Cardijn’s vision of lay apostolate and its significance for youth ministry

Stefan Gigacz

Cardijn’s vision of lay apostolate and its significance for youth ministry today

1. Introduction

Inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s landmark 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, fourteen year old Joseph Cardijn began his minor seminary studies in 1897 full of enthusiasm to follow in the pioneering footsteps of the labour activist priest, Fr Adolf Daens. His illusions were soon shattered when he returned home a year later only to find that his former schoolmates, who had gone to work in the factories that ringed late 19th century Brussels, now rejected him.

In the eyes of his former companions, “he had become a little priest, someone who had no understanding of workers, a traitor to the hard life and the lone fight against injustice,” write Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert.

“Without knowing it and still more without wanting it, he had become their enemy, lost among the crowd of priests and church-goers whom the mass of workers looked upon as the supporters of capitalist exploitation.”1

Six years later, now in the major seminary, Cardijn was called home to the bedside of his dying father, Henri, worn out by a lifetime of hard work as a small-town coal trader. It was here that Cardijn vowed to devote his own life and priesthood to the cause of workers.

The Young Christian Workers (YCW) that Cardijn would later create thus became the principal means by which he endeavoured to fulfil that commitment to workers and young workers in particular.

By the time of his death in 1967, the YCW existed in close to 100 countries around the world with millions of adherents. And the Cardijn “see, judge, act” method of formation for lay apostolate had been adopted, indeed embedded, in four documents of the recently completed Second Vatican Council2.

In this paper, I will attempt to set out some of the factors that made Cardijn’s method such a worldwide success. I will also look at some of the causes of the decline of the YCW and related movements such as the YCS. Finally I will try to point to some areas in which the Cardijn approach to youth ministry still has much to offer for the future.

2. The development of the Cardijn movements

2.1 Sources of the Cardijn approach

To understand Cardijn and his success, it is essential to appreciate not only the context in which the YCW movement was born but also the century of effort that various pioneers had made in order to enable the Church to reach out to the burgeoning working class that emerged from the industrial and democratic revolutions that detonated across Europe. It was a history of trial and error, mistakes and progress, often controversial, rarely conflict-free, a history that Cardijn drew upon consciously and carefully.

Although rarely cited directly, Cardijn’s early writings are littered with references to the key players upon whose work he drew: the turbulent French priest Félicité de Lamennais and his colleagues, Frédéric Ozanam, founder of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, Alphonse Gratry, sometimes described as the greatest Catholic philosopher of the 19th century, Frédéric Le Play, a mining engineer turned sociologist and social reformer, Léon Ollé-Laprune, a great educator and philosopher inspired by Gratry, Ozanam and Le Play, Marc Sangnier’s social action movement, Le Sillon, Catholic social reformers from Germany’s industrial heartland, Christian socialist leaders of the British trade union movement, the Gospel-inspired mutualist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and even Marx himself3. As we will see, Cardijn consciously drew on this history in the development of the Young Christian Workers movement which emerged during the period 1912-25.

Against the backdrop of the democratic and industrial revolutions that were sweeping 19th century Europe, Lamennais was one of the first to systematically articulate a new vision for the Church epitomised in the motto of his newspaper, L’Avenir: ‘God and freedom’ and based not on a traditional alliance of church and state but on a new Gospel-inspired alliance with the poor. It is remarkable and significant that Cardijn, seeking answers to the alienation from the Church of his own former schoolmates, should turn at the age of fifteen to reading the works of Lamennais and his followers.

Although critical of Lamennais, young Frédéric Ozanam had become close to many of Lamennais’ colleagues such as the future Dominican, Henri Lacordaire. When a new wave of worker revolutions swept France and Europe at the beginning of 1848, Ozanam was one of a minority of Catholics who called upon the Church to side with the revolutionaries. Indeed, Ozanam perceived those events as a once in a century opportunity for the Church to change course. By the end of that year, however, the revolution had been defeated leading to the installation of a restored French Empire under Napoleon III. For Ozanam, it was the year that the Church lost the working class. And when, in a famous phrase, Pope Pius XI told Cardijn in 1925 that “the greatest tragedy of the 19th century was the loss of the working class by the Church”, he was referring precisely to this decisive failure of the Church in 18484.

Nevertheless, the work of Lamennais, Ozanam and their generation was not in vain. Some forty years later, students led by Marc Sangnier at Stanislas University College in Paris began to promote study circles on social issues which soon developed into a movement which became known as Le Sillon (The Furrow) as their magazine was entitled. It was the Sillon which pioneered many of the educational methods that Cardijn would draw on in the development of the YCW. These methods in turn were adopted by other emerging ‘specialised Catholic Action’ movements that spread like wildfire across Europe from the late 1920s.

2.3 Emergence of the YCW and specialised Catholic Action

Cardijn began work in 1912 as a curate in his first and indeed only parish of Our Lady at Laeken, on the outskirts of Brussels, an area which at the time was divided into a middle class area including the chateau of the king and a working class area housing many industrial workers, domestic workers and others. Given responsibility for social work with women, within a year, Cardijn developed a thousand strong network of women activists, drawn mainly but not exclusively from the working class areas.

