Cardijn and the First World Congress on Lay Apostolate 1951

This month we celebrate the 70th anniversary of one of Cardijn’s greatest triumphs, i.e. his keynote speech to and decisive influence over the First World Congress on Lay Apostolate in Rome from 7-14 October 1951, which helped set the stage for Vatican II.

A proposal by Vittorino Veronese

As Bernard Minvielle explains in his book, “L’apostolat des laïcs à la veille du Concile (1949-1959), Histoire des Congrès mondiaux de 1951 et 1957” (The apostolate of the laity on the eve of the Council, The story of World Congresses of 1951 and 1957), the Congress was initially the brainchild of Vittorino Veronese, an Italian lawyer, who was the president of the Italian Catholic Action movement (ACI). He was also a member of the Catholic intellectual movement, Pax Romana ICMICA, as was Cardijn in Belgium.

Veronese, who later became director-general of UNESCO, first raised the idea of a world congress in a November 1947 note entitled “Circa una organizzazione internazionale de l’AC” (“Concerning an international Catholic Action organisation”) that he addressed to the Substitute at the Holy See Secretariat of State, Mgr Giovanni-Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI.

He  initially proposed it as a lay initiative to be supported by the Holy See, an arrangement that he felt would have allowed the Vatican to not become too directly involved and thus preserve the independence of its spiritual mission.

Fifteen months later, Veronese again mentioned his proposal for what he now called a “World Congress on the Apostolate” in a letter dated 17 February 1949 to his friend, Ramon Sugranyes de Franch, a Catalan exile living in Switzerland, who was also the secretary-general of Pax Romana.

Over the following months, he wrote several articles outlining his proposal for the magazine, Iniziativa, published by the presidency of ACI and in Ricerca, the magazine of FUCI, the Italian Catholic University Federation, which was affiliated to Pax Romana-IMCS, the student wing of the Catholic intellectual movement as well as part of ACI.

On 16 May 1949, Veronese finally presented this proposal to the ACI Central Council, which approved and adopted the initiative. The aim was the “formation of a fundamental path for unified action” while respecting the autonomy of each participating organisation.

The program was to be divided into three parts:

a) The bases of the lay apostolate

b) Its various forms and structures

c) Its fields and immediate objects.

Pizzardo versus Cardijn

In January 1950, Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo, who had been appointed by Pius XI in 1938 as the president of the Holy See’s ‘Central Office of Catholic Action,’ sent the proposed program to the Italian bishops, presenting it as an ACI initiative responding to the “organisation of the forces of evil, which were intensifying.” It was open to “all lay people who were in some sense collaborators with the Hierarchical apostolate.”

This was quite different from Veronese’s original proposal. Nevertheless, it was welcomed by the emerging International Catholic Organisations (ICO) Conference, a loose federation of Catholic lay organisations and movements.

Given longstanding tensions with the Italian Catholic Action movement and with Pizzardo in particular, it is not surprising that criticisms of the Pizzardo project rapidly emerged in Belgium and France, home of the Specialised Catholic Action movements.

Indeed, Cardijn himself reacted swiftly and strongly. Together with Canon A. Mampaey, the chaplain of the Belgian Catholic Girls Movement, he wrote to Mgr Montini, with whom Cardijn already had very good relations, on 30 January 1950.

In their letter, which Montini transmitted to Veronese, they called for a restricted (small) and multinational commission in which “various nuances of conceptions that may exist” would be represented should be established to direct the congress. They also contested the conference outline, which sought to deal with “the dogmatic bases of the lay apostolate.” (Minvielle, 93) 

Meanwhile, Emilie Arnould, a former leader of the Belgian JOCF, who was also involved with the JOC Internationale, wrote to Cardinal Jozef-Ernest Van Roey of Malines, expressing the fear that “only the theses of Italian Catholic Action would be presented as the authentic doctrine of the Church.” (Minvielle, 93) 

Similarly, Archbishop Maurice Feltin of Paris, who was evidently in contact with the French JOC and other Specialised Catholic Action movements, had communicated similar worries to another Pax Romana leader, Mieczyslaw de Habicht. The French were particularly concerned at the possible etablishment of a clerically controlled international structure based on the ACI model. (Minvielle, 93) 

According to Minvielle, Veronese was clearly onside with these concerns but was also in a delicate position with respect to the ACI.

Cardijn’s campaign

The upshot was that over the course of the year 1950 Cardijn and the Specialised Catholic Action movements, particularly the JOC, lobbied hard with the object of achieving a complete reworking of the coordination and agenda of the Congress.

In a letter and document dated 4 December 1950, Cardijn proposed a new outline of the Congress based on the see-judge-act format, which he outlined as follows:

a) The Church and the problems of the present hour

b) The various forms of participation of lay people in the apostolate

c) Formation, action and organisation (one of Cardijn’s oldest trinomial expressions).

In addition, he proposed that the Congress should be introduced by “a very complete and concrete presentation of on the world today, dealing with all its aspects.”

