Discover Cardijn


You take a chance when you invite someone on the other side of 40 to speak to you because on one hand he is not of the nuclear generation and he may give you his non-nuclear version of the truth. Even worse and more probable he may inflict on you his reminiscences of the past in a world where the future swallows up the present.

When I was invited to speak to you, I searched for that link that could unite our experiences. What draw bridge could span the ‘unspanable’ Pacific between Canada and Australia. Early last December, the ideas for my topic started to germinate in my mind. I was in Brussels – I get there rather often – and I usually visit the final resting place of Cardijn in the Basilica of Laeken, where he started the first YCW section. On the right side of the church, he rests under a simple slab of marble with the inscription:

“Joseph Cardinal Cardijn

and the poor have the good news

preached to them.”

I worked with this man for five years. It is rather ironic knowing the million or so miles that he travelled to preach the gospel that now he waits to be visited. How do I picture this man that so often came to Australia which in fact ‘kept me out of this country’. There he sat in a small office surrounded by the latest books and underlining with a small stub of a pencil, keeping up with accelerated history. Every time that I visited him, his first greeting was -“we are just beginning.”

He had already penetrated the complexities of the technological world. Even as he tried to reach out and evangelize all of the young workers of the world, he was preoccupied with the young workers of the future. His thundering voice is now stilled and yet is still to heard by the Church.

Yet this was only half the horse power that moved me towards my topic “Cardijn in Time and Space”. The other half horse power was supplied by a young YCW leader in Canada who told me that he had heard of him but just could not understand him. His working class vocabulary did not register. The acceleration of language makes it difficult to understand the language of just the last generation.

Language finds it difficult to keep up. Experience tends to cross the threshold of the new.

The last shove was the present renewal process of the Church. The emphasis is on liturgy, catechetic and biblical renewal. The renewal of the laity is being pushed into the shadows of history. It is unfortunate but true that the post conciliar church has become more and more inward looking at the expense of her saving presence in the modern technological world.


To understand Cardijn, one must understand that he was a missionary trying to bring the good news to all men. Yet just as St. Paul evangelized only part of the world, in the same manner Cardijn selected an age limitation for his task, instead of a Pauline geographic limitation. He was overwhelmed by the power of culture to form young people. Whenever we read Cardijn, we must remember that he wrote for a concrete historical period and we shall have to make an effort to distinguish the ideas from the setting. I can still hear him crying out “The age of vocation is between 14 and 25, this is the period in which they are to become conscious of their role in life. Before that age, it is too early because they cannot understand what life is, what married life is, what love is. With the best schools in the world, if boys and girls are abandoned at 14 years of age, they are lost. The experience of the last 50 years is a terrifying proof of this.”

The setting for this discovery was Europe. Young workers then started to work at the age of 14 and the average age of marriage was 25. This setting for the idea is still true in most of the world that is entering the industrial era. In our post industrial age, where young people remain in school till they are 17 or so and get married at around 28, we can superficially say that Cardijn is passe. Yet we must never equate the setting of an idea with the idea itself.

Right from the beginning of his priesthood, he was obsessed about reaching young people. We must remember that he was formed in a Belgium seminary of 70 years ago when Jansenism (the ecumenical brother of puritanism) held sway. The problems of young workers for young Cardijn was low morals and morality was equated with the cut of a girl’s dress. This moral approach did not help him to make real contact with young workers. In fact, it was a total failure. He kept searching. During his summer holidays, from teaching in the seminary, he travelled throughout Europe, searching for ideas on how to reach young workers. He visited the labour unions of England. He studied the youth movements of Germany. At the same time, he kept trying to organize the young workers of Belgium. Because he was even then, a man of action, he kept experimenting.

He patiently worked at finding a formula for about 15 years, trying something when it did not work, he discarded it or retained some aspect of it. At the end of this rather long and patient seeking, he came out with the present YCW.

This long journey led him to understand the major problems of young workers. He saw the injustices of his time, the exploitation, and above all the growing alienation of working youth, “I am nothing”.

The only possible approach to young people would be the challenge of changing the whole environment that surrounded young workers. He loved to say -“we must change the water in which the fish swim, take the fish out of the water and the fish dies”. He used to laugh at the old adage of his day that said “one bad apple in the barrel will for all the other apples” What was wrong with this adage was that ‘a person is not an apple.’ In a church, where knowledge was to beget love, he would insist that it is love the begets knowledge. The young workers of yesterday, today and tomorrow will not allow themselves to be known before they are loved. The cardinal fact of life is that only love can open up the other person. In a world, where each person is developing his own prison, love is the only way of escape to freedom.