Working with Victoire Cappe, a self-described Christian feminist who had founded the Syndicat de l’Aiguille (Needleworkers’ Union) and others, Cardijn also launched a series of study circles for young female (teenage) workers. Soon after, Cardijn came into contact with Fernand Tonnet, a young bank worker, who had recently moved to Laeken. Significantly both Cappe and Tonnet were already familiar with the educational techniques developed by the Sillon, as was Cardijn himself who had visited the Sillon in France in 1907. Indeed, it is clear that the early groups of young teenage girl workers that Cardijn and Cappe formed were directly modelled on the work of the Sillon5.

World War I interrupted many of these efforts, with Cardijn imprisoned twice by the German occupiers. However, by 1919, the path was open for further development of the study circles for young workers. Cardijn, Tonnet and others soon launched La Jeunesse Syndicaliste (Trade Union Youth) for young male workers, the embryo of the later YCW. Similar efforts were made with the female young workers. By 1922, the movement had begun to refine its trademark ‘see judge act’ methodology, although that name was not yet in use. In 1924, the name Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne (JOC), later translated as Young Christian Workers (YCW) was adopted.

Inevitably, tensions arose with other Catholic youth initiatives, particularly the Belgian Association of Catholic Youth (ACJB) which regarded the class-based orientation of the YCW as divisive. Moreover, Cardijn never hid the influence of the Sillon movement, which had been closed down in 1910 following a letter by Pius X to the French bishops, accusing the movement of ‘escaping hierarchical control’ and of being influenced by democratic and socialist tendencies.

Placed in a dilemma, the then archbishop of Malines-Brussels, Cardinal Désiré Mercier found himself unable to approve the work of Cardijn’s movement. This left Cardijn with no other choice than to attempt to appeal directly to Pope Pius XI. In a famous meeting in March 1925, the pontiff of Catholic Action endorsed Cardijn’s movement in a move likened by Yves Congar to Innocent III’s approval in 1210 of the order created by Francis of Assisi6. It was on this occasion that Pius XI, echoing Ozanam, uttered his statement, made famous by Cardijn, that ‘the greatest tragedy of the 19th century was the loss of the working class by the Church’.

Pius XI’s endorsement opened the way to the large-scale development of the YCW, and not only in Belgium. Across the border in France, the YCW methods were immediately recognised as those pioneered by the Sillon. Moreover, Cardijn had solved the problem of connecting a lay movement to the Church. As a priest and chaplain to the movement, Cardijn acted as intermediary between the hierarchical Church and the YCW, which like the Sillon, operated as an autonomous lay movement with its own democratically elected internal leadership. This was the real innovation of Cardijn’s concept of Catholic Action, later known as ‘specialised Catholic Action’, and which distinguished it from the hierarchically-controlled ‘Italian’ concept of Catholic Action.

Moreover, the success of the Cardijn model, quickly led to its widespread adoption in other ‘milieux’ or social environments. Already by the late 1920s, similar movements emerged for high school students (JEC/YCS), university students (JUC/TYCS), farm and rural workers (JAC), young people from business backgrounds (JIC), etc. By the mid-1930s, similarly constituted ‘adult’ movements targeting and organising workers, families, etc. had also developed. It was these movements, largely modelled on and inspired by the Cardijn approach that collectively became known as the ‘specialised Catholic Action’ movements.

2.4 The Australian story

Over the next 14 years until the outbreak of World War II, the YCW spread rapidly across Europe, into Latin America, Africa, Asia and even far-off Australia. Studying at Louvain in the late 1920s, young Fr Justin Simonds, future archbishop of Melbourne, discovered and became convinced of the Cardijn model7. Another Australian pioneer, Paul McGuire8, who had met Cardijn in Brussels in 1937, published an influential book, Restoring All Things, co-authored with a British YCW chaplain, John Fitzsimons, which promoted the Cardijn model of Catholic Action. Around the same time, Kevin T. Kelly, originally from Ballarat, and a prominent member of the Campion Society, also discovered the YCW model and entered into correspondence with the international office in Brussels9.

In 1939, Kelly published an ACTS brochure, ‘JOC – Young Christian Workers’ which sold 15,000 copies in the space of a few months. Within months a group of young Melbourne priests, led by the charismatic Fr Frank Lombard10 and the intellectual Fr John F. Kelly, had adopted the Cardijn methods, leading to the ‘official’ foundation of the YCW in Melbourne in 1941. Other priests who had studied at Louvain or in Rome, such as Fr John Molony, later history professor at ANU, also returned home to add their intellectual weight to the development of the specialised Catholic Action movements. Meanwhile, similar efforts were made to launch a movement for girls, often assisted by members and associates of the Catholic lay women’s movement The Grail. In Brisbane, for example, Grail members and associates worked to promote groups for girls which soon federated as the National Catholic Girls’ Movement, later to be known the Girls YCW from 1960, before the two movements eventually combined in 197011.

As had occurred in Europe, the movement spread quickly, also inspiring the foundation of the Young Christian Students12. Within a few years, both movements were organised at a national level. Sport became the chosen medium by which the movement reached out to young people. An Australian football competition based in Melbourne grew to become one of the nation’s biggest. Cricket and netball were other sports fostered by the YCW.

