Reaching the masses

Cardijn was always obsessed with reaching the “masses” of young workers, the working class masses. Indeed, this was one of the points that so impressed Pope Pius XI when Cardijn first visited him in March 1925.

“At last someone has come to speak about the masses,” the pope told him.

Today, 1 May, Feast of St Joseph the Worker, it seems appropriate to look back at how Cardijn himself explained this need to reach the masses, as he did in this article from September 1945.

Stefan Gigacz

A YCW of the masses to the scale of the world

There is a new YCW in existence today – the Y.C.W. of yesterday was but a preface – today, by the very force of circumstances, we have a real Y.C.W. of the masses, not only national but international. The Y.C.W. today exists not only in one or the other country and has not only to save the mass of working youth of one or the other nation; the Y.C.W. today must solve the world problem of working youth, not only in theory, but in practice as well. Before the International Labour Conference which opens in a few days, before the World Trade Union Council which is meeting at present in Paris, and which represents sixty million workers all over the world, We must realise the problem of the world-wide, international mission of the Y.C.W. for the conquest and the re-Christianising of the masses of working youth, and remember those words of the Holy Father spoken ten years ago: “This movement, on which Providence seems to have set its seal.”

Our task is to bring about the meeting of the Disciples of Christ with the masses, a meeting, which alone can solve the problem of the deproletarisation of the masses and the youth of the working classes. We must be haunted by this problem. In the soul of every priest must grow the certainty that the solution of this problem can be found, for it is going to decide the future, not only of the working class, but of the Church as well.

Our task is to put an end to the great scandal of the nineteenth century – the loss of the masses by the Church. I have often said this to my fellow priests, and we must give a great deal of thought to it. If the Church ever lost the mark that makes her to be the Church of the masses, she would cease to he the Church of Christ.

I have been asked to speak to you on this essential problem, and I am going to tell you very simply how I envisage the spiritual training of leaders with a view to the masses. This implies a spiritual training, which should bring about an integral spiritual life in the working masses.

I often say that there is nothing arbitrary, nothing a priori in the Y.C.W. We must always remember this when we are dealing with the problem of spiritual training, and base ourselves on fundamental truths.

Young workers must always be faced with the great truth of the eternal destiny of the mass of young workers. How often have I cried out at mass meetings: “You are not machines, beasts of burden, slaves; you are human beings, with an eternal destiny, a divine origin, a divine purpose, You are sons of God, partners with God, you are heirs of God; this is true, not only for a select few, but for the masses and the whole of the working class, without exception.” There is but one eternal destiny for the masses of the young workers, either to be saved or to be damned for all eternity. This truth must obsess the Y.C.W. leader; if he is not steeped in it, if he does not live it, then he is not a Y.C.W. leader. He must grasp it, believe in it, be overwhelmed by it ; the abandoned masses of the young workers have an eternal destiny.

The second truth on which the training of leaders should be based is that each young worker and each young working girl has here below, from the moment of his conception and birth, a personal divine vocation, all his own, an irreplaceable divine vocation, a magnificent divine vocation. In his life, his environment, his calling, each young worker is the necessary partner of our Creator and Redeemer.

The third truth is that this divine, supernatural destiny and vocation must put the young workers in continuous contact with God, so that their life becomes a divine life, in constant union with Christ, so that their own life becomes the life of Christ in them, within that divine community created by Christ, which is the Church. We must go far to show them that, uniting them to Christ, their consecration to God will be achieved by a community which is at once a sacramental and a liturgical community, and which, in the very life of the masses, will develop more and more a life of union, not only with Christ, not only with God, but also with the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Many, in such a way as to develop in the working masses that Eucharistic and Marian life which, in my belief, will be the characteristic of the spiritual and supernatural life of the working class of tomorrow.

So when we speak of spiritual training I always add, spiritual training “for the masses.” We must not be content with a sub-religion, a second-class religion, a religion for the proletariat, no more than we can be content with a second-class, submorality for a sub-proletariat. When we speak of the spiritual training and spiritual life, our ambition is to speak of a training, which gives to all the same divine life. the same holiness as to, the chosen few.

In the face of Communism and its ideals, the spiritual, intellectual, moral, internal deproletarisation of the individual and the family is the only means of achieving a real economic, social and political deproletarisation. There will never be true deproletarisation unless the masses feel, in their minds and hearts, a pride in their divine origin and destiny, and acquire a conception of life through which the working masses will become proud of’ its religion, and will learn to suffer, to struggle, and to die for it, more than the Communist masses suffer and struggle for the full deproletarisation of the working masses.

My friends, I have always told you that those ideas, those truths were at the basis of the Y.C.W. There can be no Y.C.W., no Y.C.W. methods, without the inspiration of those truths.

And that is precisely the nature of our spiritual training to renew the working masses from within, to make of them a, new working class, to make them discover, grasp and conquer the eternal worth of their own lives. I am convinced that the only possible answer to the horrors of Buchenwald and Dachau, to their shameful contempt and denial of human values, is the exaltation of the magnificent dignity of each working family, which must be brought out in all the aspects of the life of the masses. Not for a few, but for the masses of our youth and the working class of our country and all countries. I consider this. training, the revealing of this fundamental truth as essential to the Y.C.W because without it we cannot save working youth and the working classes. It is absolutely fundamental. Without it there is no YCW If we are ready to die to save our working youth and the working masses, it is because we know that they possess an eternal destiny.

