Canon Joseph Cardijn (1882-1967)
JOSEPH CARDIJN, ELDEST SON
OF HENRI CARDIJN AND LOUISE van Daelen, was born on November
13th, 1882, at Sehaerbeck, a district of Brussels, where his
parents were employed as caretakers of a small block of flats.
Madame Cardijn's bad state of health did not allow her to nurse
her child, and young Joseph was entrusted to the care of his
grandparents, who lived at Hal, a small Flemish town to the south
of Brussels, on the borders of Brabant and Hainault. His parents
joined him there a few years later, and his father took up a
coal merchant's business-a very modest affair, which gave to
the family a relative degree of prosperity and independence.
The childhood and adolescence
of Joseph Cardijn were spent in a typical Christian home of Flanders.
Monsieur Cardijn, his father, could neither read nor write, but
he was a man of high principle and deep religious conviction.
His children were brought up strictly, and Monsignor Cardijn
has told us how one long whistle up the stairs was a sufficient
reveille when he was due to serve Mass at the parish Church.
He does not tell us what happened if a second call was needed!
Joseph Cardijn began his education
at the elementary school with the working-class boys of the little
town. The impact of industrial development was making itself
felt in Flanders, and Hal was fast becoming the centre of an
industrial district. When Joseph was about to leave school, his
parents naturally thought of placing him in a factory, but the
lad had other ambitions. This is how he has told the story of
"It was the eve of my
entry into the factory. I went up to the bedroom with my brothers
and sisters. When they were all in bed, I crept down barefoot
to the kitchen, where my father and mother, in spite of the late
hour, were talking by the fireside.
" 'Father,' said I, 'there's
something I want to ask you. Please let me continue my studies!'
" 'But you know well enough,'
answered my father, 'that you are the eldest, and that we rely
on you to help us in bringing up your brothers and sisters.'
"But I insisted: 'Dad,
I've felt within me a call from God. I want to be a priest.'
"I saw two great tears
roll down my father's cheeks, and my mother became whiter than
the kitchen wall. At last my father said to my mother:
" 'Woman, we have already
worked hard, but to have that joy, we will work harder still.'
And so Joseph Cardijn was sent
to continue his studies at the College of Notre Dame de Hal.
In September, 1903, he entered the Malines Seminary, and one
day a message arrived that his father was dying:
"I left at once, and on
entering the room where my poor father lay dying, I knelt beside
him and received his blessing from his old, wrinkled hands, worn
by ceaseless toil.
"Before that man who was
so valiant, so great, I swore to give myself entirely, to die
for the working class."
He now saw the purpose of his
vocation; he was to become a priest to give Christ to the working
masses, to reveal to the workers their temporal and eternal destiny.
Ever since his boyhood the problem of the working classes had
"When fifty years ago
I entered the junior seminary," he told us recently, "my
schoolmates went out to work. They were intelligent, decent,
God-fearing. When I came back for my holidays they were coarse,
corrupted and lapsed from the Church-whilst I was becoming a
priest. I started to make enquiries, it became the obsession
of my life. How did it come about that young lads brought up
by Christian parents in Christian schools should be lost in a
few months ?"
To the solution of this enigma
he was to devote the whole of his life, but it took him many
years to discover the means of fulfilling his vocation.
Joseph Cardijn was ordained
priest on September 22nd, 1906, and was sent to follow a course
of sociology and political science at the University of Louvain.
But the following year he was recalled to his diocese and appointed
to teach at the junior seminary of Basse-Wavre. He had not forgotten
the problems of the working class, and he devoted his summer
holidays to traveling abroad, studying working conditions in
Germany, France and England. He has given us an account of his
travels in England, where he visited Manchester, London and Sheffleld
and made a close study of trade union organization, meeting Tom
Mann and Ben Tillett. His impression of Ben Tillett is particularly
interesting as it shows that, as far back as 1912, his mind was
already working on the lines which were to result, some twenty
years later, in the foundation of the Young Christian Workers:
"If we follow Ben Tillett
during his twenty-four years of social work, it seems that two
ideas have crystallized his aspirations and, like two guiding
stars, have directed his efforts towards a better future: first
of all, he wishes to create the most powerful, strongest, most
united organization possible, in which the workers of the world
will feel the solidarity of their interests and the invincible
power of their union; secondly, he sets out to enable each worker
in particular to educate his own individuality, to uplift himself
morally and intellectually, so that he may feel the pressing
need of more well-being and more justice."
It was during one of his visits
to England that he met Baden-Powell, then at the height of his
fame as the founder of Scouting. Baden-Powell explained to him
the Scout ideals and methods, and suggested to Father Cardijn
that he should start the movement in Belgium. But though he felt
an intense admiration for the educative value of Scout training,
Cardijn realized that it did not hold the solution of his preoccupations:
"I expounded to Baden-Powell," he tells us, "the
concrete and practical problems of the life and work of the young
workers. Baden-Powell admitted that he had never looked at the
problem in that way, and that Scouting could not solve this concrete
and practical problem."
