Revisiting Cardijn’s proposal for a Pontifical Commission on youth issues

I thought I had pretty well located every proposal that Cardijn had made in relation to the Second Vatican Council. But there’s always more, as I found on a visit to the Vatican’s not-so-secret archives earlier this month.

I thought I had pretty well located every proposal that Cardijn had made in relation to the Second Vatican Council. But there’s always more, as I found on a visit to the Vatican’s not-so-secret archives earlier this month.

Just before the First Session was about to get under way, he wrote to Pope John XXIII via Archbishop Angelo Dell’Acqua, the Substitute at the Holy See at that time.

Here is Cardijn’s letter in the original French:

And my English translation:

Plus an article on the issue that I wrote for La Croix International.

Revisiting a proposal for a Vatican commission on youth issues

Now also translated into Brazilian Portuguese:

Revisiting a proposal for a Vatican commission on youth issues

On the eve of the Second Vatican Council, Msgr. Joseph Cardijn, founder of the Young Christian Workers movement suggested to Pope John XXII the creation of a pontifical commission to tackle issues facing young people on a long-term basis.

“I would like to see the urgent creation of a Pontifical Commission responsible for studying the worldwide problems facing young people – adolescents and young adults – and to propose effective solutions,” wrote Joseph Cardijn in a letter to Pope John XXIII’s collaborator, Archbishop Angelo Dell’Acqua, on Septe. 5, 1962, just one month before the opening of Vatican II.

It was not the first time that the Belgian founder of the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne (JOC) or Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement had sought to influence the course that the Council would take.

In an early 1960 audience with Pope John, as preparations got under way, he had already proposed the publication of an encyclical to mark the 70th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s landmark 1891 social encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

To Cardijn’s joy if not surprise, the pope enthusiastically adopted his suggestion, leading to the publication in 1961 of Mater et Magistra, which would become the encyclical most cited by the Council in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Present World, Gaudium et Spes.

Even more significant, both from Cardijn’s point of view and that of Vatican II, was the fact that the encyclical (§236) also incorporated reference to his iconic “see-judge-act” method, paving the way for its integration into conciliar documents, particularly the Decree on Lay Apostolate, Apostolicam Actuositatem and Gaudium et Spes.

Flushed with this success, but also worried by the direction that the Council preparation was taking, he sought to focus his efforts on his area of particular experience and expertise, working with young people.

Young people faced many issues, he wrote to Archbishop Dell’Acqua, beginning with “sexuality,” their “mission and vocation” in life, their “work and profession or trade,” as well their “preparation for their personal, family, social, cultural, civic and religious future.”

Also important were the issues of “teaching and education,” “movements and organisations of youth” as well as “the responsibilities of parents” (and other institutions) not to mention “pressure of public opinion and advertising.”

In reality, young people were already “facing adult problems,” Cardijn observed. Yet, although young, they needed to learn “to resolve those problems themselves with the aid of adults who worked with them.”

Failure to assist young people in this task would lead to “an irreparable catastrophe,” he warned in his characteristically apocalyptic style.

Fortunately, he argued, the opening of the Second Vatican Council offered a “providential opportunity” for the church to awaken or “shake up” social institutions, public opinion as well as young people themselves to the need for action, he wrote to Archbishop Dell’Acqua.

Although the proposal for a Pontifical Commission did not eventuate, Cardijn’s proposals did not fall entirely on deaf ears. Apostolicam Actuositatem §12 later incorporated many of his concerns while Gaudium et Spes contained more than a dozen references to young people.

And on its last day, the Council issued a Message to Youth, even if it was not quite the one Cardijn would have hoped for.

As Pope Francis’ innovative “Pre-Synod” with 300 young people meets in Rome this week in preparation for the Synod of Bishops’ October assembly on “Young People, Faith and Vocation Discernment,” it seems particularly timely to recall Cardijn’s own reflections and proposals.

On one hand, it is significant that the Synod has (again) adopted the Cardijn method in its preparation as evidenced by the see-judge-act structure of the Preparatory Document.

On the other hand, it is striking to note the contrast between Cardijn’s direct, matter of fact listing of issues facing young people and an apparent hesitancy shown by the Synod secretariat.

While Cardijn, for example, did not fear to place “sexuality” at the head of his list of issues concerning young people, the Synod fails to address the issue at all in its first “see” section on “Young people in today’s world.” Only in the third “act” section does the term arise in what looks almost like an afterthought.

Asked by journalists about this, the Synod’s secretary-general Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri attempted to explain the apparent oversight.

“We did not refer to (sexuality) because we did not want to focus attention on it,” he told reporters in January. Otherwise, journalists might “accentuate the focus” on these issues, he explained somewhat lamely.

No doubt the young people taking part in the Pre-Synod will ensure that all the relevant issues are raised and aired. Yet it is clear that a one-off event will in no way suffice to articulate responses to all those issues.

Perhaps the time has come then for the Pre-Synod and Synod to revisit Cardijn’s original proposal in 1962 for a Pontifical Commission to address these issues over the longer term.

As Cardijn wrote in 1962, these issues are “of such importance for the Church and the world of the future” that everything possible needs to be done to develop “a program of education and action that will form young people to address the issues they face in life both now as well as in the future.”

In recognition of his important work through the Young Christian Workers, Pope Paul VI made the Belgian priest, then 82, a cardinal in 1965. Cardinal Cardijn died two years later, but it is clear that his legacy lives on.


Revisiting a proposal for a Vatican commission on youth issues (La Croix International)

Stefan Gigacz