John Paul II on Cardijn

On this day, 31 March, 1979, Pope John Paul II visited the Belgian College in Rome, where he had once been a student. There he met Joseph Cardijn on several occasions as mentioned in the above video.

And in 1985, while on a pastoral visit to Belgium, he also visited Cardijn’s tomb in the Basilica of Our Lady at Laeken.

Here is the speech he delivered on that occasion.

Stefan Gigacz




Laeken (Belgium)

Sunday, May 19, 1985

Dear brothers and sisters.

I am very happy to meet you here, near the tomb of Cardinal Joseph Cardijn. The Church has not ceased to venerate this extraordinary priest, with a rich and ardent personality, this illustrious apostle of modern times, whom Paul VI appointed a member of the College of Cardinals. He was animated by a deep sense of the Church and a great love for the workers, who wanted to see the Church enter, dwell and act fully. It was based on the Gospel and on the social doctrine of the Church. In his missionary zeal, he had profound insights into the role of the laity and a remarkable pedagogy. I myself was happy to meet him and to benefit from his testimony, from his advice. Christian associations and workers’ movements throughout the world can consider him their father; but you have an even greater claim to this.

Not being able to deal here with all the aspects of this apostolate, and not even with the social question – other meetings are planned for this in Belgium – I would like to return to some intuitions of the Father Cardijn, to outline the method and the spirit that must guide your movement today Catholic worker.

1. What most impressed in Cardijn’s personality was his great love for the workers and their families. He himself was born of very modest parents and, while still very young, he had been struck by the spectacle of his companions who entered en masse without any preparation in the yards and factories, with working conditions often exhausting on the human level and harmful to their religious life. As vicar, here in Laeken, he sought, encouraged and brought together these young men and women workers, often illiterate and powerless to get out of their situation. He immediately gave them his trust; he considered them capable, with an adequate formation, of being the apostles of their brothers and the willing leaders of the groups that were being formed.

2. I refer to the importance that Cardijn has recognized in the apostolate of the laity, young and old: he wanted to make them more aware of their dignity as children of God, of their specific vocation as baptized, of their responsibilities in the Church and in the world. In this sense, he was a forerunner of Vatican II which spoke so well of the common priesthood of the faithful. His original and courageous intuition consisted in wanting the evangelization of the working-class youth to be the work of young workers in total solidarity with their fellow workers.

He also hoped that the workers would have their own workers’ organizations, autonomous and free, in order to make their voices heard and exercise their constructive influence on the whole of society. It is a point on which I insisted in the Laborem exercens (John Paul II, Laborem exercens , 8). It is necessary to note here that Father Cardijn did it in the best way, since he remained authentically a priest, an uncompromising witness of Christ and his Gospel among the laity.

3. The whole world can be grateful to Cardijn for the pedagogy he has put in place, in the form of the famous trilogy: “Seeing, judging, acting” which has become familiar to many militants. In fact, it presupposed listening to the words of the Lord, attention to the gestures of Jesus, an assimilation of the message of the Gospel and of the Church.

Subsequently, it involved a concrete and methodical look, one could say, on the unraveling of life, on the experience of the workers, with its aspects of shadow and light, a judgment on the obstacles to the realization of the plan of God, who wants everyone to dignity as children of God. Finally, he sought to implement a joint action capable of remedying it in concrete situations.

This method – which combines in a mutual interaction the deepening of faith and generous commitment – retains its value in the current Christian workers’ movement.

4. Cardijn saw workers facing very difficult social problems within their nation. He stressed the collective and cultural aspect of these problems. But he soon understood the international dimension of the social question, which is more easily seen today (cf. Ibid. , 2). He anticipated the labor problems posed by advanced industrialization, the imbalances caused by underdevelopment and world hunger, threats of war, international cooperation and peace building. He worked for solidarity, universal brotherhood.

But in all this he maintained the conviction that only the Gospel can be, in the world of workers who welcome it, the foundation of the true ethics of their dignity. He drew from the main social documents of the papal magisterium the lines of thought and action capable of guiding him with certainty: he authentically updated the social doctrine of the Church. If necessary, he warned his followers against the materialistic and atheistic ideologies that have illegally monopolized the struggle for social justice by impoverishing it of the essential values ​​for man and society.

In Laborem exercens (John Paul II, Laborem exercens , 13) I also denounced the serious errors of practical materialism, of “economism” and of theoretical materialism, which subordinate what is spiritual and personal, what is human, to material reality. And to the workers of France, in Saint-Denis, I asked the question: “In what way was the struggle for justice in the world linked to the program of radical denial of God?” (John Paul II, Allocutio ad opifices Galliae , May 31, 1980 : Teachings of John Paul II , III / 1 [1980] 1562s.).