Nevertheless, the ‘YCW Leaders Teams’ remained the heart of the movement, with weekly meetings following a well-structure program published in ‘YCW Leaders Bulletins’, which introduced YCW leaders to the Gospel meditation or enquiry, the Review of influence (later known as Personal Enquiry and/or Review of Life), and the Social Enquiry, which focused on a particular timely social issue.

The social enquiry campaigns of the YCW achieved significant results in various states, particularly on issues relating to apprenticeships. A road safety campaign initiated by the YCW in Melbourne in the late 1960s is credited with have opened the pathway to seat-belt legislation and the limitation of alcohol consumption while driving.

Cardijn himself visited Australia in 1958 and again in 1966. He was greatly impressed by the Australian achievements, leading to international roles of Australians such as Helen Jagoe from Bathurst and Fr Brian Burke, who became international chaplain of the YCW in 1969.

By the 1970s, however, the death of Cardijn in 1967, post Vatican II upheavals, sociological changes, the rise of alternative youth ministry approaches and other factors combined to cause a major collapse in the work of the YCW. By the mid-1970s, organised YCWs only remained in two dioceses, Melbourne and Adelaide. In 1977, the movement was re-organised at national level, leading to a revival of the YCW in the dioceses of most state capitals. A similar decline also affected the YCS movement.

Despite the difficulties, both YCW and YCS have refused to die both in Australia and internationally. Although it is too soon to speak of a revival, there appears to be no danger of either movement disappearing in the immediate future13.

3. The Cardijn method

Although Cardijn has long been associated with the ‘see judge act’ method, few people today know the origins of the method or indeed understand Cardijn’s own role in the emergence of the method. Moreover, the ‘Cardijn method’ is often understood in a reductionist manner as if the ‘see judge act’ comprises the totality of his method. In reality, the Cardijn method was a complex combination of theory and practice with deep philosophical, theological, sociological and pedagogical roots.

Nevertheless, with his gift for identifying the essentials, Cardijn managed to express much of his theory and practice in a series of triadic phrases, such as the see judge act, as well as in various aphorisms with which he has himself often become personally identified.

In this section, I will endeavour to show how these phrases taken together form a profound theory and practice, an educational praxis for socially transforming lay action in the world.

3.1 See Judge Act: Virtue ethics as the basis for life-centred democratic action

3.1.1 St Thomas’ analysis of the virtue of prudence

Cardijn’s see judge act is often traced back to St Thomas Aquinas’ analysis of the cardinal virtue of prudence:

Prudence is right reason in matters of action. It proceeds by means of three kinds of acts:

• deliberating [about possible means to the end]

• judging, i.e., evaluating the options discovered in deliberation

• commanding to put to practice what has been judged to be the [best] action to take14.

There is no doubt that Cardijn, who studied at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Louvain, a centre of revival of thomist studies under Mgr (later Cardinal) Désiré Mercier, was highly familiar with the works of Thomas Aquinas. And indeed the link to St Thomas was confirmed in 1946 by the French Archbishop Emile Guerry who wrote:

All chaplains and leaders of Catholic Action should make a profound study of the marvelous tract of St. Thomas on Prudence. Prudence is essentially the virtue of action. With his keen psychology, St. Thomas analyses the three acts which make up the exercise of prudence: to deliberate (the small inquiry, the interior counsel which one holds within himself); to judge; to act. Here we easily recognise practically the same three acts of the method of specialised Catholic Action: observe, judge, act.15

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church in No. 547: Acting with prudence offers further confirmation:

The lay faithful should act according to the dictates of prudence, the virtue that makes it possible to discern the true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means for achieving it. Thanks to this virtue, moral principles are applied correctly to particular cases. We can identify three distinct moments as prudence is exercised to clarify and evaluate situations, to inspire decisions and to prompt action. The first moment is seen in the reflection and consultation by which the question is studied and the necessary opinions sought. The second moment is that of evaluation, as the reality is analysed and judged in the light of God’s plan. The third moment, that of decision, is based on the preceding steps and makes it possible to choose between the different actions that may be taken.16

Nevertheless, the development of the see judge act as a practical pedagogical method has much deeper and broader historical roots, which also shed further light on Cardijn’s own understanding of the method, and which we will trace below.

3.1.2 The sociological method of Frédéric Le Play

Born in 1806, Frédéric Le Play17 was a French mining engineer who became disturbed by the terrible conditions of the workers in the mines on which he also worked. He therefore sought to bring his scientific training to bear in the search for solutions to the social problems of industrialising Europe in the mid-19th century.

The empirical “method of social observation” that Le Play developed was adopted extensively in France, particularly in Catholic social action circles. Cardijn himself was also trained in this method at Louvain by Professor Victor Brants, the founder of the Belgian branch of Le Play’s movement. Many of Cardijn’s early writings bear the imprint of this training, particularly his detailed 1907 article on the situation of Home workers in Germany18.

Similarly, the embryonic YCW’s famous 500 question enquiry into the situation of young workers in Belgium in 192219 is clearly inspired by the Le Play method, as indeed is The Manual of the YCW, largely drafted by Cardijn and published in 1925 and 1930.

Other pioneers of the YCW including Victoire Cappe and Fernand Tonnet were likewise steeped in the Le Play methodology as was the whole the whole founding generation of the YCW in Belgium and France. The Dominican Fr Louis-Joseph Lebret20, who founded the Jeunesse Maritime Chrétienne on the model of the YCW for young seafarers, was another Le Play disciple.

