Australia: An unrivalled land of apostolic opportunity

Today is the birth anniversary of Patrick Keegan, the English YCW leader who became the first president of the International YCW.

Later he became Secretary General of World Movement of Christian Workers, a post he held during the period of the Second Vatican Council where he became a lay auditor and was the first lay person to address an Ecumenical Council.

For today’s reflection, I’ve chosen a radio message that he broadcast to Australia in June 1951 for the tenth anniversary of the movement.

He began by expressing his appreciation for the Australian YCW leaders and chaplains he had met, including Fr Frank Lombard, Terry Barber, Frank McCann and Ted Long.

“Our Headquarters without an Australian just doesn’t seem to be complete,” he commented. “All of us ever here remember with a deep and profound gratitude the comradeship of those Australians who shared with us the difficulties of war.”

He noted the spread of the YCW around the world, particularly the English-speaking world and he recalled the 1950 International Congress of the YCW in Brussels, which demonstrated the belief and conviction of YCW leaders “in that fundamental and universal truth, that lies at the very heart of our work and effort in the YCW – the dignity of the young worker.”

He continued:

We believe with our heart and soul that every working fellow and girl without a single exception, irrespective of their colour or country is called to an eternal destiny and vocation as a son or daughter of God – not an animal – not a machine, but a person possessing a magnificent vocation. We further believe that anything in his life of home, work or neighbourhood that hinders him from discovering or attaining this tremendous vocation constitutes the problem that he must solve.

This truth is a universal truth to which there cannot be the slightest exception. It is true for the Negro, the Chinese, the Hindu, the Japanese just as it is for the whites. It is the truth least understood or apparently only understood as a principle to be applied in a selective way. At this hour of history, it is the truth which if practically applied to men and institutions can change and transform the world.

He saw Australia as having a chance to avoid the mistakes of Europe and to build something genuinely new:

For those engaged in the apostolate in Europe, everything points to Australia, being an unrivalled land of apostolic opportunity. Australia is seen as a nation where men are still free to build institutions and public life on Christian principles, untrammelled by the relics or backwash of the barbarian that accompanied the rise of industrialism in the countries of Europe

Seeing the results of industrialism in Europe – the black spots of its inhuman production, unjust distribution and exhausting labour, one must believe that in a country like yours free to choose the pattern of future construction, that the mistakes of Europe can be avoided.

And he set out his vision of the role the YCW could play:

Our task in the YCW is to produce through home, neighbourhood, school and work, men and women capable of building a Christian society – men and women willing to accept as a great privilege all the personal sacrifice entailed by this most practical work.

We know this will only be possible by following working youth at this very moment into the heart of their real life – giving them the means to discover not only their own place and responsibility in Christ’s plan, hut the place of their factory, neighbourhood, mine and office.

Our movement is the university for working youth, where we can discover the meaning and purpose of our life – where we can discover more and more the Christian conception of work, leisure and community – a conception lived and made real and not remaining in the realm of theory. Through our work in the movement we must discover the Christian “ideal of life”. An ideal when grasped will never allow a flinching at difficulties.

In Europe the YCW has faced an industrial set up based on the conception of men as a commodity – a means of production. Far too much of our work has been spent in bringing remedies to the effects of a system basically wrong in conception.

Fortunately, in your country you now stand at the threshold of great industrial development. You can plan it in the way that you wish. It must be planned on the basis of the Christian (conception) of the human person. In order that this may be done, Australia needs at this very moment men and women with profound Christian convictions willing to give themselves to this task, willing to share in the making and execution of these plans on which so much will depend for the future.

A Christian Australia is a worthwhile target for all members of the YCW. A Christian Australia is vital for the whole Pacific world. One knows that millions of people in the Far East are hungrily looking for an ideal of life pressed down as they are by an economic and social misery unknown in such intensity in Europe, it is in this setting that Australia must take her responsibility as the torch bearer of Christian values – geographically set as she is the spring board for the Far East.

Strangely enough and sadly, Pat never visited Australia.

Nevertheless, on this anniversary of his birth, let us remember him and his challenge to become conscious of our responsibilities as Australians in the world.

Stefan Gigacz


Patrick Keegan, Australian Broadcast 26.6.51 (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library/Pat Keegan)


Patrick Keegan (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Ben Tillett: Christian, socialist, unionist

This month marks the 80th anniversary of the death of the English Dockers Union leader, Ben Tillett (11 September 1860 – 27 January 1943), whose example inspired young Cardijn on his visit to London in the summer of 1911.

On of the points that most impressed him was Tillett’s emphasis on “self-help” and education for workers, point that would both become features of the formation offered by the future YCW.