“Immediately in response to these problems, (the presentation would explain that) the Church had a response, which was the very essence of the Congress as well as of the action of the Church, namely the lay apostolate.” (Minvielle, 131)

Two weeks later on 18 December, a broad-based preparatory meeting for the Congress took place in Rome. The first point of discussion was the method that it would adopt. Would it begin with Church or with the situation of the world in which the Church was placed? This approach did in fact win the favour of many participants while others also spoke of the need for doctrinal clarification.

As Minvielle explains, the outcome was that a commission of 14 members was appointed to draw up a proposed agenda for the Congress. Seven themes were adopted:

a) The problem of the world today

b) Doctrinal foundations

c) Formation of lay people for the apostolate

d) Elements of a new Christian social order

e) International organisations

f) The presence of Catholics at international level.

As a result, Cardijn “who had been one of the first to display his mistrust regarding (Veronese’s) initiative, now became its most ardent supporter.” (Minvielle, 105). Indeed, a “genuine complicity” now linked the two men, Minvielle notes.

Cardijn even took it upon himself to propose several “slogans to launch the congress.” These included: “The hour of the apostolate of the laity,” “No Church with the lay apostolate”, “The harvest is great: All Christian lay people will become harvesters” (Sounds better in French!), “World peace through the lay apostolate.” (Minvielle, 105)

He also began to promote the Congress during his travels, particularly in Latin America, where the JOC was making great strides.

“I spoke of the Congress wherever I went: Lisbon, Dakar, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Sao Paulo, Montevideo and now in Buenos Aires,” he wrote to Veronese in July 1951.

“It’s Bishop Helder Camara of Rio de Janeiro, who has taken charge of organising the Brazilian delegation,” Cardijn continued. “He has done so with great devotion.” (Minvielle, 105)

Back in Belgium, he took on the task of organising a national preparatory committee for the Congress. The various initiatives here included several conferences with Louvain professors such as Gerard Philips, the future redactor of Lumen Gentium, and the philosopher, Albert Dondeyne, also later a peritus at Vatican II, who worked particularly on the chapter on culture in Gaudium et Spes.

The world today and the lay apostolate

All this preparatory work bore much fruit. When the Congress finally opened on 7 October 1951, inevitably, it was Cardijn who was chosen to deliver the keynote address he had himself foreshadowed the previous December under the title “The world today and the lay apostolate.”

In his own words, Cardijn’s aim was to produce “the salutary shock necessary among all those responsible for the lay apostolate” at this “most missionary hour in the history of the Church.” And he did not fail to deliver.

What was needed, he proposed, was a “new apostolate” for the “new world” that was emerging:

The world of today! Everyone — men of science, business men, statesmen, churchmen, the Pope himself — agree to call it a new world, a world which is at a decisive turning point in its history; all declare that we are present at the birth of a new world.

This new world needs a new apostolate, new, not in its source and in the contents of its message, but an incarnate apostolate, adapted to the needs and the problems of this new world. 

His talk could “only give a fragmentary, panoramic view of the problems of the apostolate in the world of today,” he warned. Nevertheless, as well as “a cry of alarm” and “an S.O.S.,” it was also “a cry of faith and hope.”

But most of all, it was “an appeal to everyone, priests and laity, that the most missionary hour in the history of the Church, the hour in which the missionary field is most extensive and most profound, may also be the hour wherein the missionaries – and most particularly the lay missionaries – gain in numbers, in capabilities, generosity and holiness.”

And he detailed these challenges in a classical see-judge-act format, beginning with a “panoramic view” of the issues involved, including the demographic growth of the world’s population and the battles against hunger, disease and illiteracy that flowed from this.

To his Catholic audience, he pointed out there were only 400 million Catholics compared to 1.6 billion non-Christians, emphasising the missionary import of these figures not in terms of conversions but in terms of the “eternal destiny” of each person “redeemed by the Blood of Christ,” “each one the image and likeness of God, inviolable and sacred, called to a Divine Sonship, a Divine collaboration, a divine, personal, unique, irreplaceable and irrevocable heritage.”

Hence, the “problem of the world of work” was “not solely, nor even primarily, a problem of material demands or structural reforms.” Rather it was “a problem of total humanisation; a problem of education, formation, of human organisation, permitting and assuring the dignity, the respect, the development of each person, of each family, and of the immense majority of human beings . . . and this, not only during working hours, in the execution and in the place of work, but in the whole of life.”

“Man does not live to work, he works to live,” Cardijn insisted. A global approach was therefore required: “Worker problem, world problem, human problem, apostolic and missionary problem!”

And in the face of these problems, it was necessary to recall God’s plan of love for humanity:

Christ is the Divine Apostle, the Divine Messenger, the Divine Missionary, the Divine Teacher, sent by the Father, not only to recall the plan of God’s love in creation for all humanity, but by His Incarnation, His life, His death, resurrection, ascension, His survival in the Church, to associate all humanity in its own redemption. Christ is God, really present in and through His Son. He is the way, but also the truth and the life. He is God for us. 

Hence the role of the Church as the ferment of a “new humanity.”

The Church is the mystery of the Communication of God, the community and the Communion in God. Founded, mandated, led by Christ, the leaven, and the ferment of a new humanity, She must incarnate His person, His grace, His doctrine, and His Salvation in time and in eternity. 