His acceptance by the young people of his time allowed him to discover new truths. Everything that Cardijn talked or wrote about, he had experienced. Contrary to many modern intellectuals who write and then seek out the experience that will prove them right, Cardijn was a new type of deep thinking, he experienced then wrote. Love always begets knowledge.

He discovered that life forms life. Education is but only part of this formation. Real education must remain in the vestibule till the young person comes to grip with the possibilities of their own life. They must become conscious that life is forming them to fit into the culture. Up to a certain age, youth are still tied by the unseen umbilical cord to their parents. The first cord of life is cut for him while the second has to be cut by himself. He moves away from the family to become part of the larger community before he launches his own family.

This is the time of becoming part of the culture. The battle of values is on. He either accepts all the values that the culture forces on him and be becomes a full member or remain faithful to your Christian values and live in a small counter culture ghetto. In the present culture, most young people are educated to become more that their parents. Education must move them up the material ladder. Little or no time is spent on the problems of ethics and morality in this personal promotion. The only ethics and morality was restricted to family or sex. Our education prepared young people for a schizophrenic life. The rules were set for the small world of the family and in the rest of the culture claw and smash and get ahead. Cardijn realized that this powerful urge of the culture to spend all its formative energy to where the insertion of new life had to be purified. Just as the total power of the body fights off infection, to the point that it will reject even what is good for it, e.g. a kidney transplant, so a culture will not allow anything foreign to enter it. Too often youth movements do not follow young people into this insertion into a new orbit of existence, they content themselves with preparing them for life. What would happen to the astronauts if NASA decided to go home after the launching, “Now you are on your own.” Unfortunately, that is what the church is still doing. Catholic schools will educate young people and they must fly into the new cultural space. The wise modern serpents of our modern culture. the advertisers spend most of their budgets to reach young people. When they are young is the time to “hook them for life”. They also know how powerful if the urge of young people to be accepted as a full member of society. “use the product and you will be fully integrated to your friends and society.

Cardijn never attacked Catholic schools. All he said was that they were not enough to face up to the very powerful formative power of the culture. Conservative churchmen even at the Vatican Council fought to the bitter end insisting the that the church must retain power over the culture. They knew the power of culture to form people. They lost and rightly so. They were thinking about a Christian culture which had already died.


Does modern culture serve and develop the person? Or does it want persons to serve it? The answer is that it is not Christian and even more not human. It will not allow the person the time to reflect and seek the essential question of our age, “Who Am I?” Why do I exist? Has life any sense? Does the individual have a purpose? When Christian culture held sway, the answers to these questions if they were ever posed came back with a positive answer from the culture. The same questions are being posed today and the modern culture answers: “You are nothing.” “You can be replaced.” etc. And so the dread and terminal disease of alienation continues to take over the human spirit. Modern people seeking a refuge from the dread of nothingness are busy finding a refuge in the oldest religion of believing in matter. We have made matter the centre of faith. The very nothingness of the citizen of our day is building the idol of modern faith, the nothingness of the idol. Yet even the opiate of the religion of materialism is not sufficient to dull the pain of nothingness. These idols are not strong enough to escape the boredom of nothingness.

Cardijn tried the morality trip but he soon found out that this was but a reflection of the real problem. With his freedom from this trap allowed him to discover the total importance of the person. He came to feel this dignity through the “felt nothingness of the young worker.” Most young workers confess their nothingness, for even the hierarchy of the new religion confers last place for young workers. It does not take too long for the young worker to confess their nothingness. Yet this sense of nothingness is very much present among the so-called successes of the modern world. They do not readily confess to their nothingness. Their very affluence cloaks the nothingness of their spirit. It is shielded by their unnerving activities. They think that they are protected from the very questions of life. Yet sooner or later, these questions must be faced if one wants to really live and become oneself. How adept is our modern culture to keep reality at bay. Even to the last, the talented hands of the undertaker camouflages the death mask to make us look better than when we were alive. “Does he not look good?”

Has the post-council church understood that it is the culture that forms people? Has it come to realize that even the best education is but part of the culture? Does it understand the culture’s fierce power to form its newest members? Cardijn soon realized this take over power of the culture when the young worker left the family and school to enter the factories and offices.