We therefore thank the Lord for having given us in Cardijn an apostle who has done so much to give a Christian presence in the world of work, capable of awakening or reviving the Christian faith in the heart of the working masses, and of giving birth to a solidarity of evangelical inspiration , who has been so concerned about helping them to live the values ​​of the family. You have inherited it, in a way, and I am delighted with the willing commitment of several tens of thousands of local members and leaders within your movement.

5. I have listened with the utmost attention to the presentation of your reports. With regard to the former, I am very sensitive to the miseries that are found today in the workers’ world of Belgium, and which, moreover, join those of many other countries. They affect unemployed young people and all the unemployed, immigrants, families, the marginalized, the new poor. You also note the risks of a “dual” society, such as you call it, half of whose members would be assisted; feel the threat of a national or international economy that would only aim at profit; that of a technology incapable of truly freeing man; the lack of global solidarity in the face of the aggravation of misery and hunger; of a mad and suicidal arms race.

Yes, I encourage you to look at the world around you with the gaze of Heavenly Father. You share God’s mercy when you think of the word of the scriptures: “I have observed the misery of my people in Egypt and I have heard his cry. . . in fact I know his sufferings. I went down to free him from the hand of Egypt and to get him out of this country to a beautiful and spacious country, to a country where milk and honey flows “( Ex 3, 7-8).

We find an echo of this solidarity with the weakest in the vigorous words of your president, who express your opposition to injustice and who are equivalent to saying: No to the unemployment scandal that deprives the workers of their main right: the right for everyone to earn daily bread through work. This situation affects them in their income and above all in their human dignity. No to all totalitarianisms, be they those of states, money powers or ideologies. No to racism and xenophobia, including their insidious forms which prevent recognition of the cultural and religious specificities of immigrant workers and political refugees. No to those solutions to the crisis that would increase inequalities in Belgium and among peoples.

6. In the same way, it is from the book of the word of God that you want to draw from the spirit that allows you to arouse a community life, a truly supportive world, respectful of the dignity of all men, concerned about better achieving the universal destination of earthly goods. You are trying to renew the mentalities and structures of your society in this direction. You make God’s plan for the world your own when you remember the words of the Acts of the apostles: “The multitude of those who had come to the faith had one heart and one soul. . . No one among them was in need “( Acts 4:32 . 34). “They were assiduous in listening to the teaching of the apostles and in fraternal union, in the fraction of bread and in prayer” ( Ac2, 42). We feel an echo of this ideal in the strong words of your president. He summarized your project of society as follows, based on the three fundamental values ​​of solidarity, justice and participation.

Solidarity, the key word of workers’ history, is also, in modern language, an “evangelical” word. It is together that we must build the world: together, between the workers and the unemployed, immigrants and Belgians, men and women, young people and adults, together up to the international dimension (John Paul II, Allocutio ad eos qui LXVIII conventui Conferentiae ab omnibus nationibus de humano labore interfuere habita , 5, 15 June 1982 : Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II , V / 2 [1982] 2255).

This solidarity which accepts the priority of the most needy and the law of sharing as a need for love, must extend from neighbor to neighbor, so that the mechanisms of domination that crush men are fought. Needless to say, this solidarity must never be a closure to dialogue or collaboration with others, with other social groups not included in your movements (cf. Laborem exercens , 8).

I have just talked about the international dimension of solidarity. In the Third World, what is at stake is no longer the imbalances of our consumer society, but the fact of living, of surviving. It is therefore necessary to have a very broad view of all the problems. Too closed solidarity models are not enough.

Justice: the prophets and Jesus himself proclaimed it: hitting man in his rights means hitting God. In this perspective, you ensure that participation in the growth of the social good is safeguarded for the workers, the right to fair wages, to the safety of people and their families. It is also right to review the distribution of income, to check speculative rents that do not come from work. But the distribution of material goods is not the only one involved. There are other human rights that suffer violence. And not only human rights, but the rights of the family, the rights of nations. Man does not live by bread alone; he is hungry, sometimes even more, for education, truth, freedom, including religious freedom.

Participation: the dignity of man passes, of course, through having, but goes far beyond. Being men in the eyes of God means being able to create and create with others. Contemporary society must give space to a new type of economy and to a transformation of the enterprise so that the worker “at the same time knows how to work ” on his own ” “, both in a system of private ownership of the means of production and in a property collective (cf. John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 14-15). You therefore seek to prepare a new society, not only through the defense and application of these three principles in the workers’ world, but also by operating in a broader sense for peace, for the restoration and conservation of the natural environment, for a judicious use of leisure time made possible by technological innovations for the establishment of autonomous workers’ movements in Third World countries.

7. Thanks be to God, the terms solidarity, justice, participation are dear to all our contemporaries, and many of your brothers and sisters in the working world, even without sharing the Christian faith, also try to work in this sense, both in a personal capacity, both within other workers’ organizations. For you, it is important that your movement always draw inspiration from a Christian conception of things, from an ecclesial sense. Here is your originality. It must remain manifest: it is a testimony in favor of faith and it also allows us to render the best service to the working world and to society as a whole.

