The Australian Plenary Council: A Cardijn perspective

For the first time in over 80 years, the Australian Catholic Church is holding a Plenary Council, which will take place over two sessions in October 2021 and July 2022. It’s obviously an important event and has the potential to shape the Church’s role for perhaps the rest of this century.

The organisers, i.e. the Australian bishops have clearly made a huge effort to listen to the voices of Australian Catholics, who have responded enthusiastically, making over 200,000 submissions. Equally clearly, this has created a huge challenge to simply sort through all those responses, let alone organise them into some kind of structured synthesis. Necessarily, the compilers and drafters have made choices, which also inevitably reflect their own understandings and preferences.

The outcome of the process so far is the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for the Council. As the French would say, it is a “texte martyr” – a martyr text – that will be taken apart and criticised from every angle for every possible shortcoming it contains. Here, it should also be noted that many of these reflect gaps and limits in the submissions made to the Plenary.

Having said all this, it is essential that the Instrumentum Laboris is rigorously critiqued in order that the final documents of the Plenary will be at the level they need to be. Hence, this critical look at the Instrumentum Laboris from a Cardijn perspective and indeed a Vatican II perspective.

I’ve written up my notes on this on a separate blog entitled Plenary Reflections. It’s quite a simple examination of the IL, taking a series of words that are important from a Cardijn-inspired perspective: lay apostolate, lay people, work/worker/young worker, vocation, formation, the poor…

I note also that the Australian Cardijn Institute made a submission to the Plenary based on Cardijn’s conception of lay apostolate.

I will probably continue the process in the weeks and months to come but – with no pretension to completeness – here is what this analysis has revealed so far.

Labour and work/worker/employment/unemployment etc.

What the Instrumentum Laboris says: Click here for details.

In summary, the IL has several good references to current problems and issues in this area, e.g. to “a burgeoning, transient workforce,” “insecure employment,” changing conditions of work and employment, including “disgraceful working conditions,” etc.

However, the problems of unemployment, underemployment or casual work are not specifically mentioned.

Moreover, the term “worker” only appears twice and only in reference to pastoral/lay church workers. In other words, it’s a very “clerical” understanding of what it means to be a worker!

Moreover, in contrast to 25 references to Catholic schools, there is not a single mention of young workers.

On the other hand , the document does contain one isolated beautiful reference (§126) to the vocation of the “vast majority of Christians”, which “will be lived out primarily in the context of their family life, their workplace and their engagement with their culture and society.” (See more below.)

Overall, however, despite this year being the 130th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical, Rerum Novarum, there is little overall sense in the document of the importance of the world of work and labour as a field of Christian endeavour and mission.

What Cardijn says on these issues

The problem of working-class youth is critical. They must be given a doctrine and a pride in their work; they must be taught to organise and group themselves. For this a workers’ movement is essential, a movement which will form them, while they are young, to become the future leaders of the trade unions, of the international associations, of the world workers’ movement.

        – Joseph Cardijn, The hour of the working class, Lecture 1, 1948.

Never has the worker problem experienced the dimension, significance or gravity that it has today. All the more so since its present dimensions do not signify the ultimate end point; on the contrary this is merely the beginning of a vertiginous transformation, both concerning work itself and all the actors who are engaged in it, and concerning the unheard of repercussions of this transformation on all aspects of the life of the whole of humanity.

        –  Joseph Cardijn, The Church and the world of labour, Note for John XXIII, 1960.

The world in which they enter and begin to work faces new and serious problems. It is up to young people whether this new world will become better or worse. If we abandon these young people, if we leave them alone, they will be unable to resolve the problems of their age and of the modern world as they must.

        – Joseph Cardijn, Young workers and the Third World, Vatican II, 1965.

