Make Cardijn a cardinal: Camara to John XXIII

As we know, Paul VI made Cardijn a cardinal on 25 February 1965. But how did Paul VI get the idea? No doubt there are many answers to that question. If I remember correctly, Marguerite Fiévez once told me that she thought that it was during Cardijn’s visit to Bombay (Mumbai) for the Eucharistic Congress in December 1964 that Pope Paul, who was also present there, made his decision.

In any event, it is consistent with the probable reason for Paul VI’s decision, namely that he wanted to promote Cardijn’s conception of specialised Catholic Action at Vatican II, particularly in the wake of attacks from others, including Cardijn’s own bishop, Cardinal Suenens.

And now here’s another piece of the puzzle in this letter from Helder Camara to Cardijn on 12 July 1963. Camara writes:

J’espère aussi de voir réalisé les rêves que j’avais proposé au grand et aimé Pape Jean, rêves qu’il avait bien compris, comme le Bandoeng chrétien et — pas pour vous, mais comme signe pour la classe ouvrière — le chapeau de Cardinal pour le Fondateur de la JOC.

I also hope to see the realisation of those dreams that I had proposed to our great and beloved Pope John, dreams that he well understood, such as the Christian Bandung and — not for you, but as a sign for the working class — the cardinal’s hat for the Founder of the JOC.

So, Camara had already proposed that John XXIII make Cardijn a cardinal. But John had died on 3 June 1963. Now, following the election on 21 June 1963 of Cardinal Giovanni-Battista Montini as Pope Paul VI, Camara is more confident than ever of achieving this and other goals with the new pope.

In his own earlier letter, Cardijn had encouraged Camara to immediately make an appointment to see the new pope in preparation for the Second Session of the Council which was scheduled to begin three months later. Indeed, Camara does seem to have visited the Pope at the beginning of the Session. Given his indicated determination to do so, it seems highly probable that he did also propose the cardinalate for Cardijn to Paul VI.

As Camara notes, he makes the proposal not for the glory of Cardijn but “as a sign for the working class”. I suspect that it is also in reaction to the fact that Cardijn had not been chosen as a peritus for, the First Session of the Council.

As we have seen previously, this exclusion was very probably linked to Suenens’ opposition to Cardijn on a range of issues relating to their respective understandings of the lay apostolate and Catholic Action:

During the First Session of Vatican II, Camara had already started to mobilise in support of Cardijn’s nomination as a peritus. But I suspect that he now felt that this did not go far enough and that he wanted to place Cardijn on equal footing with Suenens by making him a cardinal.

Indeed, I believe that this is also how Paul VI, who had been a friend and intimate collaborator with Cardijn for so long, also felt.

Stefan Gigacz


Image from the Nationaal Archief, the Dutch National Archives, and Spaarnestad Photo, donated in the context of a partnership program. CC 3.0.