Christians are spending great budgets of the education of youth, unfortunately, to fit them into the culture of nothingness. Most youth leave school with only one idea to be a success. Very few if any leave with the mission of changing the culture. Even worse is the fact that the churches refuse of compete with the religion of materialism. Their very budgets reveal their strategy. Reading the budget statement of a major diocese reveals that it spends only $7000 on youth while the advertisers, the preachers of the religion of materialism will spend millions on reaching the inner spaces of our youth to tell them how this beer will make them happy and in fact will allow them to celebrate friendship.

The missionary voice of Cardijn is still to be heard 

Cardijn felt this nothingness and it was to this disease that he sought the cure. Cardijn is at his best when he talks about the dignity of people. He speaks to the nothingness of modern man. There is a hierarchy of meaning. “Among things that exist, the minerals come lowest on the scale..they comes the vegetable kingdom.. then comes the animal.. all these things have a splendour which we must come to appreciate. …Yet above all things is the person..And then comes those electrifying words that mate with nothingness to bring life and to bring it more abundantly. How many young workers have heard that shout of joy and command of Cardijn?

“Man is not an animal,

Man is not a machine,

He is not a vegetable,

He has value and dignity infinitely greater

Than the whole of creation,

He is what we call the king of creation.”

But this is not enough for this man of faith, he must make the final plunge into faith, into the unknown. The very immensity of his thought of his faith in the person should propel the church into the new technological world without fear:

“We say and proclaim that all the gold in the world compared with a person has little or no value. Do we really believe it? But we say it and when the young workers say it, do they really understand? We have therefore to try and understand and realize this first and fundamental truth which is at the root of all rights as well as of all duties, at the root of religion itself, at the root of the struggle to get rid of the proletariat. It is a primary fundamental, essential and universal truth which admits to no exception. It is true for the Negroes, the Chinese, the Hindu, the Japanese just as it is for the white race. It is as true in every age, for a child, who has been born as it is for others. It is true for them all. It is a universal truth to which there can not be the slightest exception. It is the same for those people in asylums who cannot understand it. It is true even for them. Why must we respect a mad man? Why must we respect a child when he is two years old? Why can we not kill it or abandon it? Why must we respect the black working girl in a cotton mill where conditions are now even worse than fifteen years ago? Why respect her, help her and support her an recognize in her a supreme dignity?”

“I say that this truth is the truth which is the most necessary truth at this time and in the world such as it will be in for the rest of this century and beyond. This truth can be put simply: ” Each young working boy, each young working girl, each is a person, a person like the three divine persons.”

After the onslaughts of Jansenism and its twin Puritanism, which insisted on the sinfulness to the point that it practically erase the basic goodness of people, we have Cardijn calling persons sons and daughters of the Trinity. This is the basic truth which is the beginning of all life. The present renewal of the church unfortunately, is based on institution affairs, liturgy, education etc. and very much skirts the problem of the age, alienation. One cannot build on the nothingness of our culture, rather we are called to a faith that has its very roots in the nothingness of mystery. When a young worker becomes conscious of his nothingness and is willing to confess this to his friends, this very confession can lead him to faith. After all faith cannot be proven. One cannot prove that one is important, one must make an act of faith in one’s value. Cardijn plunged into this crisis. He came into contact with nothingness of the new industrial world. His message to the workers of Belgium is a universal message to all persons of all times. In a world where man is overwhelmed by his own creation, where he is used by the system and no one really cares about his or her becoming. Our world is dominated by the use of man by man. How far have we strayed from the message of Jesus which is that man should love man. If our affluent societies are not to be smothered by our own effluent, we shall have to stop kneeling at the altar of economic growth and speed up man’s development. Can the churches civilize this new barbarism and move persons into serving people. At the centre of all civilization is the respect of the other. For Cardijn, civilization was based on the following truth:

“We cannot respect God, if we do not respect the working man and woman who are made in the image of the creator, because they are sacred like God himself. Woe to him who misuses a working man or woman, he is misusing God!”

The renewal of the church is based on the renewal of its members and their renewal is based on their acceptance of themselves as persons and destined sons and daughters of God. Without this truth there is not real renewal. The acceptance of our nothingness together with the above truth will release a torrent of new life that will the make the present ersatz renewal look like a cast aside Christmas toy.

The Church has still to hear the muted pain of nothingness and still to hear the voice of Cardijn showing us the way of entry into our new industrial culture.

