Starting from reality and life, exercising an apostolic influence over one’s peers, acting as a leaven in the church: remembering a leader

Stefan Gigacz, La Croix, July 24, 2017

Cardinal Cardijn’s decisive influence on Vatican II:  Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Cardinal Joseph Cardijn, founder of the “Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne” (JOC) or Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement.

Two years before Cardinal Joseph Cardijn’s death on July 24, 1967, Pope Paul VI had made him an archbishop and cardinal in February 1965 so that he could defend his vision of Specialized Catholic Action as a Council Father during the fourth and final session of Vatican II.  Previously, Pope John XXIII had appointed him as a member of the Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate for the Council.

Moreover, it was during this period that Pope John published his 1961 encyclical, Mater et Magistra, which specifically recommended the use of the Cardijn see-judge-act method that has since become a hallmark of church documents on Catholic social teaching.

Once the Council started, Cardijn was again appointed as a peritus to the conciliar commission on lay apostolate, although, in an indication of the level of controversy that surrounded his thought and methods, this did not take place until after the First Session.

For his part, according to his biographers, Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert, Cardijn had battled what he regarded as a growing tendency “since the Second World War, to try and identify and limit the lay apostolate to exclusively religious witness”.

Against this notion, Cardijn drafted more than 25 formal detailed “notes” for the preparatory and conciliar commissions advocating his vision of “the specifically lay apostolate of lay people” transforming their lives, their milieux and eventually the world.

Much of this vision of lay apostolate was indeed finally incorporated both in the chapter on the laity in the Vatican II doctrinal constitution, Lumen Gentium and in the decree Apostolicam Actuositatem.

“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,” reads Lumen Gentium 33 while in words that closely follow Cardijn’s own, Apostolicam Actuositatem 1 emphasizes the “proper and indispensable role” of lay people in the mission of the Church.

And, in another major victory after a long battle, Cardijn ultimately succeeded in ensuring that Apostolicam Actuositatem was formally entitled the “Decree on the Lay Apostolate” rather than “Decree on the Laity” as it is often still (incorrectly) called.

Recognizing Cardijn’s contribution just four days after the promulgation of Apostolicam Actuositatem, Paul VI noted that the Council “for the first time in the history of the Church has just devoted a decree to the apostolate of lay people”.

“Yes, the good grain sowed fifty years ago by several generous pioneers and particularly by a young Belgian priest has certainly reaped a hundredfold!” the pope said, without needing to mention Cardijn by name, so obvious was the latter’s role.

Perhaps Cardijn’s greatest contribution to Vatican II, however, lay in the fact that more than one hundred Council Fathers had previously been chaplains to the JOC while at least another hundred had been chaplains to other Specialized Catholic Action movements based on the jocist model.

Indeed, many of these bishops played decisive roles, beginning with the French Cardinal Achille Liénart, whose intervention on the first day of formal meeting, broke the control of the Roman curia over the agenda and turned it over to the bishops.

Similarly, key periti had a jocist or Specialized Catholic Action background including the Dominican Yves Congar, Gerard Philips, principal drafter of Lumen Gentium, Pierre Haubtmann, redactor of the final version of Gaudium et Spes to name only a few.

Indeed, the jocist bishops and periti played a particular prominent role in the drafting of Gaudium et Spes, as recalled by the recently departed François Houtart, who himself wrote the first draft of the “Introductory Statement on the Human Condition in the World Today”.

Several of the lay auditors also had a jocist and Specialized Catholic Action background, including Patrick Keegan, who addressed the Council on behalf of their behalf in 1964.

All this helps explain the fact that there are direct or indirect references to the Cardijn inspired see-judge-act method in no fewer than eight of the sixteen conciliar documents.

Nor was this the limit of the Cardijn influence at the Council. Thus, Bernard Botte OSB, who played a significant role in the drafting of Sacrosanctum Conciliumpointed out that it was “incontestable” that these assemblies of young workers (public masses and liturgies organized by the JOC), responding to the priest, responding to the ordinary of the Mass, participating in the offertory, helped the liturgical movement to progress more than many (journal) articles”.

As a Benedictine, Botte was clearly aware of how closely Cardijn had worked with his Belgian confreres who had pioneered the liturgical changes later adopted by the Council since the 1930s.

In fact, such was the influence of the Cardijn-inspired bishops and periti at the Council that British Cardinal Basil Hume – another Benedictine – went so far as to characterize Vatican II was Cardijn’s “monument“.

Amazingly, however, the Cardijn-formed bishops and periti exercised this influence without ever organizing themselves as a formal group. On the other hand, they did play major roles in several other conciliar groups, notably the Church of the Poor group, the French bishops group – France being the superpower of Specialized Catholic Action during that period – and also the Latin American bishops.

In fact, these bishops were simply doing what Cardijn had taught them, and that they had taught so many young workers, students and farmers around the world to do, namely to exercise an apostolic influence over their peers, acting in effect as a leaven in the Council.

If today Pope Francis is calling for a Church that starts from reality and from life, this is no small measure due to the role played by Cardijn and his disciples who helped transform the Church by raising its awareness of the human condition and the world in which it is embedded.

The author

Stefan Gigacz works for La Croix International and is researching the role of Joseph Cardijn at Vatican II.



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