The Mission

“We are still at the beginning; we are always at the beginning; We must persevere!” Joseph Cardijn.

Joseph Cardijn

At the beginning of the 1900s, Joseph Cardijn was a boy living with his parents in Belgium. The working conditions at the nearby factories were dreadful. He could hear the ‘clatter of wooden clogs’ as the workers trudged past his house early in the morning on their walk to work. He saw them coming home at the end of the day – exhausted and with their spirits defeated.

Cardijn’s parents saw it as a blessing when he decided to become a priest, even though they could have used his wage had he gone to the factory. When he returned home from the seminary on leave, he saw the difference in his school friends now that they were working. They had become cynical of the Church and rejected him as ‘the little priest’. Cardijn’s Father died far too early due to overwork. Because of these experiences, Cardijn dedicated his life to solving the scandal he called ‘the Worker Problem’.

Priests could not go into factories. So, if the workers were to be saved from this exploitation, they would have to do it themselves, recognising their actions as the redemptive mission of Christ. The dignity of work needed to be reclaimed. The workplaces could no longer be bastions separate from God. ‘Its victims must become its conquerors’, Cardijn said.

Each person is created in the image of God (Book of Genesis) and thus has dignity here ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. Therefore, it contradicts this ‘truth of faith’ to treat (young) workers like machines or beasts of burden.

In 1916, Cardijn, who had worked actively in the underground since the war started and spoke out against the German armies, was arrested and sentenced to thirteen months in prison. He was to serve another prison sentence in the coming years for similar activities. Cardijn used his prison time to set plans and directions for what was to become the Young Christian Workers movement.

Cardijn wanted a movement for young workers, at the age of formation, to help them discover that lay people have a Christian vocation, to be missionaries in all their spheres of influence and workplaces. There is dignity in work that people can be proud of, and the exploitation of workers is unchristian.

Cardijn founded a group of young women needle workers after he was appointed Curate in Laeken. He also founded a group for young working boys, and from this came the first three Y.C.W. leaders, Fernand Tonnet, Paul Garcet and Jacques Meert. In 1924, the Young Trade Unionists, as they were called, became the Young Christian Workers with Cardijn as National Chaplain.

Young Christian Workers

In 1925, Cardijn started the Young Christian Workers Movement (Y.C.W.). It became an international mass movement run by young workers with priests’ guidance. Pope Pius XI received Cardijn in Rome and gave the Movement the sanction of the Church. It was recognised as authentic Catholic action.

Meanwhile, the Y.C.W. had already crossed European borders, spreading to other francophone countries. By the mid-1930s, small movements had already existed in North and South America, Africa, and Asia.

Catholic Action proponents Paul McGuire and Kevin T. Kelly in Australia also promoted the Y.C.W. In 1939, Kelly published a short pamphlet which led to its foundation in Australia, particularly under the dynamic leadership of Fr Frank Lombard and lay leaders Ted Long and Frank McCann.

Vatican II

By the 1950s, Cardijn was a recognised international figure, touring the world. He gave the keynote address at the first international Lay Apostolate Congress in Rome in 1951. In 1957, he brought 32,000 young workers to Rome for a World Assembly at the Vatican, followed by the first International Y.C.W. Council.

In a meeting with Pope John XXIII, Cardijn proposed writing an encyclical to mark the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. This became the encyclical Mater et Magistra, which also formally recognised the See Judge Act method, a way to evaluate situations, events, and structures critically.

Pope John also named Cardijn to the Commission on Laity, preparing Vatican II. In 1965, Pope Paul VI made him a cardinal, enabling him to participate fully in the Council’s last session, where he gave three speeches.

In 1958, Cardijn visited Australia, speaking at public rallies in Melbourne, Adelaide and elsewhere. He visited again in 1966 as a cardinal in one of his last international trips before his death at 84 on 24 July 1967.

Cardijn’s faith and optimism never blinded him to reality, and his clarion call was that the Y.C.W. continues to serve, educate, and represent young workers. Meeting in small groups, they review their lives in the light of the gospels and use the SEE, JUDGE, A.C.T. method to change the world. In Australia, there is a particular emphasis on collective actions that involve services for young workers.

Cardijn Community

The International Cardijn Community seeks to continue Cardijn’s work by building a community of people inspired by the same vision of “the specifically lay apostolate of lay people,” his Three Truths dialectic, and his iconic “see-judge-act” method.

After five years of reflection and prayer at three national conferences, it was decided in 2011 to start the Cardijn Community Australia (CCA). An adult lay movement ‘engaged with the world’ to encourage older generations to remain conscious of their mission as Christians’ in our factories, farms, workshops, offices and all our homes.

“This lay apostolate is as different from the priestly apostolate as the lay state and lay life is different from the priestly state and life”, said Cardijn. This “specifically lay apostolate of the laity”… “must act on life itself”. ‘The priest’s and the layperson’s missions differ not only because of the kind of apostolate they exercise but because of their fields of action. The layperson’s apostolic field is civic, cultural, economic and social life, the family, work – the whole of secular life.”

“Experience proves,” Cardijn never tired of repeating, “that the discovery of the apostolic dimension of daily life produces incredible results in the simplest Christian lives: both in the radical transformation of environments and as an irresistible impetus towards personal perfection.” “We can demand sanctity, perfection, discernment and competence of laymen in the world” (“just as we demand them of religious”), he said, and we obtain “unheard-of-results.”

The primary field of work for the laity is not in the Church but in the world.

We recognise the past and ongoing work and dedication of thousands of Chaplains who have given so much of themselves to form young workers. Cardijn says, “The priest in the Y.C.W. is everything and nothing”. The priests, religious, and adult mentors are most welcome as members of Cardijn Community Australia and are still held in special respect.

CCA – Cardijn Community Australia will mobilise the people of God to take conscious and collective action daily. Face-to-face and online, small groups and conferences will use the Review of Life and systematic enquiries. The end state will be a community that identifies as a significant part of the Church, in collaboration with allied movements, which makes a positive contribution to the common good.

We will build a community of adults who apply the method of Joseph Cardijn’s See-Judge-Act to transform ourselves and the world.

Our work is to:

  • Develop small groups.
  • Interact with allied organisations.
  • Provide training and resources on Cardijn’s method.
  • Reflect on ‘the signs of the times.’
  • Act on social issues.
  • Facilitate summer schools for seminarians and chaplains.
  • Participate in Cardijn Community International
  • Organise retreats based on Catholic Social Teaching