On his return to Brussels, Cardijn wrote a long article for the Belgian magazine, La Revue Sociale Catholique, in which he extolled the work being done by Tillett and his comrades:

I must confess that it was with some emotion that I called at No.425, Mile End Road, the General Secretariat of the D.W.R. and G.W.U.. Mr. Appleton, the Secretary of the General Trades Union Federation, to whom I had spoken about this interview, feared that I might be shown the door: Ben Tillett was no friend of Roman collars. A young lady opened the door. ” Is Mr. Tillett in ?. “No, he’s away at the moment.” And as I stood hesitating at the half-open door a man came down the stairs to us, drawn by the foreign accent. “What can we do for you, sir?”. “Mr Appleton sent me here to speak to Mr. Tillett.” ” Come up, please” he said, leading the way.

Could this be him, a well-built man with a working-class accent and a rough small moustache? No, I found out later that it was Mr. Harry Orbell, Ben Tillett’s old and loyal companion. He showed me into a small room where a girl was leafing through a big ledger. In the next room, larger and more crowded, several men and women employees were busy with usual secretarial work. The telephone was in continual use bringing news of the world of workers, at that time in real uproar. Mr. Tillett was absent but I just had to return in two hours; this pleasant man would arrange a meeting for me.

I was on time; he had not yet returned but would not be long; he had promised to see me. I was given the “Morning Post” to pass the time. Suddenly the bell rang, quick steps made the stairs creak, and a shortish man came in and held out both hands. “Hello, sorry to have kept you waiting”. He made me resume my chair, exchanged his woollen coat for a light white jacket, sat in front of the typewriter and stared at me….

Was I having an illusion? No, no, it was indeed Napoleon’s face, oval, deep, full and severe, the face of a leader of soldiers, the face which at that moment was to be seen in every London street on great coloured placards advertising a popular play ” A Royal Divorce”. And the longer I watched, the more I observed his attitudes, his gestures, his look, the stronger grew the persistent and indelible comparison.

He asked me challengingly for my name, my profession, the reason for my stay in London, and ended the examination with the words, “The Catholic Church is a clever church. The Church of England would never send its priests to study worker organisations.”

The ice was broken, we had become friends. I put question after question, he gave me answer after answer; he looked out for me all the documentation about the movement to which he had dedicated his life and was leading with astonishing mastery.

Finally he sent me away ( he had so much work to get through, the story of the strike to finish ) setting another meeting for 11.0 on Friday, then :” You’re Belgian, aren’t you? I don’t like Belgium – I was put in the cells in Antwerp – no, I don’t like Belgium!” with a grimace, a gesture of spitting out something distasteful….. and again the picture came to mind of the capricious brutal tyrant. I looked at him…”

One last question, sir. “Are you English?” “I am Irish and I have French blood in my veins. But I have always lived in England. ” I understood then that extraordinary mix of the extravagant enthusiasm of the French with the jovial bonhomie of the Irish and the unconquerable tenacity of the English. I answered, “Just as I thought. You are not at all like an Englishman”

He smiled, and I thought I could guess the reason – “Would you allow me to say who I think you resemble ?” “Certainly.” “No flattery, but you have Napoleon’s face.” He smiled, charmed by this remark which must often have flattered him, and shook hands; ” Goodbye till Friday”.

I have just finished reading the short history of the Dockers’ Union, its style so breathless and agitated that Ben Tillett seems to have written it with his body rather than with his hand. The exuberant enthusiast, the impassioned lover who serenades his mistress, the sighted mystic who pushes at the door of his dreams and aspirations for the future, the revolutionary who with a bloody joy throws himself into agitation and, if necessary, into slaughter.

In it you hear bursts of joy and sobs of suffering. He speaks of the “Sweet Little Cherub”, who inspires him like a poet and delights him like a saint, opening in his heart inexhaustible springs of emotion, idealism and enthusiasm. Hardly has he glimpsed his vocation when it becomes a charm that fascinates, a force that transports him above himself, a sort of religion that sanctifies him.

When he appeals to the workers, he prays like the Poverello of Assisi, exhorts like a fiery Savanarola, or issues orders like an Italian condottiere. His enthusiastic words conjure up a delighted throng of speaking images, realistic like those of Meunier, far-seeing like those of Laermans.

He covers the entire gamut of popular tricks – picturesque comparisons, biting mockery, satirical absurdity. But first and foremost he wants to appear as an idealist and is proud to repeat “They call me a dreamer! But people are glad to be around such men to get their ideas; only men and women with imagination know how to live life to the full “.


Stefan Gigacz


Joseph Cardijn, Worker Organisation in England (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Reflection chosen by Stefan Gigacz


BBC Hulton Picture Library

Read more

Ben Tillett (Wikipedia)

Ben Tillett (Spartacus Education)

Benjamin Tillett, British Labour Leader (Britannica)

London Dock Strike 1889 (Wikipedia)

Stefan Gigacz, Was Cardijn a Christian Socialist? (Cardijn Research)