Cardijn’s China dream

Today the world celebrates Lunar or Chinese New Year! So it’s interesting to reflect on Cardijn’s own appreciation of the Middle Kingdom, which seems to have captured his imagination as it did for many of his contemporaries.

In fact, Cardijn was just five years younger than one of Belgium’s most famous missionaries to China, the Lazarist priest, Frédéric-Vincent Lebbe, whose advocacy eventually led Pope Pius XI to appoint the first Chinese-born bishops. Lebbe eventually died in China in 1940 soon after he was captured by Communist forces.

Perhaps it was Lebbe’s example which inspired Cardijn. Indeed, as Cardijn wrote in 1939, contacts with China had been made as early as 1929:

The Belgian YCW has been in contact with China for more than ten years by means of valiant missionaries who have started the movement in several centres The (Sinojapanese) war failed to interrupt these links. Bishop Yu Pin wanted to come to the Jocist Central to express his gratitude for all the worldwide YCW had done for China.

After the Chinese Revolution, however, Bishop Yu Pin, later a cardinal, found himself in Taiwan, where the YCW continued to develop, although it disappeared in China itself.

As Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert later recorded in their biography of him, Cardijn always dreamed of the movement returning to the mainland and indeed visiting himself.

They wrote:

On February 24th 1967, Cardijn set off on his fourth voyage into the North Pacific, bound for Hong Kong, Japan and Formosa. 

The stay in Hong Kong impressed him more than any other. He could see the fruits of the rapid growth of the YCW since the birth of the first group in 1957; and now the biggest hall of the free town, City Hall, was too small to hold the YCW and their comrades celebrating the tenth anniversary of their movement. He was full of admiration for the work of a girl extension worker. Daughter of a former leader in the Belgian YCW she had been there for three years, had become thoroughly Chinese, was working in a big textile factory, learning the language from her workmates and sleeping on a mat in a dormitory with sixty other girls. 

Just as Tokyo had been, Hong-Kong was for Cardijn a renewed discovery of the crucial needs of the working population in the great urban concentrations and the need of a special ministry of priests. In this town of some four millions, at the very doors of communist China, there was not a single priest freed for the evangelisation of working youth. As he had often done in the course of his work, Cardijn made again the comparison between this lack and the fact that thousands of priests were occupied full time, all over the world, in the education of middle class youth. 

Hong-Kong was above all the vital link between the three Chinas: that of the Diaspora, counting millions of its sons in all the big cities of every continent; that of the islands, holding a sizable minority hoping for a return to the land of their ancestors and then, continental China, the China of Mao, dynamic and impenetrable. Before he left for Europe, friends took Cardijn to the frontier and there, up on a hill with binoculars, like Moses looking at the promised land, he could see something of the vast plain that lay south of Canton. 

During the twenty-four hour non-stop flight back as far as Zurich, he was quite unable to keep his reflections to himself. He knew something, right enough, of the United States, Africa, India and Australia; but what was the real life of people in those two great human reservoirs, the Soviet Union and the People’s China? He had to recognise that this was a big gap in his experience. It was not, of course, the first time he had such thoughts. He had been building up this last dream over the past year or so: to make a journey of study through two great lands which claimed to be the champions of proletarian liberation and which put such an emphasis, too, on youth. He was convinced there was something to be learned there and he had spoken about it to Paul VI. 

A former YCW working with the United Nations and with some experience of the USSR was ready to help arrange a visit for the spring of 1968. But the Cardinal was not satisfied; afraid that his age might raise further obstacles later, he wanted to get ready at the same time for a journey to China. 

“Once in Moscow, one is halfway to Peking”, he said, “I don’t see why we can’t go right through.” “But, Monsignor, the moment is not opportune … they are in the middle of a full cultural revolution! Don’t you read the papers?” 

Just as obstinate as he had been at thirty, he said nothing but thought all the more. Then, one day, without saying anything, off he went to a former cabinet minister who knew something of the matter and asked for his intervention in the business of getting into “the real China” as he called it. It was wasted effort; he met with the same arguments and obstacle. He still was not convinced. He started preparing as if he was soon to leave, looked for other contacts, plunged into reading ‘Dans trente ans, la Chine,’ of Robert Guillain, Mao’s little red book and others, making a study of this type of communism implanted in a country of more than seven hundred million. Later on, in the summer of 1967, among the last pages of rough draft there was a letter to the minister of State, the socialist Kamiel Huysmans: “ You are perhaps the only one, he insisted, who can open up for me the way into China.” 

Will and determination like that is remarkable in a man of that age, who had every reason and excuse to rest after a lifetime’s mission carried out untiringly. But his energy took still other forms, as we shall see. 

Just five months later on 24 July 1967, Cardijn died without fulfilling this dream.

As we celebrate this Chinese New Year, let’s resolve to make his work known in the Middle Kingdom.


Stefan Gigacz

Read more

Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert, Cardijn, Chapter XV, The last call (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)