“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the pope as relaxed as he was during his audience with Cardinal Cardijn and the JOC (Young Christian Workers or YCW),” wrote Belgian Bishop André-Marie Charue following the ceremony at which the YCW founder received his red hat in February 1965.
It was the climax of a friendship between the two men that dated back to the late 1930s when then Monsignor Giovanni Montini was appointed as Sostitut0 (the second highest position) in the Vatican Secretariat of State.
With his background as a chaplain to the Italian Catholic student movement (FUCI), Montini was quickly attracted to Cardijn and his movement.
Under the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, he would soon become Cardijn’s “go to” man at the Vatican, resolving problems and opening doors for the YCW as it expanded around the globe
Indeed, Montini became well known for his close relationship with Cardijn and the YCW. “They say that I am a friend of the YCW. I accept it,” he told a meeting of workers in Canada during 1951. “Perhaps I am not worthy of the title but I want to deserve it so I will try even harder to understand your work and support it,” he continued.
Some time later, in November 1954, Pius XII appointed him as archbishop of Milan. It was a move that many interpreted as an effort to sideline Montini, an impression augmented by the fact that the pope failed to make him a cardinal.
At a time when the Vatican had clamped down on worker priests and the “new theology” developed by many theologians close to the YCW, Cardijn too was greatly concerned at the loss of his key Roman ally, fearing his absence would threaten the movement’s progress.
Fortunately, Montini returned to the forefront as a keynote speaker at the Second World Congress on Lay Apostolate in Rome in October 1957, endorsing the “specialisation” approach for which the YCW had become the leading model.
The apostolate “can be classified according to various modes of action, including presence, testimony and action,” Montini stated. This depended on “the milieu in which the mission” was to take as “distinguished by sex, age, social condition, capacity to receive or reject the Christian message,” he argued.
Montini back in favour
Eighteen months later, Montini was clearly back in favour in Rome when the incoming pope, John XXIII, took the early opportunity to make him a cardinal, opening the way for his eventual election as bishop of Rome in July 1963. This promotion also gave Montini a platform to exercise leadership at Vatican II, the First Session of which had opened in October 1962.
Pope John had previously appointed Cardijn as a member of the Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate from 1959-62. However, once the Council opened, in a shock to many, Cardijn was overlooked for the corresponding conciliar commission. Indeed, Cardijn’s views were now being contested by his own bishop, Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens of Brussels, who had also failed to back him for this post.
Upset by this turn of events, Brazilian Bishop Helder Camara called on Pope John to make Cardijn a cardinal. But it was too late as John was already terminally ill. Undaunted, Camara did not hesitate to write to Montini, now the newly elected Pope Paul VI, repeating his request.
Meanwhile, Cardijn, who had finally been appointed as a peritus following the First Session, sought to renew contact with and rebuild his partnership with the new pope, who responded by addressing an autograph letter to him.
“For nearly 30 years, We have followed the development of this beautiful movement,” he wrote in November 1963, “and it is with a feeling of joy and thanksgiving towards God that We have assisted in recent years at its growing international expansion.” It was just the first of a series of supportive letters and statements that Paul VI would provide.
A year later, in December 1964, he would meet Cardijn again at the International Eucharistic Congress in Bombay (Mumbai), where he personally opened the “Joseph Cardijn Technical School” in the presence of the YCW founder.
Cardijn’s impact on the Vatican Council
By this time, Paul had determined to follow Camara’s advice. Two months later, he announced that Cardijn would not just be honoured as a cardinal but also appointed as an archbishop. He called him to Rome to receive his cardinal’s hat on 22 February 1965, along with 26 other new cardinals, many of whom were long-standing Cardijn allies.
“We would like his elevation to the cardinal’s purple, to mark a new beginning for even more generous apostolic action than in the past for all the young Christian workers of the world,” he said, “and that it become a stimulus for them to bear witness to Christ among their brothers and sisters and make the Church present and active in all working environments.”
In addition, Paul VI gave his clear backing to the conciliar schemas that were particularly important to Cardijn and the YCW bishops and cardinals at Vatican II, including the future The Church in the Modern World, as well as the documents on liturgy, religious liberty, mission and of course the lay apostolate.
“For the first time in the Church’s history, the Council has just devoted to the laity and their apostolate one of its decrees,” Pope Paul told a group of French-speaking bishops on 22 November 1965, several days after the promulgation of the Decree on the Lay Apostolate.
“Yes, the good grain sowed half a century ago by several generous pioneers and particularly by a young Belgian priest has truly reaped a hundredfold,” the pope commented, without even needing to mention Cardijn by name, so obvious was his contribution.
Two years later in 1967, Paul would seek to implement the conciliar decisions by appointing the pioneer Canadian JOC chaplain, Cardinal Maurice Roy, as the first president of both the newly created Pontifical Council of the Laity and the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace.
In 1971, Paul’s Letter to Cardinal Roy, Octogesima Adveniens, commemorating the 80th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical, Rerum Novarum, explicitly endorsed Cardijn’s see-judge-act method.
“It is up to the Christian communities to analyse with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country,” Pope Paul wrote, “to shed on it the light of the Gospel’s unalterable words and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgement and directives for action from the social teaching of the Church.”
It was a fitting epilogue to a partnership of more than thirty years between Montini and Cardijn that was only ended by the latter’s death in 1967.
As we prepare for the canonisation of Paul VI, alongside Archbishop Oscar Romero, on 14 October, it is appropriate to remember him as a leading Cardijn disciple.
Stefan Gigacz is a PhD candidate at YTU/University of Divinity, whose thesis investigates the role of Joseph Cardijn and the YCW network at Vatican II.