At the academic session in honour of Cardijn’s 80th birthday, Albert Dondeyne, Louvain professor of philosophy, longstanding colleague of cardijn and peritus at the Council, delivered his own appreciation of Cardijn’s life and work under the title “Un message libérateur” – “A message of liberation.”
A message of liberation1
What is the mission of the J.O.C. in the Church and in the world today? This is the question we must examine.
The answer is very simple: the task of the J.O.C. in today’s world consists in remaining faithful more than ever to the message of the one who founded it and whom we celebrate today.
Between them, by them and for them.
Historically, the J.O.C. was born shortly after the First World War, from the painful observation that work and the working environment not only distanced thousands of young workers from the Church, but, even more, dehumanized them, degrading their spiritual life and morality instead of flourishing it.
This situation was due to a lack of training and information among young people who entered work too early.
Before Cardijn, many people had made the same observation and sought remedies. But the solutions remained in line with the traditional pastoral care of the time: namely a pastoral centered on works of youth, moreover very deserving such as patronages, sports leagues, religious fraternities whose denominations alone already made it seem that The salvation of young people was expected less from the young people themselves than from one or another patron saint of heaven.
The primary objective of this ministry was to withdraw young people for a few hours a week from their own environment to introduce them body and soul into a spiritual bath.
It is to Cardijn’s immense merit that he understood that these solutions were flawed, centered as they were on the concern to temporarily distance young workers from their own living environment, to immerse them for a few hours in a religious atmosphere, to provide them with a counterpoise against what was in fact their daily life.
Instead of removing young workers from their own environment, Cardijn will send them into this environment as apostles charged with a human and divine mission.
Instead of reducing religious formation to a counterpoise against the harmful influence of the harsh life of work, this life of work itself must be sanctified and considered as the concrete form of a life of authentic faith, that is, that is to say, embodied in concrete realities, in short of a life which would make the difficult synthesis between work and faith.
Thus was born the idea of the worker laity and the lay apostolate.
This idea was more than a nice thought, more than an interesting mind game. She carried within her the strength of a liberating message. A message certainly first addressed to working youth, but which was soon to reach the entire Christian community and become the foundation of its mission in today’s world.
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Now let’s take a closer look at this message. We can distinguish three fundamental ideas.
Religious sense of secular life.
First there is the old biblical idea that comes from the creation story. Genesis (I, 28) says that God made man in his own image and likeness and placed him as master of material nature so that he could transform it by his work and put it at the service of the humanity: “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it”. Notice that this word was addressed to humanity at a time when the distinction between Christians and non-Christians did not yet exist.
In the eyes of Cardijn, this means that, in the divine plan of creation, a primitive plan that has never been denounced, each man, whoever he is, rich or poor, young or old, Christian or not, carries within him a divine mission. , that of building through his work and his culture a world which is a dwelling worthy of the humanity which is multiplying there. The profane, earthly life of man, concern for his home, love for his wife and children, his work in the service of the great human community, all of this has the dimension of the sacred, has a religious significance. The whole secular life is a contribution to the development of creation, a collaboration with the creator and joins the views of the creator. Recognizing this—recognizing it before the Creator—is ‘service to God’, ‘religion’, or at least the first step of any genuine religion, the fundamental basis of religious life.
Religion, in fact, is not an artificial superstructure tacked on to the earthly life of the laity from the outside, still less a defense against the dangers of profane life, but the awareness and recognition — before the face of God — of the sacred meaning of secular life itself.
Anyone who has not fully grasped this first fundamental idea and does not keep this first fundamental idea in view will never fully understand Cardijn, nor the true meaning of what he likes | name the “laity”, that is to say the lay apostolate in the fullest sense of the term.
The lay person can certainly serve the Church, promote the apostolate of the Church in many ways, but any apostolate exercised by the “lay person” — however useful and fruitful it may be — is not necessarily the lay apostolate in the highest and most perfect sense of the term, that is to say “a formally lay apostolate of the lay person”, an apostolate which therefore postulates specialization in formation and an appropriate organization.
This first characteristic also allows us to better understand the teaching method of the J.O.C. whose praise is more to be done.
Cardijn repeated more than once that when, as curate at Laeken, he wanted to win over a young worker or a young worker to his ideal, he never began by speaking to them about God, the Church, the confession or the communion ; his attention went first to concrete life: where do you work? what’s going on at your factory? are you treated with respect there? is there any friendship? are you engaged
To reveal the young person to himself, to arouse in him respect for human dignity, to teach him to look, to judge and to act, to help him to discover the beauty of life which quivers in him, the sanctity of love awakening, the human value of work and friendship: this was always for Cardijn the normal path that leads to God and to an authentic Christian faith, embodied in life. Christ, in fact, is not outside the life of man and the human community, but he is present there.
Presence in today’s world.
This leads us to discover the second fundamental idea of Cardijn’s message, which is intimately linked to the previous one.
The redemptive incarnation of the Word of God, his death on the cross and his resurrection, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the foundation ofthe church on the foundation of the apostles, all that which constitutes the Christian economy of salvation has not annulled the primitive plan of creation, such as we have just described it, and has in no way diminished its significance.
On the contrary, redemption restores in Christ the primitive plan of creation, disturbed by sin, and gives him an even more noble destiny, that of sharing in the glory of the risen Christ, the firstborn of the Father, the Alpha and the Omega of all creation.
