Listening to Cardijn – or not

The late and great Australian YCW chaplain, Fr Hugh O’Sullivan, once told me that when Cardijn first visited Australia in 1958, he was more impressed by Maria Meersman, who was then the vice-president of the International YCW, than by Cardijn himself.

According to Hugh (and many others), it was difficult to understand Cardijn’s heavily Flemish accented English. Besides, Cardijn was already a man aged 76 years, hardly an advantage for winning the hearts and minds of young seminarians, as Hugh was, and YCW leaders of the time.

I was reminded of this listening to a recording of a speech given by Cardijn at the Domus Mariae at the Vatican on 29 November 1965, a week before the Council ended.

Listen to it here:

You can certainly hear echoes of what a powerful speaker, young Cardijn must have been. But it’s also inescapable to note that it is an old man speaking, recalling incidents from his youth, praising “my mum” who taught him that religion concerned both God and men.

As Hugh had noted, the Flemish accent is very strong, to the point that it’s sometimes even difficult to understand his French.

Listening to this recording, it’s much easier to understand how Cardijn came during the Council to be seen as a “pre-conciliar” figure, preaching to the converted.

By way of contrast, listen also to this speech by the Dominican Fr MD Chenu, another Cardijn disciple:

Chenu in fact acknowledges Cardijn at around the 34:50 – 36:10 minute mark of the recording.

Listen also to the recording of Fr Paul Gauthier, the French priest, who was working with poor workers in Nazareth during the time of the Council, and who was the leading figure in the launch of the famous Jesus, Church of the Poor group of progressive bishops during the Council:

Or listen to these talks by Bishop Helder Camara, then an up and coming young Brazilian bishop:

Despite the Brazilian accent, it’s so much easier to listen to and understand Camara than Cardijn!

Comparing these various talks, it’s also easy to see how Cardijn came to be perceived as “aged”, which he certainly was, and even “pre-conciliar” compared to the rising generation of younger theologians and bishops.

It’s also interesting to compare Cardijn’s talk in 1965 with this interview recorded by Belgian television station VRT in 1962 on the occasion of his 80th birthday:

I believe we can hear how Cardijn has aged over the space of three years.

Moreover, it’s also noticeable in Cardijn’s archives to see how his handwriting gradually deteriorates over the course from the firm hand of his youth to the shaky hand of an octogenarian.

Such is life, and it’s going to happen to all of us! For Cardijn, this accelerated ageing process seems to have coincided with the holding of Vatican II.

It doesn’t diminish the influence that Cardijn actually had on the course of the Council but it makes it easier to understand how those perceptions of “old” Cardijn arose.

Stefan Gigacz