Cardijn… Every person is a missionary

For Cardijn, the dignity of the person, as high as he placed it, was not to remain a static dignity. How he loved to speak of millions and millions of young workers.

I remember well an audience with Pope John. Every year since 1925 when Pius XIth blessed the YCW, he would travel to Rome to touch base with the Pope and other church officials. He was well known in Rome. But he had never met Pope John who spent most of his time in Bulgaria and Turkey. He was very anxious to meet the new Pope. He had prepared well for the audience. Just before any important meeting he would mind up like a top. His punctuality was a virtue practically to a fault. Pius XIIth a Roman learned his punctuality when he was nuncio in Germany. An audience with Pope Pius XII scheduled at 1PM would start on the second. Fifteen minutes before the audience, he would start to warm up, repeating his questions etc. When the scheduled time arrived, he was ready but the meeting did not start on time. Cardijn kept repeating, I don’t know this man. He will give us only a quick audience. Half an hour later, I did all that I could do to keep his spirits up.

Suddenly, the door opens and Pope John himself comes into the waiting room to usher us into his office. He looks at Cardijn and says: “You are a very important person, a man must become Pope before he is allowed to meet you.” The ice was broken. Throughout the audience of nearly 40 minutes, Cardijn kept breaking in with “millions and millions of young workers. Although he knew that we had to work through small groups, he was haunted by the vast masses. His heart was essentially missionary. I can still hear him say:”everyone of those million of workers has a divine mission to fulfil, a practical divine mission which no one else can fulfil in their stead.”

In a world of growing boredom, he brought the excitement of ‘an irreplaceable mission’ carried out by the most insignificant creature on earth, at least in the eyes of the world, the young worker. To describe that mission, Cardijn used language of great power.

“The worker has a divine vocation in his work. It is this work that must continue God’s creation, make use of creation, discover all the riches within creation and place them at the disposal of humanity in order that it may attain its destiny.”

He ends it up with ‘ the workers of the world must build the Cathedral of the new world.’

The person cannot be fulfilled unless one has a specific mission to fulfil. An irreplaceable mission makes of each person an irreplaceable individual. One’s unique mission makes of the person an unique person. Modern science is well on its way to prove this uniqueness. The recent heart transplants has led doctors to examine what in the body often refuses the transplant. This has led to very deep studies of the human body. At last counting, scientists have discovered that the body is made up of over 2 trillion cells all working in perfect harmony. This grouping of 2 trillion cells in one body is totally unique, there will never be another me or you.

No one else can love in your place. Your individual love is irreplaceable in the plan of God to build up his kingdom of love.

Does the post-conciliar church really believe that each individual person has an irreplaceable mission to love and serve and build up the cathedral of the kingdom? Or do we continue to restrict the missionary outlook to a certain elite whose mission is usually to penetrate the powers so as to defend the church in future years. This policy of ‘elitism’ has often left the masses of other Christians to remain the ‘cold oatmeal’ of the church.

His was the insight not to wee the poor and exploited as objects for the charity of others. Rather they were called not just to passively participate in the life of God but to be irreplaceable co-creators with God. To him, these persons were rich in human capacities which had to be tapped to serve the full community. This overwhelming faith in ordinary people was the great mark of Cardijn. How powerful was this insight? In a world which geographically has become a global village and which socially has brought for the first time in history, the ordinary people in the fashioning of history, the mission to love, fashion create and serve by each person becomes all important.


The same technology that swept us from the country side living in isolated villages into cities and instantaneous communication in our part of the world is now sweeping the world. The same industrialization that brought ordinary people into the labour movement and other modern institutions is blowing everywhere. This revolution that has moved and continues to move people from the known to the unknown, from being dominated by nature to becoming controllers of nature, not to say rapers, continues. This modern world which elevated its head first in the western world shook and continues to shake Western religions is now causing earth tremors through all of the other religions of the world. Something new is born, something new is growing, it is this new and growing world that will have to stop and listen to the words of Cardijn.

I shall leave to others to analyze the revolutionary pedagogical methods designed by Cardijn. Suffice it to say, that the see, judge, act method, sometimes called the discovery method, also summarized as formation through action, is still undiscovered by most of our educators.

For those of us who were born from his word, it behooves us to remain faithful and carry out what he started.

“We are just beginning.”

Romeo Maione.

Talk given in Melbourne, Australia. Cardijn centenary, November 1982.