After the pomp and ceremony of the previous day, finally the first plenary meeting of the Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate (PCLA) began on 15 November 1960.
No doubt Cardijn and his colleagues must have felt a sense of anticipation if not excitement to learn more about the task that they had been given.
They did not have long to wait because, after analysing the vota, i.e. the responses received from bishops conferences around the world, the Central Commission had decided upon the three major subjects the PCLA would tackle.
“I. The apostolate of the laity:
Determine the domain and the goals of this apostolate and its relations with the hierarchy. What are the best means for the apostolate of the laity to respond to current necessities?
II. Catholic Action:
1. To determine the notion, the domain and its subordination to the hierarchy;
2. Review its constitution in order that it be better adapted to our times;
3. Determine the relations between Catholic Action and the other associations (Marian congregations, pious unions, professional unions, etc.)
To study how the activity of existing associations could better respond during our time to the ends that they propose (charitable and social action).”
Whatever sense of elation Cardijn felt at the opening of the session must have quickly evaporated upon reading these terms of reference.
A stark contrast
Just nine years earlier in October 1951, he had opened the First World Congress on Lay Apostolate with his landmark keynote speech “The world today and the apostolate of the laity.”
Drawing on his Three Truths dialectic and See Judge Act method, he had laid out the problems and issues facing the world, which ranged from demographic challenges to industrialisation, changes in the workforce, racism and colonialism as well as to cultural transformations and the arms race.
He had contrasted this reality with the Christian vision for humanity based on the “Creator’s plan of love.” And finally Cardijn had set out his own conception of a transformative, organised Christian lay apostolate:
“· Christians who intensively live their Christianity, their belonging to Jesus Christ ; who consciously live His message, His Gospel, in all their personal life, in all its worldly demands . . .
· Christians who are conscious of an explicit mission, who know that they are called to work for the extension of the reign of God . . .
· Christians who penetrate all the sectors, all the aspects, all the institutions of the modem world, as witnesses of Christ, carrying the doctrine of the Church with them . . .
· Christians who understand the whole importance of forming apostolic communities, of having an organised apostolate …”
And Cardijn’s 18-page 30 October note on “The apostolate of lay people” prepared specifically for the Prep Com further expanded and developed this vision.
Yet how little of Cardijn’s vision was reflected in the tasks given to the Commission.
At best, a faint echo of his concerns can perhaps be detected in the first question submitted to the commission: “What are the best means for the apostolate of the laity to respond to current necessities?”
Clearly, however, there was much greater concern over relations between laity and hierarchy and ensuring the “subordination” of Catholic Action movements as well as to pacify tensions between Catholic Action groups and others with a more “pious” orientation.
Nor did the reference to “charitable and social action” come anywhere near Cardijn’s vision of Christians living the Gospel in their “personal life,” working to “extend the reign of God” or penetrating and transforming the various sectors and institutions of the modern world.
From Cardijn’s point of view, the mission given to the PCLA was not back to the future but back to the past.
After the earlier misunderstanding (and disappointment) over a sub-commission involving lay people, it was not a promising start.
Ferdinand Klostermannn, “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity,” in Herbert Vorgrimler (ed.), Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Herder and Herder, New York, 1969,273-404.
Joseph Cardijn, The Three Truths (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)
Joseph Cardijn, “The world today and the apostolate of the laity,” World Congress on Lay Apostolate, October 1951 (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)