Millions and millions of young workers

How many members did the YCW have around the world at its peak during the 1950s and 1960s? This was the question a colleague posed to me over the weekend.

The figures are extremely rubbery, I responded initially, recalling that in the past I have read – somewhere – that the movement at one time boasted three million or even four million members.

What’s more there’s no doubt that Cardijn was obsessed with reaching the “masses” of young workers. He often spoke of the “millions” of young workers around the world.

In his book, Lay people into action, published in French in 1963 and English in 1964, he calculated that there were “at present one thousand million young people on earth between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five who are in their formative years, more than half of whom are already at work.”

In fact, it was this emphasis on reaching the working classes masses and the masses of young workers that clinched the allegiance of Pius XI at their famous first meeting in March 1925, when the pope told him:

Yes, it is necessary to kill oneself to save the working world. Not just an elite, but the mass. The elite is the leaven, the elite are the multipliers. The Church needs the working class… Without the working class, the Church is not the Church of Christ… Every young worker has an infinite value… etc. Yes, kill yourself to bring them back to the Church. The greatest scandal of the nineteenth century is that the Church lost the working class. I bless you, I support you. Your movement is not your movement, it’s mine, it belongs to the Church. Whoever touches it, touches the apple of my eye.

Similarly, in 1959, when Cardijn first met John XXIII, his emphasis, as IYCW president Romeo Maione recalled, was on reaching “millions and millions of young workers.”

So how many of those young workers did the YCW actually reach?

Estimating the numbers

Writing in 1955, English priest, Fr Eugene Langdale, claimed – without citing any source – that “at present established in more than 62 countries; (the YCW) groups over a million and a half young workers of every race, colour and nationality.”

Two years later in 1957, representatives of 85 countries took part in the pilgrimage to Rome that culminated in a meeting and mass with Pope Pius XII at St Peter’s Square on 25 August 1957. Two weeks later, representatives of 75 of those countries took part in the First International Council of the YCW. Extrapolating from this, we might expect that the numbers were approaching two million.

Four years later in Rio de Janeiro in 1961, representatives of 85 countries took part in the Second International Council.

In a note written in 1963 in the middle of the Second Vatican Council, Cardijn himself claimed that there certainly existed 50,000 “sections” around the world:

Quand je revis le chemin parcouru depuis le premier tout petit grain de sénevé en 1912 et le déploiement de la JOC internationale dans environ 100 pays de tous les continents, avec certainement 50,000 sections locales unissant déjà des millions de jeunes travailleurs de toute race et de toute couleur, on peut certainement parler du miracle de la JOC.


When I relive the path traveled since the first tiny grain of mustard seed in 1912 and the deployment of the international JOC in approximately 100 countries on all continents, with certainly 50,000 local sections already uniting millions of young workers of all races and backgrounds. color, we can certainly talk about the miracle of the YCW.

If we estimate that each section reached an average of 50 young workers through its leaders and general meetings as well as social and sporting activities that makes 2.5 million, so a total of three million YCW members around the world is not out of the question.

Indeed, as a boy at Sacred Heart parish, St Albans in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia, I remember that the primary school playground, which doubled as a netball court on weekends, was packed with teenage girls, while on another occasion I remember a bus loaded with YCW footballers leaving to play a match elsewhere. So I think that 50 members is not an unreasonable estimate for a fully-fledged YCW section.

This was probably the apogee of the movement internationally because by the time of the Third International Council in Bangkok in 1965, only 69 countries were represented albeit by 116 national movements (taking into account both male and female movements as well as countries like Belgium which had more than one (regional or ethnically-based) movement.

Priest and nuns

Meanwhile, the English YCW leader, Patrick Keegan, writing prior to the First International Council in 1957, claimed that he’d calculated that there were at least 26,000 priests and religious from the YCW plus innumerable nuns:

In ’57, just before I left, I did a serious report on things. I think, following the official archives, we could claim specifically over 26,000 priests and religious. We stopped on the nuns, we had too many.

These are astounding figures, which certainly imply a movement numbering in the millions. As far as the nuns are concerned, this also jives with what I know of the situation in Australia where many perhaps most nuns of the 1950s and 1960s had a background in either the YCW or the YCS.

Correlation or causation, of course, is another question! Still, I think there’s little doubt that the movement did foster many priestly and religious vocations as the personal testimonies of a number of people indicates.

What happened?

The thing that staggers me, however, is how the movement could have simply evaporated so quickly from say the late 1960s onwards! Many causes can be put forward, including the massive sociological changes of that time, the turmoil in the Church after Vatican II, the number of YCW chaplains who left the priesthood, the rise of other forms of “youth ministry”… Studies are needed.

In this context, I remember Romeo Maione expressing his disappointment about these developments on his visit to Australia for the Cardijn centenary in 1982, a sentiment that he repeated during the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the movement in 2000:

The saddest event in my life was to see the overnight destruction of not only the YCW, the YCS and all the other organisations of Specialised Catholic Action groups in Canada.

The most progressive bishops who just returned from the Vatican council in one meeting of a few hours closed down all these movements. The reason that was given was that the council had renewed the Church and they had not only done wonderful work but it was their ideas that were at the heart of the council. I remember telling the bishop ‘tell me that the world has been changed by the council and I will go back to sleep.’

In effect, what the bishops were Canadian bishops were telling him was that now that Vatican II had adopted the see-judge-act and Cardijn’s concept of the lay apostolate there was no need for the YCW because the Church as a whole was going to do what the YCW had done before. Sadly the history of the last 60 years tells a different story…

What’s certain, however, is that at its peak the YCW did succeed in reaching millions and millions of young workers. And there’s no reason why – with the support of the Church – it could not do so again.

Stefan Gigacz


Joseph Cardijn, Lay people into action, Chapter 6, The world today and the lay apostolate, ATF Press

Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert with the collaboration of Roger Aubert, (Preface Dom Helder Camara) (English Translation Edward Mitchinson), Cardijn, Chapter 5 – Pius XI and first YCW Congress (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Eugene Langdale, Joseph Cardijn (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Albert Hari (with the collaboration of Stefan Gigacz, Pierre Pierrard, Luc Roussel), IYCW, 75 years of action, International Cardijn Foundation, 2000.

Joseph Cardijn, La JOC et le problème de la jeunesse travailleuse (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Patrick Keegan, Interview (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Romeo Maione, Doctor Cardijn (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)