3.1.3 The ‘inductive’ method of Alphonse Gratry

Related to Le Play’s efforts to apply scientific methods to sociological problems is the work of Alphonse Gratry21. Like Le Play, Gratry studied at the elite Ecole Polytechnique where the two men became friends. Gratry completed a doctorate there on scientific method before going to Strasbourg to study theology and philosophy22. He was ordained a priest in 1832 and returned to Paris where he became director of Stanislas College and recruited Ozanam as a staff member.

In 1855, Gratry published his Logic in which he developed a theory of inductive reasoning that he considered applicable to both scientific and moral reasoning. Whereas deductive reasoning could never reach beyond its initial premises, for Gratry, induction involved “imagination”, “discovery” and even “transcendence” as a creative act which necessarily involved “new ideas” and indeed even divine inspiration. Thus, for Gratry, induction was “the intellectual path by which one reaches God”23.

The Spanish philosopher Julian Marias explained Gratry’s thought as follows:

Man, according to Gratry, has three faculties: the primary faculty of sense and two derived ones, intelligence and will. Sense is the deep-lying part of the person. This sense is threefold: external sense, by means of which I sense the reality of my body and of the world; internal sense, by which I sense myself and my fellow men; and divine sense, by which I find God in the depth of my soul, which is the image of Him. This divine sense defines man’s primary relationship with God, which is prior to all knowledge and vision; it is a fundamental relationship because the human entity has its basis and its root in God. The soul finds in its own depths a contact with the Deity, and therein resides its force, which causes it to be.24

Sense, intellect and will: three faculties corresponding again, but expressed differently, to the three steps of the see, judge, act.

In a similar vein, Léon Ollé-Laprune describes Gratry’s methods in the following terms:

He (Gratry) signals the hideous wounds; he enters into precise, living detail; he names certain matters that we do not think about enough; he shows what they are doing, and, faced with the poignant realities in and around us, he provokes reflections, examinations of conscience, resolutions; and this goes a long way, it leads very far, it stirs and prepares many changes.25

Or in three words: reality, reflection, resolution in another clear anticipation of the see, judge, act.

3.1.4 Léon Ollé-Laprune: See, judge and decide

Born in 1839, Léon Ollé-Laprune26 was a self-professed student of Gratry. As a lecturer in philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, he was responsible for the formation of a series of remarkable students, including the future socialist leader Jean Jaurès, the sociologist Emile Durkheim, and the philosophers Henri Bergson and Maurice Blondel.

Sometimes, described as a ‘second Ozanam’, Ollé-Laprune also saw himself as a committed Catholic lay apostle, working within the secularised, indeed often anti-clerical French state university system. He was also a social reformer in the line of Frédéric LePlay, and in fact for many years he lived in the same apartment block as Le Play near the St Sulpice church in Paris. Like Ozanam, Ollé-Laprune was also a democrat at a time when many French Catholics still dreamed of a restoration of the pre-Revolutionary monarchy.

Ollé-Laprune was a classical philosopher. He wrote one of his doctoral theses as a commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. His most famous and influential work, Le Prix de la Vie (The price/prize of life) was published in 1894 and stayed in print until 1944 when the 52nd edition appeared. In this book, he endeavoured to analyse the linkages between ‘truth’ and moral, religious and social life27.

“I am convinced,” Ollé-Laprune argued, “and I would like to convince others that life is singularly precious provided one is able to see what it is given for and what we can and should do with it.” This is because everyone “has something to do in life”, a purpose in their life. And since, according to Aristotle, “life is action”, then it is necessary to identify the right action to be taken. How to achieve this? This is Léon Ollé-Laprune’s answer:

Everyone must apply themselves more than ever, better than ever, to courageously and faithfully consult the principles and the facts in order to become more than ever, better than ever able to see clearly, judge and decide, precisely because it no longer fashionable to do so.28

Ollé-Laprune thus reformulated Gratry’s reality, reflection and resolution in terms of seeing clearly, judging and deciding. And the reason that this is important is precisely because “history appears to be democratising”. Hence, the need for “a personal effort to raise up spirits and souls” who will be capable of acting for the democratic good.

3.1.5 Marc Sangnier’s movement Le Sillon

Léon Ollé-Laprune died in 1898, too early to see how a rising generation would endeavour to put this philosophy into practice. It’s no accident, however, that these efforts would emerge at Stanislas College in Paris, where both Gratry and Ozanam had taught.

In 1892-93, a group of students led by Marc Sangnier launched a weekly study circle, which became known as The Crypt, because it was in the basement of the college that they met.

We felt a great need to talk together about all the issues that were burning in our hearts, to get to know each other, to form and maintain among ourselves a kind of ‘common soul’, to detach ourselves from a purely material life with no beyond, to prepare ourselves for great future battles in a kind of fraternal vigil of arms and to identify a sublime goal to give meaning to our arid daily toil, which would then be transfigured and accepted with love. They allowed us each week to meet in an underground room that we called ‘The Crypt’ and there we discussed everything and nothing, with inexperience and with audacity perhaps but with the conviction that it was necessary to do something and that while we asked neither for success nor glory, but simply the consolation of being good and docile workers of Jesus Christ, He would answer our prayer. Thus were the conferences of the Crypt founded.29

Over the next few years, the work of the Crypt slowly took shape as a study circle promoting discussion and action on the social issues of the time, particularly worker issues and democracy, then a major point of debate among French Catholics.

