1912 and all that – Cardijn and YCW history

On 12 October 1964, in the middle of the Third Session of Vatican II, Cardijn wrote a short note entitled “Writing the history of the YCW“. In that note, he emphasised three points:

This is why I believe that it is desirable:

1. To give a very important place to the first beginnings of the YCW from 1912 (and even the preparation for these beginnings);

2. To try and discover the YCW from the inside, in that which is the most authentic and most original, in order to present it for itself, in an objective fashion, and not by reference to other initiatives or organisations;

3. To underline its own value, by mentioning already some of its fruits which are tangible in the widest range of fields.

The date could of course be simply chance, given that he was already 82 years old, and certainly knew that he was near the end of his life. However, I do feel it’s significant that he felt the urge to write this as the Council met.

Why does Cardijn feel the need to emphasise the fact that the “first beginnings of the YCW” took place in 1912? What was the “preparation for these beginnings”?

Why does he feel emphasise “the need to present (the YCW) for itself” rather than “by reference to other initiatives or organisations”?

Why does he feel the need to underline the YCW’s “own value” and to mention “some of its fruits” which “are tangible in the widest range of fields”?

The simple answer, evidently, is that he felt that the history was NOT being understood in the way he wished.

In other words, there was a lack of attention to the 1912 origins and perhaps (probably) an over-emphasis on other dates, e.g. the first national congress of the Belgian (French speaking) YCWs in 1925, or the foundation of the French YCW in 1927, or even perhaps the First World Council in Rome in 1957.

And if he feels the need to present the YCW “for itself”, what are “the other initiatives or organisations” to which he is referring? Here, I think the most obvious candidate is “Catholic Action”. So many texts of that time refer to Catholic Action, to the “methods of Catholic Action”, etc. with little or no reference to the YCW itself, even though it’s clear that the “methods of Catholic Action” referred to were those developed by Cardijn and the YCW.

And if he feels the need to emphasise the “value” of the YCW, then clearly he feels or fears that the YCW is being under-valued or even ignored. Indeed, by the mid-1960s, the YCW was in serious decline in French-speaking Belgium, even though at a global level, it was still close to its zenith.

Bearing all this in mind, it’s interesting to try to reflect again on what happened in 1912.

Three points that strike me are as follows.

First, it’s significant that the first YCW groups organised by Cardijn were targeted at teenage young workers. Some or perhaps even many of them were only twelve or thirteen years old, while the majority appear to have been aged around 14 to 16. Today we would call such young workers “child workers”. In most if not all “developed” countries, children so young are no longer allowed to work. Indeed, many young people remain in fulltime education until the beginning of their twenties. Nevertheless, according to UN statistics, there are in fact still some 215 million fulltime child workers around the world. Is there a challenge there for the YCW today? To the best of my knowledge, no YCW around the world in either the IYCW or the ICYCW are involved in this field. Nor to the best of my knowledge is there any other movement modeled on the YCW that specifically works in this field.

The second point that is striking in looking back at those first groups is that they depended not so much on YCW chaplains (or priests) but that from the beginning there was an organised group of mature young women (mainly aged in their twenties and thirties) who worked with these YCW groups. In other words, lay collaborators had a vital role right from the foundation of the movement. This was largely lost from the 1920s when the development of the Pius XI model of Catholic Action as the “participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy” took hold. In effect, priests displaced the lay collaborators who had helped found the YCW. Even up to today, there are few movements around the world that have any kind of developed strategy for recruiting such lay collaborators.

The third point that is even more striking is the fact that there is virtually no reference to the concept of “Catholic Action”. In other words, the YCW was developed outside of and before Catholic Action became the watchphrase of the pontificate of Pius XI. Indeed, during the period around 1912, the Catholic Action concept was associated mainly with initiatives in Italy developed under Pius X, In countries such as France and Belgium, Catholic Action was a marginal title largely whose use was largely limited to conservative if not extremely conservative groups.

It’s very clear then that Cardijn wanted to emphasise the emergence of the YCW, NOT as part of Catholic Action, but even BEFORE Catholic Action.

The relevance of this at the time of Vatican II was the fact that the whole notion of Catholic Action was already becoming controversial. Joseph Comblin had already published his book “Echec de l’Action catholique?” (Failure or setback for Catholic Action?). Meanwhile, Cardinal Suenens was campaigning inside and outside the Council against what he regarded as “the monopoly” on Catholic Action exercised by the YCW and other “specialised Catholic Action” movements.

And yet, even though Cardijn did come to have a certain attachment to the notion of Catholic Action, i.e. in the sense that he had fought and obtained recognition for as an “authentic“expression of Catholic Action, he nevertheless always maintained and insisted on the YCW’s existence in and of itself.

In the middle of Vatican II, he could see how this was already being lost, and the decades since then have only confirmed his fears.

Stefan Gigacz