I What must we do? Above all, we must understand that we need the whole Y.C.W. movement-not merely one or two of its aspects-to achieve this spiritual, religious and apostolic training of the masses. The Y.C.W. is first and foremost a school for the full training of working youth, it is a service which, even in its temporal achievements, pursues only one object.

I repeat that this spiritual training is indispensable, that it is the very basis of the Y.C.W. and the Catholic Action of the working classes; it is the basis and the end of all. The Y.C.W. believes in the eternal destiny of each young worker, in his divine, earthly, temporal vocation, first step towards his eternal destiny in the humblest details of his daily life, in which he will save himself with the masses or lose himself with them. This eternal dignity and personal calling is supernatural and divine, and makes each young worker share in the very life of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, finding more and more its expression in the working class of tomorrow in a eucharistic, liturgical, Marial life. No sub-religion, no second-class religion for the working classes. We will not have that kind of pharisaism. We should lose the working classes, and the masses could never be proud of their religion. We should be powerless in the face of the ideals of those who pretend to deliver them. Our ideal should be that of total truth, of total divine truth, for this total truth, this divine destiny of each young worker and each young working girl, this sharing in the divine life is simply a proof of Divine Love, and since Christ has died for the working class, we must be ready to die for this divine life, and the working class will believe in the truth of it all. Filled with this faith, we should be ready to become martyrs to save the working class in its everyday life, and take the consequences. We should not be afraid of Communism, afraid of error. As the Holy Father has said, “Error is not destroyed by refutation, but by the spreading of light.” Truth will cast out error, and darkness will disappear from the earth.

I was saying that, to achieve this result, we must not attempt the spiritual training of the masses apart from the Y.C.W or by one or the other aspects of the Y.C.W or by the chaplains or the leaders following some particular line. We must understand that it is the whole Y.C.W., and nothing but the whole Y.C.W., which will enable us, by the aid of Divine grace and under God’s providence, to achieve the only true purpose of the Y.C.W. school of spiritual life which gives us the means, the charity, the necessary training through which the young workers discover in their lives, little by little, what distinguishes them from their machines and beasts of burden.

The whole Y.C.W., in all its publications, all its congresses, must always seek to give this training and this fulfilment. The masses will achieve this spiritual, apostolic life, not through one or the other aspect, not on one or the other occasion, but through the whole movement, whose aim and purpose is essentially the giving of this spiritual life to the masses and to working youth, by constantly showing them the meaning of their life on earth, which is not the life of a beast of burden, not the life of a machine, but the life of a son of God, in courtship, engagement, home, conditions of work and salaries, environment, security, health which is the health of a son of God and not of a cow or a dog, the security of a son of God and not merely of a machine.

And so all the aspects of this life, work, wages, living space of which the Holy Father speaks, and which are indispensable to allow for this education in the light of divine life, must be asserted to the public authorities as well as to the masses and the elite.

I have held meetings among Communists, and they never mocked at this ideal, far from it. I felt that I gripped them when I told them that what made the greatness of a young worker was his dignity as a son of God, his divine origin.

I spoke before a crowd of miners, and there, in the front seats, were the manager, his wife and daughter, and behind them, some working girls and the mining lads. Before God, the poorest of these girls has the same worth as the daughter of the pit manager. And I said: “Woe, woe, woe to the miner who assaults one of these girls in the pit, it were better for him that a millstone be tied around his neck and that he should be thrown to the bottom of the sea.” What a vision for the masses ; there lies our dignity, our greatness ! Rights and duties, the ideal of the family, not for one or the other, but for all. “Whatsoever ye do to the least of these my brethren, ye do unto me.

An ideal of life and environment; the factory, not a brothel, but a temple. The workbench, the lathe become an altar on which this lay priesthood prolongs the sacrifice of the Mass.

In receiving the Host which we offer, we consecrate, we transform into the very Saviour of the working class, all the workers unite themselves to Him so as to create, in their environment of work, the mystic Christ who, by His labours and sacrifices, continues the work of redemption. Without work, there can be no host, no chalice, no altar stone, no priestly vestments; without work, there can be no churches, no religion, no worker’s family to give to the Church the priests, the missionaries, the apostles she needs, for those who tomorrow will exercise that irreplaceable complementary apostolate without which she cannot fulfil her mission. See the consequences for engagements, for courtship, for family life. When I am speaking to two or three hundred little servant girls from a big town, I say to them : ” My own mother, sixty years ago, my own mother was a servant girl like you ; servant girls must be respected so that they may become the mothers of priests, of apostles, and give the nation its finest citizens.