Their (i.e. the young workers’) working life and the whole of their daily life must become a prayer, a Mass, a prolonged Communion, so that they become priests and hosts with the one Priest and the One Host, offering ‘through Him, with Him and in Him,’ the homage of their whole life to the glorification of the Most Holy Trinity. Thus their bench, their shift, their profession, their work bench becomes an altar on which they offer their sacrifice united to that of their Redeemer, thus participating truly in the Royal Priesthood of which they are aware.

        – Joseph Cardijn, La formation eucharistique de jeunes travailleurs, 1933.

The “poor”

What the Instrumentum Laboris says: Click here for details

The IL starts promisingly by quoting the famous opening line of Gaudium et Spes – twice in fact in the document:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.

The IL also contains several other references to the “poor and vulnerable,” the “poor and suffering,” the “hungry,” the “poor and traumatised,” the “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.”

However, none of the references appear to treat the poor as acting subjects or agents. They are rather objects of “concern.”

Compare this with Pope Francis, Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the Fifth World Day of the Poor, 14 November 2021, who insists that the poor have much to teach us:

2. The poor, always and everywhere, evangelize us, because they enable us to discover in new ways the true face of the Father. “They have much to teach us. Besides participating in the sensus fidei, they know the suffering Christ through their own sufferings. It is necessary that we all let ourselves be evangelized by them.

3.  Jesus not only sides with the poor; he also shares their lot. This is a powerful lesson for his disciples in every age.

7. With great humility, we should confess that we are often incompetent when it comes to the poor. We talk about them in the abstract; we stop at statistics and we think we can move people’s hearts by filming a documentary.  Poverty, on the contrary, should motivate us to creative planning, aimed at increasing the freedom needed to live a life of fulfilment according to the abilities of each person.

What Cardijn says about the poor

I am the son of a poor working family. My father could not read or write because he had to work instead of going to school. My mother was a servant. I want the poorest man and the poorest woman to be respected.

         – Joseph Cardijn, Revolution by revelation, 1942.

Today, the economy and the organisation of work and the techniques of today are more and more international. That is the great problem of the poor people, the two thirds of humanity who have no work, who are unemployed, who have no techniques, who have no possibility to give help to their people… We call them underdeveloped people. But they must be respected, they must be honoured, they must he helped. Otherwise humanity will be destroyed. God needs the work of human beings. God will not replace one worker.

        – Joseph Cardijn, The workman and his family, 1966.
The faithful of the old Christian nations must, by all means, help relieve the suffering, the present misery and anguish of the Third World. Their help must not be limited merely to finance or to technology and equipment. What these young nations require more than anything is fraternal education that will enable them to take in hand themselves the cause of their human and divine development. It will certainly cause a historic scandal if the present state of affairs were to continue whereby ‘Christian’ countries maintain the possession and use of the greater part of the riches of the world.
        – Joseph Cardijn, Young workers and the Third World, Vatican II, 1965.


What the Instrumentum Laboris says: Click here for details.

As mentioned above, the Instrumentum Laboris contains one beautiful reference to the vocation of the “majority of Christians,” which “will be lived out primarily in the context of their family life, their workplace and their engagement with their culture and society. In this way Christians respond to the Lord’s call to be ‘the salt of the earth’ and the ‘light of the world’.”

This may be the most significant statement in the whole document. So, why is it buried in §126 in a section entitled “The Call to Co-Responsibility in the Church”? This is surely a paradigm example of what journalists would call “burying the lede.” What’s more such a significant statement does not belong in a section on “co-responsibility for the Church.”

Another question we could ask is why is this “majority of Christians” not addressed by their name, which is “lay people”? Whereas Apostolicam Actuositatem devotes Chapter I to “The Vocation of the Laity to the Apostolate,” there is little sense in the IL of lay people having a specific vocation of their own.

Beyond this, other references in the IL are mostly limited to a very traditional conception of vocation in relation to the various states of life: marriage and parenting, priesthood and religious life. In an age when many more people do not marry, there is no reference to the single life.

Finally and more positively there are several good references to the vocation of the Church as a whole, namely:

  • A vocation to communion
  • A vocation as a healer of humanity.