In 1894, the leaders launched a literary magazine, Le Sillon (The Furrow), from which the movement that eventually emerged from the Crypt would take its name. Gradually, former Crypt leaders, who had finished their studies at Stanislas College, launched similar groups at their universities, in military barracks and local areas. They made a priority of reaching out to the youth clubs for young factory workers in the industrial suburbs of Paris and other regions.

By 1898, they felt ready to launch a national campaign to promote study circles based on the Crypt-Sillon model. The same year, mourning the premature death of Léon Ollé-Laprune, the Sillon leaders described him as “our philosopher”. Hence, in 1899, we find Marc Sangnier describing the method of the Sillon study circles as follows:

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.

By 1902, study circles following the Sillon ‘method of democratic education’ had sprung up throughout France leading to the holding of the first National Congress of Study Circles. By 1905, these study circles were identifying as the Sillon “movement”, possibly the first such grouping to so describe themselves. It was also around 1905 that the Sillon arrived at its soon to be famous definition of democracy as the form of ‘social organisation that tends to maximise the conscience/consciousness and the responsibility of everyone’30.

Thus, the Sillon study circles explicitly adopted and adapted Le Play’s social observation method and turned it into a method of raising ‘consciousness’ of social issues31. Moreover, the Sillon explicitly connected this method to the task of developing the “virtue” necessary in an emerging republic. “Doesn’t virtue pre-suppose conscience/consciousness and responsibility?” asked the Sillon adviser Brother Louis Cousin.

Despite the difficulties that led to the closure of the Sillon under Pope Pius X in 1910, these methods were not lost. In 1921, Cardijn himself described the work of the emerging YCW as enabling “the flowering and perfecting of this consciousness and this responsibility of the most humble of popular citizens”32. And in his famous 1944 Christmas Message on democracy, Pope Pius XII would eventually in effect reverse the judgement of Pius X, characterising a democratic regime as one in which “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”33.

3.1.6 The YCW and the See Judge Act

Thus, when finally towards 1925, the emerging YCW movement began to use the expression “see judge act”, they were both drawing on and identifying themselves with this rich heritage.

It was in 1922 that the new movement formally adopted this method for the first time, setting out the functioning of study circles for young workers in the following terms:

First rule – Social initiation is based on the enquiry

Second rule – The facts identified by the enquiry must be judged in the light of principles.

Third rule – From ideas it is necessary to pass over to action.34

Fr René Van Haudenard, who wrote the report of the meeting where this decision was made, explained it with the following examples:

A. Bad method. We propose to study the encyclical Rerum Novarum. The encyclical is divided into ten parts of which each part will take up one session; the explanation of the text will be made without commentary, or examples. Result: By the third meeting the members drift away; it is rare that it will not be necessary to soon abandon the program if one wishes to maintain the circle.

B. Method advised. Detailed and successive enquiries on property, salary, work, etc. as they appear in the living environment (milieu).

Each session will involve examining answers to a questionnaire. Quite naturally the doctrinal points raised in Rerum Novarum will be developed. Result: The members will take an interest in the matter under observation, a social sense will develop, understanding will deepen because people will recall the facts that were the point of departure.

Soon after, the expression began to emerge: see, judge, do and eventually by the late 1920s in its definitive form: see judge act.

In essence, this was the method that would catapult the YCW to the forefront of social action, particularly among young people, first in Belgium and France, and very soon after to other European countries and other continents.

What made the difference, it would seem, is the simple fact that Cardijn and his team had managed to encapsulate a whole philosophy of social enquiry, prudential action and virtue-based democracy into three practical words that spelled out the method and could be applied and replicated ad infinitum.

In ensuing years, the YCW expanded and refined the method into three stages that took on different names over the years:

a) Review of influence or review of life, also known as the personal enquiry, which involved applying the see judge act to facts and action from daily life each week.

b) Gospel meditation or Gospel enquiry, which involved using the see judge act to apply Jesus’ to the daily events of life-centred

c) Social enquiry, applying the see judge act to a particular topic, usually of current interest, and/or perhaps extending an enquiry begun under either the personal or Gospel enquiries, e.g. the Australian road safety campaign.

Perhaps even more significantly, the YCW, beginning with Cardijn in Belgium in the late 1920s, developed an annual program incorporating the above elements which was published and distributed widely. In Australia, this took the form of the monthly YCW Leaders Bulletin which provided a ready made tool for YCW groups and chaplains to work with.

3.2 Theological foundations of the Cardijn methodology

The Cardijn method also has deep theological foundations which Cardijn again often expressed in the familiar of pedagogical triads of which we will present some of the most important here.

3.2.1 Divine origin, divine dignity and divine destiny

Cardijn always rejected any form of Cartesian dualism between temporal and eternal life and he expressed this in some of his most eloquent and powerful language:

Young workers, are not machines, or animals or slaves. They are the sons, the collaborators, the heirs of God. ‘He gave them power to become the sons of God… partakers of the Divine Nature.’ That is their sole true destiny, the reason of their existence, their life, and their work, the source of all their rights and all their duties.