All that we have said about the primary meaning of human dignity, the sacred meaning of secular life and work, our solidarity with men based on work, all this retains its value in Christianity and is integrated into it. from a higher perspective.
This second theme is also important for a proper understanding of Christian life and the apostolate of the laity. It follows first of all that Christianity does not separate man from his environment.
The idea of ”choice” (electio) which we undoubtedly need to define and describe the grace of Christianity in no way justifies the attitude ofl’apartheid’ or ‘ghetto’. Quite the contrary. In biblical theology, the three notions of “choice” (electio), “service” (ministerium) and “mission” (missio) are inseparable.
The choice of “Israel” is not aimed at Israel itself. Rather, he places this people at the service of God’s redemptive plan which from the beginning embraces the whole world. The same applies a fortiori to the choice of the new Israel of God, the Church living community of believers.
The believer is chosen and called by God not only to sanctify his own life, but to make this concrete life an apostolate at the service of the Word of God. Christianity, in fact, is a message from God to the world and Christians are bearers and living witnesses of this message. In a word, the natural solidarity of all men in the unity of the human race is not suppressed by Christianity, but raised in Christ to a more perfect unity: “per Ipsum, cum Ipso et in Ipsum.”
This is why the Christian is, more than anyone else, a man among others, with others, for others. Secular life and its work are an apostolate at the service of the redemptive work of God which is addressed to all men.
Labour: a turning point in history.
We thus arrive at a third idea: it brings together the ideas outlined above and the great event of our time, namely the awareness of the universal solidarity of all men in a world which is unifying thanks to the technical progress.
It cannot be denied that Cardijn possesses a remarkable sensitivity for what is currently happening in the world and furthermore has the courage to take this world seriously.
“The hour of the working class has come”: this affirmation was already from 1925 onwards, the central theme of the national study days of the young Jocist movement.
“Our century: the century of the working class! was not for Cardijn an apocalyptic cry of alarm, nor the expression of a narrow workerism, but an appeal addressed to the whole Church and to all humanity. In what he called the emancipation of the working class, he rightly saw an event of universal significance, affecting all classes, all peoples and all continents. In Cardijn’s eyes, “the hour of the working class” meant a turning point in world history.
In this respect, Cardijn spontaneously brings to mind Karl Marx. Marx was also convinced that the awakening of the working class would open a new phase in human history. Also he considered it as the “universal class” of today, the one which in these moments represents and expresses “universal humanity”, more exactly: an essential and universal trait of humanity, namely work in as a human value.
In other words: the historical event of our time is less the awakening of the working class than the discovery of the very value of work and an extension of the notion of work.
Once “work” was practically synonymous with slavery. It was interpreted and experienced by men as a punishment for sin or as the fate of slaves.
Today, work is considered an essential feature of human nature, as what distinguishes us from things and animals and thus characterizes human dignity. By his “work” which is the fruit of his work, man transforms raw nature into a world of civilization and culture.
Through work, man struggles with matter to subjugate it and mark it with his spirit. Thus, he transforms the material world into a human abode where there is space and freedom for all.
It’s still in and byl“work”, the fruit of work, that the human spirit expresses itself, expresses itself and puts itself at the service of others. Thus, work is not only the living link between spirit and matter, but also between people, between the past, the present and the future of humanity. In short, work makes history possible and is the basis of human solidarity throughout history…
This valorization of work is a long-range event. It must inevitably lead to a gradual restructuring of social relations. When humanity realizes that work represents a universal and essential dimension of human nature itself, it will endeavor to translate this notion into social structures and community forms of life. From there comes this intense current of social justice and international equality which crosses our world. The working class does not want to pass for a second-class class any longer. It struggles for greater equality in life, at the same time as the underdeveloped peoples of Asia and Africa want to put an end to the tutelage of the West. In other words: the “capital and labor” relationship has been thoroughly rethought and revised.
What had always been taken for granted, namely the division of humanity into a wealthy minority and an overwhelming majority of poor people, is suddenly called into question.
Also, the world has reached a turning point in its history. What is called the “worker’s problem” of our time is therefore more than a socio-economic problem. It is a historical event of universal dimensions, which inevitably concerns not only all of humanity but also Christianity and the Church. In this sense, it is no exaggeration to claim that “it is the hour of the working class”.
We must also have this third characteristic of Cardijn’s message always before our eyes if we want to understand his work and appreciate its true value for the Church and the world.
In the spirit of Cardijn, the J.O.C. has always been more than an ordinary youth movement. It meant for him a call for more understanding and openness on the part of the Church to the problems of our time; it was at the same time an effort to ensure the active presence of the Church in today’s world through a lay apostolate embodied in earthly realities.
In short, the J.O.C. was for Cardijn a joyful and liberating message to the whole world. The fact that the J.O.C. gradually blossomed into a J.O.C. should come as no surprise to anyone, it was already contained in its essence and its mission from the start.
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These are the three fundamental ideas of Bishop Cardijn’s message. They form a coherent and indivisible whole.
As we said at the beginning, remaining faithful to this triple message is the great mission of the J.O.C. in the world and the Church today.
1Professor at the University of Louvain, Canon Dondeyne has always brought to those in charge of the J.O.C. the benevolent help of his doctrinal reflection.
Albert Dondeyne giving a speech, July 1955. [KADOC-KU Leuven: KFB859] (Dries Bosschaert, A Brave New World, Albert Dondeyne’s Christian Humanism in
the University and Society, Trajecta 24-2015 | 309-331