Comment donc séparer les deux schémas ? N’est-ce pas, par le fait même, sous-évaluer l’importance de l’apostolat des laïcs dans le monde ?

        Je serais heureux, si c’était possible, d’avoir aussi et dès maintenant, l’avant-projet de ce nouveau schéma, pour pouvoir à l’occasion en parler aux Evêques. Ou bien, pouvez-vous me dire à qui je puis le demander – ce serait tellement dommage si le Concile, en séparant les deux problèmes, avait l’air de sous-évaluer l’importance de l’apostolat des laïcs pour la rechristianisation du monde d’aujourd’hui et de demain. » Cardijn, Letter to Glorieux, 24 May 1963. AC 1607.

[35]        « Il semble que le titre du nouveau Schema sera, pour finir, « De munere Ecclesiae quoad bonum in societe hodierno provovendum ». Cette expression correspond mieux en contenu demandé par la Commission de Coordination. Il est clair que le rôle des laïcs y est essentiel, et la chose sera nettement dite, insistant sur ce qu’ils ont d’irremplaceable. Mais l’ensemble des Chapitres prévus dépasse la perspective des seuls laïcs ; et c’est pourquoi il s’agit d’un nouveau Schema à part.

        Pour l’instant, les textes ne sont que provisoires et doivent être présentés à la Commission de Coordination du 4 juin. Vous savez que S.E. Le Card. Suenens en est membre ; c’est évidemment lui qui serait le mieux à même de vous renseigner sur ce Schema. » Glorieux, Letter to Cardijn, 27 May 1963.

[36]        Leo  Declerck and T. Osaers, Les relations entre le Cardinal Montini/Paul VI (1897-1978) et le Cardinal Suenens (1904-1996) pendant le Concile Vatican II, in  M. Lamberigts and L. Kenis, Vatican II and its legacy, Peeters, Leuven, 2002.

[37]        Leo  Declerck and Mathias Lamberigts, The role of Cardinal L.-J. Suenens at Vatican II in Donnelly, J. Famerée, M. Lamberigts, K. Schelkens, The Belgian Contribution to Vatican II, Peeters, 2008 at p. 212.

[38]        “Here, Suenens intervened regarding the concept of ‘Catholic Action’. 

        “Suenens also held an intervention in the Commissio centralis praeparatoria on this matter800. According to him, when the Commission for the Lay Apostolate failed to take his remarks (sufficiently) into account, he sent a letter, dated February 27,1963, to all the members of this commission together with a copy of his article from the Nouvelle Revue Théologique.

        “During his intervention Suenens gave his well-known plea for liberalizing the concept of ‘Catholic Action’ in order to break through the existing ‘monopoly’ so that the Legion of Mary, which he explicitly quotes, can receive full recognition. The problem is that the initial text of the Decree gave preference to a certain, ‘historical form’ of catholic action and created the impression that other forms are not as conducive to the enhancement of the apostolic goals of the Church.” Lamberigts and Declerck, op. cit.

[39]        Correspondence between Liénart’s secretary, Msgr Palémon Glorieux and Cardijn, July 1963. AC 1608.

[40]        « Nous souhaitons ardemment que les pères du Concile expriment clairement leur désir de voir se réaliser le double aspect de l’apostolat laïcs : l’aspect propre et l’aspect de coordination, depuis la base jusqu’au sommet. Que ce désir soit surtout exprimé pour le monde du travail et qu’une Commission – dicastère ou institution centrale – soit créée pour en assurer l’exécution après le Concile, en collaboration intime avec le laïcat et la Hiérarchie de tous les continents. » Cardijn, Letter to P. Glorieux, Undated, July 1963. AC 1608.

[41]        IYCW – IYCS – IMCARY, Specialised Catholic Action among youth, August 1963. IYCW Archives.

[42]        « En plus, plus d’un Père jugea que c’était la une bonne conféreence et la plupart estimèrent qu ele schéma traitait la matière d’un point de vue presque exclusivement « théologique », c’est-à-dire procédant des données de la Révélation jusqu’aux conclusions théologiques, tandisque certains Pères et experts désiraient que le document, s’il voulait trouver audience auprès de l’homme moderne, suivît l’exemple des Encycliques Mater et magistra et Pacem in terris, en employant un style et des arguments accessibles à tous et par conséquent découlant de la morale naturelle. En outre, certains parmi les participants faisaient remarquer que le texte de Louvain, laissant de côté toute allusion aux problèmes les plus graves de l’humanité d’aujourd’hui, perdait de son mordant et ne répondait pas à l’attente cet hommes de notre temps. » Roberto Tucci, Introduction historique et doctrinale à la Constitution Pastorale, p. 33 – 127, in Collectif sous la direction de YMJ Congar et M. Peuchenart, Vatican II, L’Eglise dans le monde de ce temps, Tome II, Commentaires, Collection Unam Sanctam 65b, Cerf, 1967

[43]        VVII, 2: 429.

[44]        Cardijn handwritten notes. AC 1573.

[45]        HVII 3: 404.

[46]        Ibid.

[47]        HVII 3: 409.

[48]        HVII 3: 408.

[49]        Cardijn, Letter to Glorieux, 18 December 1963. AC 1607.

[50]        HVII 4: 245

[51]        Cardijn, Notes for Paul VI on dialogue, July 1964. AC ????

[52]        Stefan Gigacz, Cardijn and Congar at the Council, 2012. In course of publication.

[53]        Cardijn, The lay apostolate, 20 August 1965, Vatican II.

[54]        “Now the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth.” Lumen Gentium 33.

[55]        Apostolicam Actuositatem, No. 1.

[56]        Cardijn, The life and ministry of the priest, 20 August 1965, Vatican II.

[57]        Cardijn at Vatican II.

[58]        Cardijn, A Roman centre for the lay apostolate.

[59]        Social Justice: Church & Politics (1986) Archbishop Denis E. Hurley, OMI, St. Joseph’s Parish, Greyville (1986)