This destiny is not two-fold: on the one hand eternal, and on the other temporal, without any link or influence of one upon the other. There cannot be an eternal destiny by the side, at a distance from earthly life, unrelated to it.

The eternal destiny of each human being is incarnate, develops, and is achieved in temporal life always and everywhere-on earth as it is in heaven… It is not a question of continuity, it is one and the same destiny. The destiny of the little servant girl, the young apprentice, in their normal environment, the framework, the atmosphere of their life; in the midst of all their comrades, their closest neighbours, whom they must help conquer their temporal and eternal destiny.

This fundamental truth, which cannot be repeated too often, is the basis of the whole Y.C.W.35

Simply put, young workers have a ‘divine origin’, ‘ a divine dignity’ and a ‘divine destiny’36.

3.2.2 Serve, educate and represent: A baptismal basis for YCW action

For Cardijn, YCW action had three aims which he expressed in another of his triads as ‘serving, educating and representing’ young workers:

Only an organisation of young workers with a view to the conquest of their eternal and temporal destiny can solve the essential and vital problem, which faces each and all young workers. An organisation for young workers, by young workers, between young workers.

An organisation for the conquest of their life, their environment, a conquest of the masses with a view to their eternal and temporal destiny – with a view to their destiny which is at once double and unique.

And for this, an organisation which is adapted and specialised to the age, conditions of life, the future, the eternal and temporal destiny of the young workers.

An organisation which is local, regional and national, united, disciplined, autonomous, living, conquering, capable of influencing and leading the masses of the young workers in their daily life and their normal environment.

An organisation which is at once and inseparably a school, a service, a representative body.

Although Cardijjn never says so in so many words, it is clear that this ‘serve, educate, represent’ is based on the classical formulation of Christ’s mission as the priest who serves, the prophet who educates and the king who represents his people.

Indeed, it was largely through the efforts of chaplains and theologians of the YCW including Paul Dabin SJ37, whose books on the Royal priesthood of the faithful, later inspired Yves Congar in his classic Lay People in the Church: A study on the theology of the laity.

In a key speech at Vatican II on The royal priesthood of the laity38, Belgian Bishop Emile-Joseph De Smedt of Bruges introduced this concept to the Council, where it is largely incorporated into Chapter II on The People of God39. Significantly, the main drafter of Lumen Gentium was another longstanding collaborator of Cardijn, Mgr Gerard Philips, who had also worked for many years as a chaplain to the YCS and in teaching and promoting specialised Catholic Action in the Belgian seminaries.

3.2.3 Cardijn’s ecclesiology: Church, laity, priests

Cardijn’s ecclesiological approach can also be discerned in another of his triads: Church, laity, priests.

First comes the mission of the Church as a whole:

We receive this person, the grace and the mission of Christ in the Church, and for this reason she is also our mother. Everything we have comes from her and through her. And so the mission of the Church, like the mission of Christ, is to restore the whole of humanity to God and to put the whole of creation back into the plan of divine love.

The Church too must be the leaven of the world, the light of the world, the salt of the world. She must transform humanity, reveal the true way to all persons and make her grace available to them, so that the whole world may participate in the work of redemption through the complete collaboration to which it is called. ‘Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations’ (Matt. 28:19).

But we must never forget that this is the mission of the entire Church: the whole Church must therefore be apostolic.40

The ‘irreplaceable’ role of lay people derives and follows from this mission of the whole Church:

Lay people must receive the person, the life and the doctrine of Christ, so that, growing in grace and making Christ truly incarnate in their own life, they may carry this divine life not only within their own soul, but to all their brothers and sisters: at work, in their social capacity, in their environment, and in any institutions where they can exercise their influence or give witness to their Christianity.

The people who are actually living and working in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life are the lay people, and it is up to them to carry out Christ’s mission in all the different temporal sectors of life and to make the whole Church present there. I can never repeat this often enough: the lay apostolate is irreplaceable.

And this also makes the clear the role of the priest “who must reveal God’s plan to the faithful and make them aware of the place they occupy in it.”

In other words, it is the priest’s duty to bring each Christian to a discovery of his/her true mission, and, through teaching the Good News, to throw light on all those errors which beset laypeople on every side: false missions, false doctrines, false messiahs.

The priest must reveal this message not only to those baptised, but to all people. He must be concerned particularly with those who are not baptised, and who are not yet part of the flock: ‘And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also’ (John 10:16). The Church is for all humanity, belongs to everyone.

Hence, the vital role of the priest in ‘awakening’ in lay people a knowledge and desire for their apostolate, and particularly in forming lay people for an ‘authentic lay apostolate’.

For Cardijn, it is therefore lay people who are at the forefront of the Church. Thus, while Cardijn in no way undermines the role of the hierarchy, he clearly situates the task of bishops and priests in the service of lay people, whose role is ‘in the frontline’, as Cardijn stated, citing Pope Pius XII. Thus does Cardijn’s ecclesiology invert traditional hierarchical conceptions of the Church as well as anticipating Vatican II.