Of course, as your president pointed out, faith does not give you precise technical solutions, strategies of action. However Christian inspiration is not a vain word, a vague ideal. Based on the attitude of Christ, on the social doctrine of the Church, it takes into account a certain number of principles concerning the dignity of the person, the sense of work, which I need not remind you of; it gives a more demanding, broad and profound content to solidarity, justice, participation, the human and fraternal character of the society to be built, and it is here that the Church comes to your aid with her indications. This already has influence on the level of the analysis of social relationships, of the way of looking at others: a scruple of lucidity, of truth, must always prevail

It also influences the choice of the means adopted to change society. There is a noble struggle to be waged for social justice. It is not possible to separate the reality of human work from this justice and this struggle, which always take on new faces according to social situations and systems. But the world of human work must be based above all on moral strength: it must be the world of love and edification, not the world of hatred and destruction. Christ does not cease to bless those who hunger and thirst for justice (cf. Mt 5: 6); but this hunger for justice, this drive to fight are not and cannot be hatred nor a source of hatred in the world.

To maintain our Christian inspiration, we re-read the Gospel incessantly, like Cardijn, to lead an ever new struggle against what enslaves man. We study the teaching of the Church, like Cardijn, who cared about this fidelity to the magisterium. Let us also entrust ourselves to the grace of Christ, to free man from all evil, let us support ourselves with prayer that purifies, gives breath to our intentions. It is in this sense, I think, that you spoke of “struggle” and “contemplation”.

8. The purpose of your movement is to make the world more conform to God’s plan for man, in his realities and in his structures. Furthermore, you cannot neglect to favor an explicit encounter of your brothers with Jesus Christ, a recognition of his message, of his person, of the full salvation that he brings us, and therefore an adherence to the Church, sign and instrument of salvation. Never detach yourselves from the Church, of which you are a member, and in which your friends must have all their places, with their concerns as workers. It is too little to say that the Church is at your side to defend your dignity: it grows and takes root thanks to you, in you. Through you, the one that in the Laborem exercens (John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 24-27) I called “spirituality of work”, it must take shape in the world of workers. Let us not forget the message of Father Cardijn: “Our religious responsibilities are our highest, most decisive responsibilities. They give our person, our life, our work their highest and most sacred meaning and meaning. They make us participate down here in the life, dignity, work of God. Far from being in contrast with our human, worker, family, social, economic and cultural responsibilities, they strengthen and consecrate them by giving them a source, a perspective of universality and eternity “(April 2, 1952).

9. This attitude is eloquently expressed in the structure of our Father which is the theme of our pastoral visit. After the solemn invocation to our Father, we express with the Lord Jesus three wishes to testify that we wholeheartedly desire the coming of the kingdom of God. Above all we ask that men open themselves to the will of God and submit to the his designs. It is precisely the kingdom of God which is the object of our Christian prayer and action.

Subsequently, four questions follow: we think of our human needs – of bread, of forgiveness, of liberation from temptation and evil – and we pray to the Heavenly Father for help and support from him.

Even when we ask for bread for all men, we remain aware that God himself remains at the center of our prayer, since it is ultimately he who gives all that is good. Bread in the hands of men is a given bread. God created the earth and entrusted it to man. Through work, man must “dominate” the earth (cf. John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 4. 6). He must make the gift of the earth available to all. It must ensure that the gift of creation can bear fruit “thirty, sixty and a hundred times as much”, for all without distinction. He must “break and distribute” what has been given to him and thus respect the universal destination of all goods. God is and remains the owner of the bread. And the men he created must be in the most honest way those who multiply and distribute good bread.

When we pray for our daily bread, we ask God to help us in carrying out our mission, together with this bread. Bread is here the term that summarizes all that is necessary for the existence of the adult man and all that man needs to increase his humanity in the context of a rapidly evolving society.

When we pray for the bread of all without distinction, we pray for a growing awareness of responsibility and for greater creativity: creativity, so that through the work of all, bread for all is multiplied; creativity also for the purpose of distribution and fair redistribution of the fruits of labor.

10. Dear representatives of the Christian workers’ movement, in this solemn moment full of joy we can give thanks. Thanks to this movement that has grown through the commitment of many known and unknown pioneers of the past; thanks to everyone, members, militants and leaders, who are at the service of the workers today. The Church thanks you. As Pastor of the universal Church, I thank you, and, according to the wishes and guidelines that I have just recalled before you, I wholeheartedly bless your people, your families, your movement.

(Google Translation from Italian)


John Paul II, Address at the tomb of Cardijn (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Read more

Memories from Belgian College, first residence of Karol Wojtyla in Rome (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library/Rome Reports/YouTube)

Homily of His Holiness Pope John Paul II at the Pontifical Belgian College (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)


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