Cardijn proposes a ‘Roman Centre’ for the lay apostolate

In my last post, I noted Marguerite Fiévez’s critique of the post-Vatican II Pontifical Council of the Laity. It was not the kind of body Cardijn had hoped for, she said. Here then is Cardijn’s own proposal for a participative, bottom up “Roman centre” for the lay apostolate based on the lay movements and organisations themselves. Not even the more recent Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life comes close to Cardijn’s vision. Perhaps, it’s time to revisit it in the context of synodality and the 60th anniversary of Vatican II. 

As Marguerite Fiévez told her biographers, Luc Roussel and Lamya Ben Djaffar, Cardijn would not have liked the proposed structure of the the Pontifical Council of/for the Laity created after Vatican II in 1967.

In this context, it’s interesting to look at Cardijn’s own proposal in January 1964, i.e. in between the Second and Third Sessions of Vatican II, for what he called a “Roman Centre for the Apostolate of Lay People.”

The original document can be found here

And my English translation here:

Let us take a look at Cardijn’s “reflections.”

The summit of dialogue

Characteristically, Cardijn’s focus was on facilitating dialogue between lay people and the “Hierarchy,” to use an expression of that time. Here, Cardijn clearly rejected any notion of control or supervision. Rather he wanted a “secretariat of the laity for the Hierarchy” and for promoting collaboration among the lay organisations and movements themselves:

1. Most of all this Centre should have a role of information, formation, liaison and animation. In particular, it should on one hand inform the hierarchical authorities on the current trends, problems, and experiences of the lay apostolate; while on the other hand, it should welcome and faithfully communicate the inspirations and suggestions of the Hierarchy to lay leaders. Ultimately, it should be the summit of dialogue between Hierarchy and laity within the Church itself.

Thus, it is not to be the Secretariat of the Hierarchy for controlling or supervising the laity but it should much more be (a) a secretariat of the laity for the Hierarchy, and (b) a secretariat of the laity in view of collaboration with other institutions and organisations outside the Church.

A bottom up peak body

He expanded on this in the next paragraph, insisting that the proposed centre should genuinely be an “expression of the apostolate of lay people.”

Here he again rejected any notion of a top-down “superstructure” or “umbrella body,” which he contrasted with a bottom-up “peak” (tête, literally head in French) body or “summit” supported by “a real and palpable base”:

2. This Centre with the various components that it would comprise (Commissions, Assemblies, etc.) should be the expression of the apostolate of lay people in the Church, based on the continents and races – for youth as well as for adults – for the various milieux of life and modes of lay life – in view of the problems of coordination and collaboration with public and private institutions at the multiple levels of apostolic action – etc.

This is why it cannot be a superstructure, a sort of umbrella body imposed from outside or artificially but should be a peak body, a summit supported by a real and palpable base.

Its value will depend in the first instance on the reality that it represents, namely the concrete existence and consistency of that on which it is built. The centre itself will not impose itself from on high; rather it will grow based on the existing and living lay apostolate.

Leaders from the grassroots

Consequently, the leadership of the new structure should also come from the “base” or grassroots, albeit “in full submission to the Hierarchy.” Leaders would therefore be able to “speak in the name” of their movements as well as being endorsed by the Holy See.

3. As a result, its governance and leaders must also come and rise from the base, in full submission to the Hierarchy. The fact that its leaders will both come from the movements and will be able to speak in their name, and at the same time will be nominated by the Holy See will evidently provide a test of the value given to the role of lay people in the Church.

The importance and need for a genuine apostolate at the base cannot be exaggerated if we wish to avoid building on sand and deluding ourselves with respect to the value of our achievements and of higher level formation. I insist so strongly on this point precisely to avoid such serious illusion.

Focus on formation

As always with Cardijn, a key priority of the new centre was to be formation based on the method of dialogue and the search for Christian solutions in life – in other words by using the see-judge-act.

4. The value of the formation that the Centre should diffuse and promote will depend on two significant realities:

  • Educational material: Formation must begin from life and its problems which are the raw materials of the lay apostolate and thus of the active apprenticeship that lay people must undergo;
  • The methods that the centre will promote and use: It must promote a kind of formation based both on responsibilities discovered and lived as part of a genuine apprenticeship for the apostolate, and on enquiries, facts, experiences, achievements in life. This formation cannot in any circumstance be limited to a form of teaching based on theoretical ideas, as uplifting as this may be (and the documentation that the Centre will diffuse must also be based on the same requirements).

In any event, the formation must take place on the basis of the method of dialogue and the search for Christian solutions in life.

A support structure

Nevertheless, Cardijn clearly did not wish the new body to replace the formation programs provided by the various movements and organisations themselves. Thus, its role was to act as a support body, helping promote the work of the movements:

5. In reality, this Roman Centre for the lay apostolate must above all help, sustain, unite, make known the initiatives taken by others, rather than organising these itself. Most of all, it must “be available”, know how to receive rather than give, to learn rather than teach, to value existing apostolic potential rather than launching its own initiatives.