What Cardijn says

At the root of the YCW and of our whole conception of life, there is one great truth: that each young worker has here on earth a vocation, a personal mission to fulfil; and each one must fulfil this mission through the ordinary acts of his daily life in his natural environment.

            – Joseph Cardijn, The young worker faces life, 1949.

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 apostolate of the laity is the vocation both Christian and human of the laity in the Church and in the world.

        – Joseph Cardijn, The world today and the apostolate of the laity, 1951.

What the Instrumentum Laboris says:  Click here for details.
In every instance in the Instrumentum Laboris, references to the role of lay people refer to their role INSIDE the Church, co-responsible with the clergy, and/or in services provided by the Church.
There is not a single reference to lay people having a specific role in transforming their lives, communities and society.
How does this accord with the teaching of Vatican II, e.g. 
Lumen Gentium 33: Now the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth.
Gaudium et Spes 43: Secular duties and activities belong properly although not exclusively to lay people.
Apostolicam Actuositatem 1: proper and indispensable role in the mission of the Church.
What Cardijn says
“Have we given sufficient thought to the apostolate of the laity, have we understood its place in the Church? There exists in the Church an apostolate which is proper to the laity, which transforms lay life into an apostolic life.”*
        – Joseph Cardijn, The laity, 1935.
The apostolate of lay people has two essential, primordial and inseparable aspects:
1. Its relationship with God, Christ and the Church; with the plan of God in the work of Creation and Redemption.
2. Its relationship with the fundamental problems of man and the world, with their influences and their depth, in their total dimension.”
        – Joseph Cardijn, Note 2, Vatican II, 1960.

Apostle, apostolate and lay apostolate

What the Instrumentum Laboris says: Click here for details.

The Second Vatican Council was the first ecumenical council to devote a document to the “apostolate of the laity” or the “lay apostolate.”

This was a revolutionary concept since the concept of a lay apostolate was long regarded as an oxymoron, since the bishops alone were the successors of Jesus’ original Apostles. Indeed, one of Cardijn’s major battles at Vatican II was precisely for recognition of a specifically lay apostolate.

He succeeded so well that Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Vatican II Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, uses the term “apostolate” in this context 122 times.

In contrast, the Instrumentum Laboris only contains six references to the terms apostle/apostolate/apostolic and in four different senses:

  • Jesus’ Twelve Apostles
  • The bishops as successors of the Apostles
  • Religious with an “apostolic vocation”
  • The lay apostolate of Cardinal Joseph Cardijn.

Let us quote the full reference to “the lay apostolate of Cardinal Joseph Cardijn’:

Since the Second Vatican Council, Church teaching has often read the signs of the times by employing the See-Judge-Act method associated with the lay apostolate of Cardinal Joseph Cardijn.

This actually makes it sound as if the “lay apostolate” is something exclusive to followers of Cardijn rather than something integral to the Church’s mission.

Given that Apostolicam Actuositatem seems to be one of the most ignored documents of Vatican II, perhaps this is not totally surprising. Nevertheless, it is extremely regrettable.

At the end of the day, sad to say, the understanding of “apostolate” and “lay apostolate” in the Instrumentum Laboris is a pre-Vatican II understanding.

What Cardijn says

The lay apostolate is

  • is the lay (secular) life of lay people, the problems of that life, at every level: local, regional, national and international;
  • is the divine value of this life to implement the work of God and Christ, in order to transform life and the world;
  • is a transformation that must take place with, by and in Christ and the Church, with the resources of the Church (prayer, sacraments, etc.) but which are incarnated in the affairs of the world, the institutions of the world, in view of the inseparable goals that are the happiness of humanity and the glory of God.
        – Joseph Cardijn, The lay apostolate, Vatican II, 1965.

The lay apostolate does not create a new Church, it does not introduce new structures into the Church, it does not confide a new mission to the Church in the world. The Church and the lay apostolate are not two separate things. The apostolate of the laity is the vocation both Christian and human of the laity in the Church and in the world.

