Universal brotherhood and solidarity: Cardijn & JPII

It’s a hundred years this month since the birth on 18 May 1920 of Karol Wojtyla, now better known as St John Paul II. Remarkably, the Polish pontiff was the fifth and last 20th century pope (albeit prior to becoming pope) known personally by Cardijn, following in the footsteps of Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI.

Indeed, it was as a 27-year-old young priest on his first visit to Belgium in 1947 that Wojtyla first met Cardijn in an encounter that appears to have had a lifelong impact on the future pope.

Prior to entering the seminary, Wojtyla had already gained his own personal experience of the workforce when he was forced to postpone his university studies owing to the invasion of Poland during World War II. As a result, he worked in a series of jobs, including as a messenger for a restaurant, a manual labourer in a limestone quarry and at a Solvay chemical factory.

These experiences no doubt helped make him particularly receptive to Cardijn’s concern for workers and working class. Perhaps they even played a part in the discovery of his own vocation to become a priest.

Eventually ordained in November 1946, Wojtyla was immediately sent to Rome to further his philosophical studies at the Pontifical University of St Thomas under Fr Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, a French Dominican whose community was already heavily involved with the YCW in both Belgium and France.

While studying in Rome, Wojtyla lodged at the Belgian College where he became friends with Marcel Uylenbroeck, the young Belgian priest, who less than fifteen years later would succeed Cardijn as chaplain to the International YCW.

Meeting Cardijn

Given this background and these contacts, it is not surprising that Wojtyla decided to spend his 1947 summer holidays visiting Belgium and France, where he studied the YCW, the worker priest movement and the Mission de France, the special prelature created in France for worker priests.

In Brussels, Wojtyla met Cardijn for the first time and they met again later when Cardijn visited Rome on his regular visits to the Eternal City. He recalled these meetings with affection when as Pope John Paul II he visited Cardijn’s tomb at Our Lady’s Church in Laeken in 1985.

During Wojtyla’s summer visits to Belgium, however, it was another young Belgian priest and YCW collaborator, François Houtart, who hosted him and took him on tours of the mines and factories of the industrial regions of Wallonia. These visits helped cement his friendship with Houtart, who would later somewhat ironically become known as a Marxist sociologist.

In any event, it is clear from all this that Wojtyla was taking a close personal interest in the various developments in the worker apostolate in France and Belgium. On his return to Poland, he published an article on the work of the Mission de France in the March 1949 issue of the Polish Catholic magazine, Tygodnik Powszechny.

However, it is not clear what practical influence any of this experience may have had. Even if Wojtyla had entertained thoughts of starting the JOC in Poland, he was first sent to a semi-rural parish before taking up a post lecturing in ethics at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and later at the Catholic University of Lublin some 200 km away.

Was there any Cardijn influence in Wojtyla’s phenomenological philosophical orientation? It is difficult to say. Nevertheless, there are intriguing parallels. Wojtyla’s doctoral thesis, for example, drew heavily on the work of the German philosopher, Max Scheler, who in turn was influenced by Alphonse Gratry, a key reference for Cardijn. And Wojtyla’s 1969 book, The Acting Person, certainly offers an anthropological vision that is very much in line with that of Cardijn. Moreover, the early English YCW chaplain, John Fitzsimons, also noted similarities in the “personalist” philosophies that underlay their thinking.

Vatican II

Nevertheless, it does not appear that there was any further communication between the two men until Vatican II. Cardijn had become a cardinal in January 1965. Thus, Wojtyla who had a major role in the drafting of Gaudium et Spes sought and obtained Cardijn’s support for an amendment to the text.

During the Council, Wojtyla also developed a friendship with Patrick Keegan, the former English and International YCW leader, who became the first lay person to address the Council.

He also renewed acquaintance with François Houtart as they worked on the successive drafts of Gaudium et Spes. During this period, Houtart also published his book, L’Eglise et le monde (The Church and the world), which became the basis for his first draft of the introduction to Gaudium et Spes – the “see” section of the document. Wojtyla was certainly impressed by Houtart’s analysis of the world situation. Moreover, it is clear that Wojtyla, the phenomenologist, fully endorsed the inductive or Cardijn method on which Gaudium et Spes is based.

This is confirmed in Wojtyla’s 1972 book on implementing the Council, Source of Renewal. Indeed, remarkably, Cardijn is the only person apart from St Thomas Aquinas who is cited by name in the book.

Referring to Paragraph 29 of Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on the Lay Apostolate, Wojytla wrote:

“These words sum up the modern idea of the lay apostolate (voir, juger, agir) associated first and foremost with the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne (JOC) under the guidance of the famous Fr J. Cardijn, who was raised to the Cardinalate during the period of the Council.” (p. 362)

Nevertheless, when the International YCW, with the support of Marcel Uylenbroeck, sought to launch the YCW in the industrial city of Katowice near Krakow around 1970, these efforts came to nought. Later however, as John Paul II, Wojtyla did with to appoint Uylenbroeck as archbishop of Malines-Brussels. Sadly, Uylenbroeck was already suffering from the cancer that would end his life in October 1979 and thus he was unable to accept the nomination.

