Joseph Cardijn “revolutionised all our catechetics and most of our theology” said the late South African Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban in a 1986 interview.
Born in 1915, he joined the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1932. After studying in Rome during the 1930s, he eventually became Apostolic Vicar of Natal in 1946 before being ordained as the youngest bishop in the world in 1947 aged 32.
Four years later in 1951 he became the world’s youngest archbishop and a year later he was president of the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops Conference.
During the 1960s Hurley would also become prominent for his opposition to the South African apartheid regime as well as for his role at Vatican II.
Despite his regard for Cardijn and the YCW, he was never actually involved himself with the movement. In fact, according to Flo Triendl, who worked in the Durban area during the 1960s, Hurley had his own movement “Christian Renewal” to which he tried to recruit YCW leaders.
Nevertheless, Hurley had enormous regard for Cardijn, also calling him “perhaps the greatest Christian educator of the 20th century”.
“See, judge and act. That simple formula was a discovery of genius, one of the greatest geniuses who ever pushed along Christian education: Joseph Cardijn.
“So he founded his Young Christian Workers for the young industrial workers but his method was taken up in all forms of Catholic Action, as they still called it, among intellectuals, amongst students, white collar workers and so on.
“But the amazing thing is the effect it had on theologians and first of all the French theologians,” Hurley continued.
“The Young Christian Worker organisation seeped into France from Belgium – over the border and was taken into France – and there it attracted the interest and attention of a number of French theologians, especially two very prominent men: Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu.
“These theologians, struck by the experiences of the Young Christian Workers and the way they put them across began to revise all their theology. These great theologians, influenced by these young industrial workers, began to revise all their theology and that caused enormous disturbance, upset and unrest in the Catholic Church in France just before, during and just after the Second World War. And, as a result, Congar was sent off to England to cool his heels and Chenu was told to shut up and not teach anymore but both those gentleman were at the Second Vatican Council teaching us teaching us.
“I got to know them both quite well and about two years ago I got a letter from France and thought: who is this from? I opened it and there was a very spidery little message there, two or three lines, from Father Congar. Oh, I could have wept, that was so touching. Father Yves Congar.
“But it is amazing, you know, the effect the Young Christian Workers had on these theologians and how through their work the whole Catholic Church was revolutionised and began to look at real situations before theologising too much. I don’t think anybody involved in catechetics today will recognise that Joseph Cardijn has revolutionised our catechetics too but they have, because if you look at situations, there must be a life experience before you start drawing your conclusions,” Hurley said.
“So this had the effect on theology that now these realities became all-important for theological reflection. The whole temporal order that these young people were talking about, the whole order of social temporal life: work, family, politics?all these things became very important to the theologians and suddenly Catholic theology opened out and embraced the whole world. So we say thank you to Joseph Cardijn for that,” Hurley concluded.
Interestingly, Hurley also says that Pope Pius XII also came under the YCW’s influence.
“He was pope from ’39 to ’58, he was pope during the Second World War. He didn’t write any great encyclical on the social question but he gave countless addresses in his audiences on thousands of aspects of human life.
“He seemed to have learnt the lesson too from the Young Christian Workers of spiritual, theological reflection on countless aspects of human life and he also spoke when, you might say, a certain evolution took place from Catholic Action to lay apostolate.
“Now it was recognised that lay people carry out their mission not because of a special participation in the role of the hierarchy but because they are baptised and confirmed Christians, they have a role to perform, they have a mission to execute. So we call this more “lay apostolate” than “Catholic Action”.
“Pope Pius XII died in 1958 and his successor was the great Pope John XXIII. Now with Pope John XXIII full recognition is given to the kind of theology that grew out of the ‘see, judge and act’ methodology and we find that in two famous encyclicals of Pope John XXIII: Mater et Magistra – mother and teacher – 1961 and Pacem in Terris – peace on earth – 1963 finished in April 1963 and Pope John died in June the same year, so Pacem in Terris was his last will and testament to the Church. And here in these encyclicals you can see that the concern of the Church with the social question has gone far beyond just the worker problem to all the problems that beset humanity in its social experience.”
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Denis Hurley (JosephCardijn.com)