         – Joseph Cardijn, The world today and the apostolate of the laity, 1951.


What the Instrumentum Laboris says: Click here for details.

Apostolicam Actuositatem devotes a whole chapter to “Formation for the Apostolate” understood as “a diversified and thorough formation” of the lay person, which “is demanded not only by the continuous spiritual and doctrinal progress of the lay person himself but also by the accommodation of his activity to circumstances varying according to the affairs, persons, and duties involved.” (AA§28)

How does the IL look at “formation,” particularly formation for lay people?

The IL makes 21 references to formation in relation to a variety of areas:

a) Faith formation, sacramental formation

b) Formation for seminarians, deacons, clergy and religious

c) Formation for students and teachers

d) Formation for church workers

e) Formation for adult parish leaders

f) Formation for children and young people loosely connected to the Church

g) Formation for married life

h) Formation for the Gospel mission and Christian living.

Thus, it is clear that formation is thought of mainly in reference to various roles in the Church. Moreover, the emphasis is on “faith formation” although the meaning of this is not explained. However, from the context, it appears to refer mainly to formation in Christian doctrine.

While the text does refer to formation for “Christian living,” the only reference to the specifically lay vocation is in relation to married life (as important as this is). There is no reference at all to formation for lay people’s vocation in transforming life, community and world. 

What Cardijn says

The consciousness of the apostolic and missionary significance of the whole of life and realisation of this apostolic mission of the lay person thus supposes a formation that is both human, divine and Christian. This formation forms an integral part of the lay person’s general formation in the religious and moral field. The whole of religious formation is essentially apostolic.

Apostolic formation thus commences in the family, in parish catechism and at school. It reaches its culminating and decisive point at the age that determines the orientation of personal life –between 14 and 25 years – when the young man or young woman become adults and are confronted with the problems of their own bodily and psychic transformation, their professional and family future, their human mission in the world of today and tomorrow.

To be effective, this apostolic formation must be both:

  • an apprenticeship in the discovery of human problems (knowledge, seeing, learning to understand) thanks to the observation of lay life itself and a conception of life in the light of human destiny;
  • a search and an implementation of solutions that are needed to these problems (know how to judge in the light of a few principles) and from there, an action beginning with one’s immediate milieu;
  • an exercise in indispensable collaboration that will enable the organisation in common of tested solutions appropriate to the physiognomy of the present world.

        – Joseph Cardijn, Note 1, Vatican II, 1960.

Just as there are no priests without seminary training, and no monks or nuns without their novitiate, so there cannot possibly be young Christian workers without formation… The aim of the YCW is to make sure that each young worker will receive the formation, which he needs so much in his life and environment for all the acts of his daily life and in preparation for his future. The YCW is precisely this: a movement of young workers who, in and by and with young workers, in and by all the acts of their daily lives, form each other, support each other, help each other, love each other, and together prepare themselves for their future.

        – Joseph Cardijn, The young worker faces life, 1949.

I must bring about a double transformation, I must transform my boys and my girls so that they see the problems, judge and act, and become apostles, but also I must help them to transform the environment wherever they are. There is the double transformation, an interior transformation of boys, and an exterior transformation, of the bus, of the workshops and the factories, and the mines; and we must discover and help the boys and girls to discover that.

        – Joseph Cardijn, Quaerite Primum, 1954.


If there’s one conclusion that arises from the above, I would suggest it is that the excellent passage in §126 of the Instrumentum Laboris recognising that the majority of people, i.e. lay people, live out their Christian mission “primarily in the context of their family life, their workplace and their engagement with their culture and society” needs to become a central focus of the Plenary’s work.

In a sense, everything else that the Council needs to do will flow from this. But clearly a Cardijn perspective offers a great challenge to the Plenary and the Australian Church.

Stefan Gigacz


Australian Cardijn Institute Submission to the Plenary

Stefan Gigacz, Plenary Reflections