The pope of human work

As pope, perhaps Wojtyla’s greatest encyclical was Laborem Exercens on Human Work published in May 1981 to mark the 90th anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.

It is difficult to imagine that John Paul II could have written such a document without at least a fleeting reference to Cardijn. And indeed we find this in §7 where the pope notes that “these fundamental affirmations about work that always emerged from the wealth of Christian truth, especially from the very message of the “Gospel of work”, thus creating the basis for a new way of thinking, judging and acting.”

Here the pope appears to be crediting Cardijn and/or the JOC for those “affirmations about work,” i.e. man as a “subject” rather than the “object” of work.

“Technology can cease to be man’s ally and become almost his enemy,” the pope warned, “as when the mechanisation of work ‘supplants’ him, taking away all personal satisfaction and the incentive to creativity and responsibility, when it deprives many workers of their previous employment, or when, through exalting the machine, it reduces man to the status of its slave.”

Here too there seems to be more than an echo of Cardijn’s famous phrase: “Young workers, are not machines, or animals or slaves. They are the sons, the collaborators, the heirs of God.”

And it is this new vision of the worker as a collaborator of God that for John Paul II appears to create “the basis” for a “new way of thinking, judging acting,” which is an obvious reference to the see-judge-act.

John Paul’s testimony

All this finds further confirmation in John Paul II’s address to the Christian Worker Movement (MOC-ACV) during his 1985 visit to Cardijn’s tomb.

“I am very happy to meet you here, near the tomb of Cardinal Joseph Cardijn,” he said. “The Church has not ceased to venerate this extraordinary priest, with a rich and ardent personality, this illustrious apostle of modern times, whom Paul VI appointed a member of the College of Cardinals.

“He was animated by a deep sense of the Church and a great love for the workers, who wanted to see the Church enter, dwell and act fully. It was based on the Gospel and on the social doctrine of the Church. In his missionary zeal, he had profound insights into the role of the laity and a remarkable pedagogy.

“I myself was happy to meet him and to benefit from his witness and from his advice,” he added, recalling his own meetings with Cardijn.

Indeed, the whole speech amounts to a rousing endorsement of the whole Cardijn method.

“What most impressed in Cardijn’s personality was his great love for the workers and their families,” he continued.

Cardijn “recognised the importance of the apostolate of the laity, young and old” and wanted “to make them more aware of their dignity as children of God, their specific vocation as baptised people of their responsibilities in the Church and in the world.”

“In this sense, he was a forerunner of Vatican II which spoke so well of the common priesthood of the faithful,” John Paul added.

“The whole world can be grateful to Cardijn for the pedagogy he has put in place, in the form of the famous trilogy, see, judge, act,” he said.

“Cardijn saw workers facing very difficult social problems within their nation. He stressed the collective and cultural aspect of these problems. But he also understood the international dimension of the social question, which is more easily seen today. He anticipated the labor problems posed by advanced industrialisation, the imbalances caused by underdevelopment and world hunger, threats of war, international cooperation and peace building. He worked for solidarity, universal brotherhood.

“But in all this he maintained the conviction that only the Gospel can be, in the world of workers who welcome it, the foundation of the true ethics of their dignity,” the pope concluded in a speech that rings with authenticity.


I think it is clear from all of the above that Karol Wojtyla was, at least at a certain level, a genuine Cardijn disciple, although this evidently takes nothing away from the other important personal, spiritual and philosophical influences that helped form the Polish pope.

Tragically, however, it was during the pontificate of John Paul II that the YCW split internationally into two movements, the original International YCW, which lost its recognition by the Holy See, and the International Coordination of the YCW, which replaced it.

To what extent he knew the details of these conflicts is difficult to say. The Polish priest, Mgr Jozef Michalik, later the archbishop of Przemsyl and who was attended the IYCW Extraordinary International Council in Mechelen, Belgium, in 1981, did tell me that John Paul II was greatly concerned at what was happening. It is also likely that he perceived the issues through the lens of the conflicts over liberation theology that had developed during the 1970s.

Personally, I can’t help but feel that if Uylenbroeck, who had helped negotiate difficulties with the Holy See over the IYCW’s 1975 Declaration of Principles, had lived longer, then much of this may have been avoided.

At the end of the day, it is a split that is difficult to reconcile with the call to “solidarity and universal brotherhood” that John Paul II himself highlighted as a key feature of Cardijn’s own legacy during his 1985 visit to Belgium – just as the split was unfolding.

Stefan Gigacz

POSTSCRIPT 23/02/2024

I’ve been told that former German YCW leaders, who went to Poland to try to launch the movement there while Wojyla was archbishop of Krakow, found that he was not supportive of establishing the movement there during the 1970s.

Another aspect to investigate!


Pope John Paul II (Cardijn Priests)

Pope John Paul II (Cardijn Testimonies)

Karol Wojtyla channels Cardijn (Cardijn Research)

Marx, Houtart, Wojtyla and the “See” in Gaudium et Spes (Cardijn Research)

Liberation and the New Evangelisation (Cardijn Research)

RIP François Houtart (Cardijn Research)