Bishop McElroy and a Californian Cardijn tradition

San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy has captured global headlines over the last week for his speech at the US Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, California, during a panel discussion on the barriers marginalised people face in housing and work.

“For the past century, from the worker movements of Catholic action in France, Belgium and Italy to Pope John XXXIII’s call to re-structure the economies of the world in “Mater et Magistra,” to the piercing missionary message of the Latin American Church at Aparecida, the words “see,” “judge” and “act” have provided a powerful pathway for those who seek to renew the temporal order in the light of the Gospel and justice,” Bishop McElroy told participants at the meeting organised in response to a call from Pope Francis.

“There is no greater charter for this gathering taking place here in Modesto in these days than the simple but rich architecture of these three words: ‘see,’ ‘judge’ and ‘act’,” he continued.

“Yet these words — which carry with them such a powerful history of social transformation around the world in service to the dignity of the human person — must be renewed and re-examined at every age and seen against the background of those social, economic and political forces in each historical moment.”

And so he proceeded himself to develop his own SJA analysis under the headings:

a) See clearly the situation

b) Judging with principles to foster integral human development

c) Acting, which he explained as follows:

After the panel yesterday, when the panelists were asked in one word how they would summarise their message, I tried to think, what is the “act” that summarises how we must act in this moment?

And I came up with two words. The first has been provided in our past election. President Trump was the candidate of “disruption.” He was “the disruptor,” he said, challenging the operations of our government and society that need reform.

Well now, we must all become disruptors. We must disrupt those who would seek to send troops into our streets to deport the undocumented, to rip mothers and fathers from their families. We must disrupt those who portray refugees as enemies rather than our brothers and sisters in terrible need. We must disrupt those who train us to see Muslim men, women and children as forces of fear rather than as children of God. We must disrupt those who seek to rob our medical care, especially from the poor. We must disrupt those who would take even food stamps and nutrition assistance from the mouths of children.

But we, as people of faith, as disciples of Jesus Christ, as children of Abraham, as followers of the Prophet Muhammad, as people of all faiths and no faith, we cannot merely be disruptors, we also have to be rebuilders.

We have to rebuild this nation so that we place at its heart the service to the dignity of the human person and assert what the American flag behinds us asserts is our heritage: Every man, woman and child is equal in this nation and called to be equal.

Powerful words that were reported in many places, both approvingly, eg by NCR here, as well as disapprovingly, eg on Breitbart.

Many including myself were surprised to discover Bishop McElroy’s talk with its reference to the SJA and Catholic Action in Belgium and France.

As it turns out, however, both California and San Diego have a long history of the jocist movements, including an early YCW in San Francisco, the home diocese of Bishop McElroy. Indeed, Cardijn himself visited there on several occasions between 1946 and the early 1960s.

Here is a report of his first visit in 1946:

Not only was there a strong YCW in San Francisco, but also in several other Californian dioceses including Sacramento and San Diego, which is now Bishop McElroy’s own diocese.

One of the leading personalities in San Diego was Fr Leo Davis, who co-founded a Cardijn Center with Fr James Anderson, which operated for many years.

Fr Davis also worked closely with the labor leader, Cesar Chavez, and was responsible for introducing him to another young labor oriented priest, Fr Victor Salandini, who later became famous for his work with Latino farm workers and earned the nickname “the tortilla priest.”

As seminary rector for many years, Fr Davis was a strong promoter of the Cardijn conception of the lay apostolate and specialised Catholic Action.

Bishop McElroy may not have personally known Fr Davis. But it is clear that he is following in that powerful Californian Cardijn tradition.

Stefan Gigacz


Disrupt and rebuild with the SJA: San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy (


San Diego Tribune