3.2.4 Cardijn’s Three Truths of faith, experience and method

Cardijn synthesises much of the above in one of his most well-known speeches in 1935, entitled The three truths:

Three fundamental truths dominate and illume the problem of the working youth of the world. They inspire, explain, and direct us towards the solution that the Y. C. W. has to give:

1. A truth of faith. The eternal and temporal destiny of each young worker in particular and of all the young workers in general.

2. A truth of experience. The terrible contradiction which exists between the real state of the young workers and this eternal and temporal destiny.

3. A truth of pastoral practice or method. The necessity of a Catholic organisation of young workers with a view to the conquest of their eternal and temporal destiny.

What was the significance of this formulation? In fact, Cardijn’s see judge act had been much criticised, indeed sometimes rejected as somehow compromising the Gospel in a kind of situational ethic. Sometimes, this criticism was expressed in the form “the Church evangelises in order to civilise, it does not civilise in order to evangelise”.

The three truths are Cardijn’s dialectical response to this critique, showing how the “truth of faith” remains at the heart of the YCW message. Since it is “contradicted” by the experience of life in the world, a method is required for conquering or transforming this reality, namely the YCW method of forming people capable of seeing, judging and acting through serving, educating and representing their communities.

This very debate re-emerged at Vatican II in the drafting of Schema XIII, later to be adopted as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Today, Gaudium et Spes. In its initial drafts, the schema took a traditional ‘doctrinal’ approach, starting from Church teaching. In November 1964, however, the conciliar commission responsible for the drafting of Schema XIII decided that the final versions should be drafted using the see judge act method.

The remarkable result is that the final version of Gaudium et Spes was formulated in terms of Cardijn’s three truths with the Introduction setting out the reality of the world of our time, Part I with its Christ-centred anthropology presenting the Church’s truth of faith, while Part II implements the see judge act method, applying it in the fields of family, social, economic, political life and world peace.

3.2.5 The see judge act and religious freedom

At Vatican II, Cardijn himself, having been created a cardinal by Pope Paul VI, also presented the see judge act as a method for educating people in the use of religious freedom:

This interior freedom, even if it exists in germ as a natural gift in every human creature, requires a long education which can be summarised in three words: see, judge and act.

If, thanks be to God, my sixty years of apostolate have not been in vain, it is because I have never wanted young people to live in shelter from dangers, cut off from the milieu of their life and work.

Rather I have shown confidence in their freedom in order to better educate that freedom. I helped them to see, judge and act by themselves… conscious of being responsible for their sisters and brothers in the whole world.

For Cardijn, then the see judge act, as adopted by the Council also provides an answer to Lamennais’ problem of ‘God and freedom’. In the same vein, Cardijn also explicitly links the see judge act to the old Sillon project of maximising the consciousness and responsibility of each person as indeed Dignitatis Humanae does in its opening lines:

A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgement, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty.41

Thus, without ever using the word ‘democracy’, Vatican II concluded by adapting and adopting the Sillon’s method of democratic education.

4. Conclusion

4.1 Cardijn and the new evangelisation

Among the bishops at Vatican II who fought for the adoption of the see judge act method were men like Bishop Helder Camara, himself a pioneer YCW chaplain in Brazil, and co-founder of CELAM, the Latin American Catholic Bishops Conference. It was thus no surprise to find that CELAM adopted the see judge act method as the basis of its work at its famous 1968 conference in Medellin, Colombia. In fact, it was at Medellin that the expression ‘new evangelisation’ first emerged, and this was clearly in reference to the adoption of the Cardijn method42.

It was Pope John Paul II who picked up the term ‘new evangelisation’ in the next CELAM conference in Puebla, Mexico in 1979 and made it famous. Having met Cardijn in Belgium in 1947 and later again while studying in Rome and having supported the phenomenological approach adopted for the drafting of Gaudium et Spes, there is no doubt that Wojtyla understood the linkage of the term new evangelisation to the Cardijn method.

4.2 Working in a secularised and multi-religious context

As we have seen, from the very beginning, Cardijn’s lifelong search was for a way to bridge the gap between the teachings of Jesus as transmitted by the Church and the lives of young workers living in the completely secularised culture of industrialising Europe.

Moreover, as we have seen Cardijn went to great pains to articulate his method, not in incomprehensible philosophical or theological terms, but in action words capable of being understood and implemented by young people with little formal education.

No university degree was ever required to understand the see judge act nor any catechism class necessary to comprehend serve, educate and represent.

Moreover, as is clear from the philosophical roots of the see judge act, it is not a method for implementing Catholic teaching, but a method for training people in reaching their own judgements based on their own reading of the Gospel. In this sense, the method is easily adaptable to both secular and multi-religious contexts, enabling participants to develop their judgement on the basis of their own spiritual traditions.

4.4 What happened to the YCW?

A big question remains. If Cardijn’s methods were so comprehensively adopted at Vatican II, what has caused the worldwide decline of the movements founded on these methods?

In some ways, it is easy to identify various causes. In Australia, for example, availability of cars, longer hours at hotels, expansion of entertainment venues, etc. meant that the social and sporting activities long organised by the YCW no longer held the interest of the masses. Young workers no longer left school at age fifteen, they no longer identified themselves as ‘workers’ or as part of the ‘working class’. More young people continued within the education system, even until their early or mid-twenties.

