The growing pains of the JOC and JOCF

This is a second letter from Cardijn to the Rome-based Jesuit sociologist and canonist, Arthur Vermeesch, that Jean Tonglet kindly sent to me from the hard drive archives of the late Fr Marc Leclerc SJ. (See the earlier one here:

This letter is dated 24 November 1933, eight years after the official foundation of the JOC in Belgium, at a time when the movement was beginning to blossom internationally, quite probably thanks also the support of Vermeersch and his colleagues.

As I’ve written before, there was a very strong Jesuit connection with the early JOC.

Read more here:

In this letter, which is clearly a response to an earlier letter from Vermeersch, Cardijn endorses his suggestion that the movement should promote devotion to the Sacred Heart, a favourite Vermeersch theme.

Stating that he is pleased with the development of the JOCF – the Girls’ YCW, he highlights the problems the growth of the movement has caused.

It now has over 2000 local teams and 200 paid workers, although it’s not clear if Cardijn is referring solely to  the JOCF or to both the JOC and JOCF.

In any event, he and his collaborators now face massive challenges in providing formation, management and financing for the movement, particularly since, being a youth movement, the leadership turns over so rapidly.

And here Cardijn highlights a key theme that he will come back to for the rest of his life: the need for and the lack of trained chaplains.

He writes:

What concerns me the most is the role of the clergy in Catholic Action. Our priests must become the educators and supernaturalisers of lay apostles and know how to bend to the discipline of the Movement. We meet certain confreres who fill us with admiration, but alas, our young leaders for the most part lack spiritual direction, advice, support and encouragement. This is, in my opinion, the essential question for the future of Catholic Action: the education and sanctification of the clergy. We find marvelous resources among our young workers. There is an inexhaustible supply of spiritual strength there, but we have over 2,000 local chapters, and we don’t have many local chaplains who really live out our movement. This is certainly the most delicate point.

I can’t see the solution myself. The extension of the movement was too rapid but there is going back. The priestly meetings are inadequate, and despite my best efforts, I lack contact with most of our chaplains. At the General Secretariat, we really need about ten priests dedicated exclusively to the Movement. But it is impossible to think about this at the moment. There are three of us here. We do what is possible, but we have eight periodicals in rotogravure, two in letterpress, not to mention our circulars and then there are the incessant meetings of fulltime workers and leaders.

Clearly, this was a huge issue. But if Cardijn couldn’t find enough priests, why didn’t he look for women religious, who could also assist? Perhaps, women’s orders of the time were not oriented to this kind of work? Or was he (and the Church) of that time simply too wedded to the notion that such a role belonged exclusively to priests? 

It’s hard to believe it’s the latter since we know that when he launched the first young female workers study circles in Laeken from 1912, Cardijn relied extensively on the accompanying role played by well educated young women “counsellors,” such as Victoire Cappe, Madeleine De Roo and others.

What happened to that role of lay women counsellors, in fact? It seems that as the movement developed and became a Catholic Action movement, priests took over this role.

And in fact priests around the world were almost exclusively responsible for the mushrooming of the movement. But did this leave no room for others?

Perhaps more answers to all these questions will be found in other letters in Vermeesch’s archives (wherever they may be found!)!

Stefan Gigacz


English translation

Joseph Cardijn – Arthur Vermeersch 24 11 1933 (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Original French

Joseph Cardijn – Arthur Vermeersch 24 11 1933 (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)