In 1912, a very severe bout
of illness put an end to his teaching career. Hardly convalescent,
he was appointed curate at Laeken, on the outskirts of Brussels.
The parish priest could hardly conceal his disappointment when
he first met his new assistant: "All the parish organizations
are topsy-turvy, and they send me a sick man!" It was not
long before he formed a different opinion of Father Cardijn.
It was true that the parish
organizations were in a bad way. The Working Men's Club boasted
of a bowls team and little else; the Girls' Club, with a membership
of thirty, offered innocent amusements to its members and a play
at Christmas. No other working-class organizations existed in
the parish. Father Cardijn was put in charge of the girls, and
his first concern was to transform the club. Within a year he
had raised the membership to 160 and had founded study-circles
at which, for the first time, problems of work were discussed.
This caused a mild revolution in the parish, where talk about
these matters was considered dangerous and unsettling. But the
young curate went still further. He founded for the young seamstresses
a branch of the Needleworkers' Trade Union, and started for the
adults a section of the League of Christian Women Workers, which
in a few years achieved a membership of over a thousand. He also
founded a study-circle of working lads. From this group were
to come the first three leaders of the Young Christian Workers-Fernand
Tonnet, Paul Garcet, Jacques Meert.*
Those years were a period of
ceaseless activity and experiment. Father Cardijn was not a mere
theorist; he did not start off with preconceived ideas and try
to force them upon reality. He was always ready to try new methods
over and over again until they achieved real formative results.
The War did not interrupt his efforts. In 1915, whilst remaining
curate at Laeken, he was appointed Director of Social Work for
the district of Brussels by Cardinal Mercier. On two occasions
he was imprisoned by the Germans for patriotic activities, and
during several months spent in prison-cells he was able to meditate
upon his experiences and to outline what was to become the method
of the Young Christian Workers. In 1919 he left Laeken and was
able to devote himself full-time to social work in Brussels.
A number of Trade Union leaders
had come to realize the need for grouping together young workers.
The pioneers trained by Father Cardijn formed the nucleus of
this new movement, which in 1919 took the name of La Jeunesse
Syndicaliste (the Young Trade-Unionists). For the next few years
it developed slowly, finding its way and establishing its methods,
and meeting with a great deal of opposition, even, it is said,
from the Cardinal Archbishop of Malines. Catholic Belgium possessed
a strong network of traditional organizations, and this movement
of young workers was looked upon as a dangerous and revolutionary
innovation. But it managed to break through every prejudice and
misunderstanding. In 1924, the Jeunesse Syndicaliste became the
Jeunesse Ouvriere Chretienne, the Young Christian Workers, and
Father CardIjn was appointed its National Chaplain by the Belgian
bishops. In March, 1925, Pope Pius XI received in audience the
founder of the Young Christian Workers, and gave to the movement
the final sanction of the Church. Msgr. Cardijn has often told
the story of this momentous interview. "Here at last,"
said the Pope, "is someone who comes to speak to me about
the masses! The greatest scandal of the nineteenth century was
the loss of the workers to the Church. The Church needs the workers,
and the workers need the Church."
It is not our purpose to tell
in any detail the subsequent history of the Young Christian Workers;
its astonishing development in Belgium, where it became in a
very short while the most powerful youth movement in the country;
its growth in France, its spread in other countries, including
England and the English-speaking world. One writes the history
of something that is past, whereas the Young Christian Worker
is a living thing, one of the most vital forces, perhaps, in
contemporary Catholicism. It is at present established in more
than sixty-two countries; it groups more than a million and a
half young workers of every race, color and nationality. Its
founder has become a world famous personality, and his name is
venerated by young workers all over the world. Few men have been
able to achieve so much in their lifetime. When Father Cardijn
started his first small group of working lads more than thirty
years ago, he said to them: "We are setting out to conquer
the world." Today the Y. C. W. International has become
a reality. It has taken its place among the great world organizations,
it can speak for working youth with the prestige and authority
of an intetnational movement.
The writings collected in his
books will, we hope, give a clear idea of the mind and spirit
of the founder of the Young Christian Workers. The reader will
be struck by the dynamism, enthusiasm, the freshness of vision
of the man. His greatness does not lie in having discovered anything
new; it consists essentially in having restated, with uncommon
force and genius, truths as old as Christianity itself, truths
which many of us had almost forgotten. In a period in the Church's
life which is marked by a new development of the lay apostolate,
he stands out as one of the most significant figures of modern
* Fernand Tonnet and Paul Gareet
died at Dachau Concentration Camp in February, 1945. See Marguerite
Fieves: Fernand Tonnet, premier Joeiste (1947, Editions Joeistes,