Political changes during the 1960s, the Vietnam War, the student revolution in Paris 1968, military dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere, also created tensions between YCW leaders involved in worker action and church leaders perceived as sympathetic to repressive governments.

Nor did the massive changes that followed Vatican II help the YCW. Astoundingly, of 38 YCW chaplains who had been present at a 1972 YCW training program, only six remained in the ministry by 198243. Moreover, a perception arose that the YCW and its sister movements were ‘pre-Vatican II’, a false perception that completely ignored the huge role played by the YCW bishops and theologians at the Council. Even Cardijn himself came to be regarded as a figure from the past.

Later the YCW suffered from its own internal storms with a split leading to the creation of two rival international organisations.

4.5 Cardijn and the future of youth ministry and the lay apostolate

In one sense, however, all of the above-mentioned factors of decline were, if not ephemeral, then at least short-term in their impact.

If Cardijn still has relevance today and into the future, then his work needs to be rediscovered and re-interpreted for the future.

Just as other great spiritualities of the Church, such as that of St Francis, St Ignatius and others, continue to spawn new initiatives and new movements, so too perhaps the Cardijn spirituality and methodology can inspire not just a renewal of the original ‘Cardijn movements’ but also the development of new movements, responding to the new challenges of the 21st century.

None of this can happen, however, without an appreciation of Cardijn’s historical contribution to the youth ministry and lay apostolate of the 20th century.

© Stefan Gigacz 2014

Published in:

Christian Fini OMI and Christopher Ryan MGL (Editors), Australian Catholic Youth Ministry, Theological and pastoral foundations for faithful ministry, Garratt, Melbourne, 2014, 261-288.

1Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert, Life and Times of Joseph Cardijn, Ch. 2 – Seminary:—seminary                  

2Cf. Apostolicam Actuositatem No. 29; Ad Gentes No. 21 (referring back to Apostolicam Actuositatem); Gaudium et Spes, where the method is applied in Part II; and Dignitatis Humanae No. 8.

3Joseph Cardijn, My reading                  

4Cf. Henri Guillemin, Histoire des catholiques français au XIXe siècle, p. 249.

5Cf. Stefan Gigacz, The Sillon and the YCW, Towards an understanding of the origins of the YCW                  

6Cf. Stefan Gigacz, Cardijn and Congar at Vatican II (awaiting publication)

7Max Vodola, Archbishop Justin D. Simonds and the YCW (awaiting publication)

8Katharine Massam, McGuire, Dominic Mary Paul (1903 – 1978):                  

9Cf. David Kehoe, Kevin T. Kelly, Prophet of the Australian YCW.

10Cf. Bruce Duncan, Lombard, Francis William (1911 – 1967):                  

11Cf. Geraldine Crane, Ordinary young workers doing extraordinary things, The Brisbane NCGM/YCW (Girls) Story 1945-1970.

12Cf. History of YCS in Australia                  


14ST 2a2ae.47. The English is from Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae. Vol. 36: Prudence (2a2ae. 47–56). Translated by Thomas Gilby O.P.

15Archbishop         Emile Guerry, Spirituality of Catholic Action, 1946:—spirituality-of-catholic-action

16 with prudence         

17Pierre Guillaume Frédéric Le Play:                 

18Joseph Cardijn, L’industrie à domicile en Allemagne—l-industrie

19Fiévez and Meert, Joseph Cardijn, Ch. 4, Brussels                  

20Louis-Joseph Lebret:                 

21Alphonse Gratry:                 

22Milton Singer, Translator’s Introduction, in Alphonse Gratry, Logic, at p. 7.

23Julian Marias, History of Philosophy at 309.


25Léon Ollé-Laprune, Eloge du Père Gratry         (My italics in the citation.)

26Léon Ollé-Laprune:                 

27Albert Bazaillas, Une philosophie de la certitude de la vie – Léon Ollé-Laprune:                  

28Léon Ollé-Laprune, Le prix de la vie, Préface à la 3ème édition:—preface (My italics in the citation.)

29Marc Sangnier, Le Crypte de Stanislas                  

30Marc Sangnier, L’esprit démocratique, 1905, p. 167. Note that in French the word ‘conscience’ corresponds to both conscience and consciousness in English.

31Cf. Louis Cousin, Vie et méthode du Sillon, 1906, p. 98 – 99.

32Joseph Cardijn, Welcome to Marc Sangnier, 1921:                  

33Pope Pius XII, Democracy and lasting peace, Christmas message 1944:                  

34René Van Haudenard, La formation sociale aux cercles d’études, in La Femme belge,         March 1922:                  

35Joseph Cardijn, The three truths                  

36Joseph Cardijn, Allocution                 

37Paul Dabin SJ, Le sacerdoce royale des fidèles dans les livres saints         and Le sacerdoce royale des fidèles dans la tradition ancienne.

38Bishop Emile-Joseph De Smedt, The royal priesthood of the laity:         

39Vatican II, Lumen Gentium:                  

40Joseph Cardijn, Priests and laity in the Church’s mission:                 

41Dignitatis humanae No. 1:

42Stefan Gigacz, The radical roots of the new evangelisation:                  

43Cf. John Maguire, Prologue, A history of the Catholic Church as seen from Townsville 1863 – 1983         at p. 401.