The lay apostolate 

And thus the “urgent need of a presence, of a Christian action” that must inspire this evolution of the temporal.” Specifically this required:

· Christians who intensively live their Christianity, their belonging to Jesus Christ ; who consciously live His message, His Gospel, in all their personal life, in all its worldly demands . . . 

· Christians who are conscious of an explicit mission, who know that they are called to work for the extension of the reign of God . . . 

· Christians who penetrate all the sectors, all the aspects, all the institutions of the modem world, as witnesses of Christ, carrying the doctrine of the Church with them . . . 

· Christians who understand the whole importance of forming apostolic communities, of having an organised apostolate … 


Each Christian, each Catholic, by his Baptism, must be an apostle and a missionary-he has an apostolic and missionary vocation. Each one is called by God to Existence, to life, and to a collaboration in His creative and redemptive work. The earthly vocation is an apostolic and missionary vocation. The problems raised by science, technology, culture in all ages, as in all spheres, are not simply problems of chemistry, physics, biology, or technology. They are human problems, problems of human life, of human destiny. They confront the conscience, intelligence, initiative, courage and clear-sightedness of every human being. It is in the solution of these problems that missionary and apostolic effort is required. It is to prevent men from becoming robots and automatons, from being treated as such, as slaves and victims of exploitation, that the conscience and the human, apostolic and missionary responsibility of Christians must be awakened and formed to the problems of today. 

This “apostolic and missionary vocation” in fact constituted the “lay apostolate,” Cardijn insisted. But it did not “create a new Church,” nor “introduce new structures into the Church,” nor even “confide a new mission to the Church in the world.”

Rather, the apostolate of the laity was “the vocation both Christian and human of the laity in the Church and in the world,” he concluded.


Reading the list of “voeux” or “wishes” sent by Congress participants to Pope Pius XII at the end of the Congress, it is easy to doubt the impact of Cardijn’s speech.

In fact, probably the most important practical outcome of the Congress was the creation by Pope Pius XII in January 1952 of a lay-led Permanent (or Standing) Committee for International Congresses of the Lay Apostolate, known by its French initials COPECIAL. Veronese was appointed secretary of the new body after being replaced as president of ACI by the more conservative, Luigi Gedda. (That’s another story in itself!)

Cardijn’s real impact, however, was on the participants at the Congress, not least on Veronese himself, who continued to work closely with Cardijn.

Chilean bishop and future co-founder of the Latin American Bishops Council (CELAM), Manuel Larrain, was also quick to characterise Cardijn’s speech as “magistral.” Belgian Gerard Philips was similarly impressed by Cardijn’s “magistral and impressive” intervention.

Camara was another of those to appreciate the import both of Cardijn’s speech and the Congress itself. “I remember the very great impact (one of the greatest of my life) when, during the First World Congress on Lay Apostolate here in Rome, (Cardijn) presented us with a complete panorama of the great issues of the present time,” he wrote to his Brazilian coworkers during the First Session of Vatican II.

He was particularly struck, he said, by the “courageous realism” of Cardijn’s description of the “present conditions that make the apostolate of the laity particularly urgent.”

A Vatican II perspective

In the longer term, however, the most important impact of Cardijn’s speech and the work of his allies was the change in perspective introduced by the Congress.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the Congress proved to be a defining moment, introducing two major shifts in perspective that would come to fruition at Vatican II.

First, it introduced the JOC’s reality-based see-judge-act as the method of work at the Congress instead of the traditional doctrinal approach beginning from Church teaching.

Secondly, and equally if not even more important, it introduced Cardijn’s conception of lay apostolate as the role of the lay person transforming the world “in his personal life, in his family, professional, social, cultural and civic life, on the national and international planes” rather than in terms of personal piety, charitable and even social action.

In this sense, Cardijn’s speech anticipated both the conception of lay apostolate that would be adopted by Vatican II in its Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and Decree on the Lay Apostolate, Apostolicam Actuositatem, as well as the see-judge-act method adopted in the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the World of Today, Gaudium et Spes.

Indeed, Cardijn’s conception of a “new apostolate” for the emerging “new world” also directly foreshadows the concept of “new evangelisation” that would be adopted by the CELAM bishops at Medellin in 1968.

Stefan Gigacz


Bernard Minvielle, L’apostolat des laïcs à la veille du Concile (1949-199), Histoire des Congrès mondiaux de 1951 et 1957, Editions Universitaires Fribourg Suisse, 2001.

Vittorino Veronese (Wikipedia)

Ramon Sugranyes de Franch (Pax Romana)

Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo (Wikipedia)

Gérard Philips (Wikipedia French)

Albert Dondeyne (Wikipedia French)

Larraín Errázuriz, Manuel (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Helder Camara (Wikipedia)

Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM)

Joseph Cardijn, The world today and the apostolate of the laity (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Stefan Gigacz, The leaven in the Council, Joseph Cardijn and the Jocist Network at Vatican II (Australian Cardijn Institute)


The Catholic World in Pictures, 22 October 1951 (The Catholic News Archive)