Thus, it should not itself organise study sessions or congresses but instead promote to the maximum those for which the movements and organisations experience a need and can carry out themselves, with their own resources and at their own level (the centre should also make available its facilities for eventual activities of this kind).

Consultation among the movements

Lastly, he called for widespread consultation among the movements and organisations on the model to be adopted for the proposed structure and for the people to be involved in it:


It is urgent to begin a loyal consultation with the major organisations and institutions of the lay apostolate (the most valuable at international and national level) on the following issues:

  • the relevance of such a body
  • its role, conception and operation
  • the candidates that they have to present
  • the initiatives that are expected from this body.

“Only in this way will we be able to enlighten the bishops at the right moment in order that they will be able to take a position in the conciliar discussion on this issue in full understanding of all the issues,” he concluded.

A counter proposal

Based on the above, Cardijn then developed an even more specific proposal for what he now called “a secretariat for the lay apostolate at the Holy See.”

I will present it as a whole without breaking it up into paragraphs so that the whole organic, bottom-up structure is more easy to see.

Once again, Cardijn’s emphasis on creating a dialogue structure was clear. Since the Vatican structures already existed, this new lay apostolate structure would necessarily prioritise the involvement of the lay movements and organisations themselves.

These movements and organisations would themselves elect a “coordination team.” Nevertheless, perhaps in a nod to the Roman authorities, he allowed for members of the Steering Committee to be appointed by the Holy See from among the members of this team.

Most important were the issues on which the new structure would focus – in short the whole range of issues affecting people across all periods of their lives and across the various “milieux” from which they come.

The ultimate aim, of course, was the promotion of the lay apostolate around the world.

In a sense, what Cardijn was proposing was something like a permanent secretariat for the Conference of International Catholic Organisations, similar to Vittorino Veronese’s own idea or hope for the COPECIAL.

Perhaps, it’s also not totally dissimilar from the much more recent model much later proposed for the Forum of Catholic-inspired Catholic NGOs. I’ll look at this in a later post.

Certainly, his proposal was nothing like the Pontifical Council of the Laity that eventually emerged in 1967 – not insignificantly, the year of Cardijn’s death – nor even the current Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, which was launched in 2016, neither of which made any provision for elected members. This, despite the fact that §26 of the Vatican II Decree on Lay Apostolate, Apostolicam Actuositatem, explicitly called for lay movements and movements to be represented in the new structure:

The various movements and projects of the apostolate of the laity throughout the world should also be represented in this secretariat, and here clergy and Religious also are to cooperate with the laity.

That at least is what the English translation on the Vatican website says, and I’m sure that was the intention of many Council Fathers, including Cardijn. But technically the authoritative Latin text doesn’t go quite that far, saying simply that the movements and projects should “suas partes habeant,” literally “have a part of their own” in the new structure.

Sixty years after Vatican II, as the Church as a whole looks to develop synodal processes based on “walking together,” it’s perhaps a good time to return to Cardijn’s original proposal for a bottom up structure for fostering dialogue.

Stefan Gigacz

Cardijn’s Secretariat proposal


Draft for a counter-proposal


The laity of the whole world wishes for a world secretariat at the Holy See to establish an ongoing dialogue with the Bishops concerning the apostolic problems of lay people of all races, all peoples and all continents:

  • To obtain the insights, encouragement and orientation from the Holy See;
  • To set out the real and concrete problems of life of all lay people for the Holy See;
  • To establish an ongoing dialogue and collaboration between all organisations in order to better understand the range of issues, to better unify the efforts and search for solutions, and to better extend their influence to the mass of peoples.


1. The organisations of the different continents would come to an agreement on the formation of a coordination team, in permanent contact with the various countries, the various dioceses and local organisations.

2. The various continental teams would propose permanent delegates to the Holy See for the Rome Secretariat together forming the Council and Bureau of the Secretariat.

3. From among them, the Holy See would choose a Steering Committee.


  • Childhood
  • Youth of various milieux for each continent
  • Mass media
  • Social and economic life
  • Cultural life (teaching, education, sport, free time, appropriate to various milieux)
  • Advocacy and action to and with the international organisations and institutions, UN, UNESCO, ILO, ECOSOC, FAO, WAY, ICO, UNICEF, etc.
  • Missionary, technical, intern, exchange teams


Each issue would constitute the basis for a department of the Secretariat with a permanent team, sessions and contacts, documentation and missionary activity in the continents concerned.

Coordination work would be organised by a central department comprising one or several continental delegates.

Each department would be autonomous; a central directorate would examine financial issues, efficiency, contacts, etc.

Dialogue with the Holy See would be ensured by the collaboration of delegates from the Holy See and lay delegates of the Secretariat. Dialogue with the continents would be ensured at the Secretariat by delegates, contacts, sessions. Dialogue between the continents and problems would be ensured by contacts, research by teamwork, joint sessions of heads of departments.


The Secretariat to the Holy See would be the expression of the real laity and through this it would ensure the awakening, animation and extension of the laity necessary to meet all needs.

Directorate: Council – Steering Committee – financing – research



Coordination: Gatherings – studies – sessions – documentation – library

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       Delegates                                            Departments

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Continents and continental issues: Continental teams

Jos. Cardijn