Can you see the great vision? An ideal of life which must reveal the inviolable dignity of each young worker and each young working girl. I can only see this solution, this answer to the horrors of Buchenwald and Dachau, to the horrors that await us tomorrow. The body of the young worker and of the young working girl is a living temple of God ; the home they will found is inseparably linked up with all these necessary convictions, it is a spiritual ideal incarnate in time, lived in time. This spiritual training, this spiritual conception of life imply a morality, which is not a burden, but a responsibility.

This training is continuously taking place through all the services and achievements of the Y.C.W., and it must always remain active, adapted, supple. Babes must be given milk, not meat. The working masses must be given a training adapted to their means which will enable them to rise gradually, an active training in which each one has something to discover.

Remember always that religious training is not a matter of teaching, but a question of personal discovery. I cannot say for someone: ” I believe in God.” He must say it for himself. if he simply repeats it in a prayer, he will never get the shock of revelation. Do you realise that our ideal of marriage and courtship is revolutionary to our young people ? I could prove it a thousand times over. When this ideal of marriage and courtship is given to the workers, one can see at once their pride and their emotion. Not organised prostitution, but the most sacred of ministries, the finest collaboration in the work of creation and redemption. Once the meaning of love and of courtship has been understood, a revolution takes place and the working class is deproletarised. Life is no longer the same. This internal deproletarisation demands an external, economic, social deproletarisation. A Son of God cannot be housed like a pig.

Our training will gradually bring out an elite from the working masses. The problem of the elite and the mass is simply that of the leaven and the paste. I always say that if it is not right within, even at a hair’s breadth of the paste, it is no longer leaven-the paste must be transformed from within * This phenomenon of spiritual fermentation, of transformation, of action of the leaven on the working masses, in this factory, this workshop, this train, this railway station, the influence of this radiating family, this fermentation is incredible when one thinks of it, Christ present every-here, acting everywhere, Christ more and more to the measure of the masses and today, not merely to the measure of the masses of a region, but to the mass of the whole world.

Our time is one of a world reorganisation of society. It is the age of the masses, of the education of the masses, and we must look for a solution in this direction, otherwise we shall fail to solve the problem. In London, the ministers of Education are meeting to work out new methods for the education of the masses. It is because of the huge scope of this problem, that I am convinced the movement, of which the Holy Father has said that it bore the seal of Providence, must seek the solution.

There can be no ready-made formula, no two workers are alike. But we must start from certain principles, live with and make them lived by others. The whole leaven in the paste and that by means of the whole YCW and all its achievements.

We have, for example, our camps of family preparation, which have already received several hundreds, several thousands from the pagan masses. They stay with us in the country; we have four houses in Flanders, and it is astonishing what changes can. i;~. in a fortnight in the lives of these unfortunate young working girls. An education is begun, but it should be continued, and here lies the great misfortune of the working class; a century ago, kids went to work, and received an anti-religious training instead of a religious one. Today, their religious training finishes at thirteen or fourteen.

We should not be content with preaching vaguely about heaven, we should see the divine affinities of the young worker at his very birth. Let us use the most impressive moments of life to bring out the meaning, the divine value of life; the moment of birth, the moment when a lad leaves his family to go to school, or leaves school for work, the choice of work, courtship, engagement, marriage, everything that concerns health, security, sickness, death. It is incredible to what extent the workers understand these eternal perspectives at moments of crisis. If the clergy will go to the people and show them the sacredness of these impressive moments, then we shall have renewed our contact with the masses.

I began my work thirty-three years ago. During my first year I visited all the working-class families of my parish. I went every-where, because I wanted all the workers in the parish to know me. But I never spoke about religious duties. I never said, you must come to Mass, to Communion. I took interest in their life, I tried to understand their needs. We became friends, and the following year I was accepted everywhere, I could start a Women’s League, I founded several Trade Unions. During that first year, my sole concern was to renew contact with the working mass, to gain its confidence, and then, gradually, to bring to it the revelation of sacramental, liturgical, Marial life in all its fullness. We must lift up the masses, and, through our leaders, place the leaven within it.

The problem we shall have to face more and more is to see that liturgical and devotional life should be ever increasingly in contact with real life, so that the working class understands the meaning of the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, which transforms life and gives it the friendship of God, a life so full of filial contact with the Mother of Our Saviour, our Mother too, and the protectress of the working masses. This training must above all be apostolic, understanding of real needs and therefore must never be an anti-Communist, anti-Socialist training, must never be what it is accused of being a religion that divides, that separates, that opposes, but a religion that unites, that is fraternal, that is the basis of unity of the working masses, that divine unity of origin, of destiny, of the worth of life, of personality. Religion must become the leaven of the working community; Christ revealed to the masses, Christ brought to the masses, Christ the great Redeemer, Christ the only Redeemer of the future.

We must underline for ourselves the lay nature of this spiritual training. We are training the laity for their own apostolate and their own lives. We are faced with two errors; laicity, which has taken from working life the ideal of its divine value, and has created a division between religion and life. On the other side, clericalism is an equally pernicious error ; it gives the working masses the impression that they have to be hangers-on of the clergy, whose only apostolate is that of an altar-boy or a sacristan. No sacristy Y.C.W., but a Y.C.W. of the masses. We must insist more and more, in our ,spiritual and apostolic training, on this definite, personal, irreplaceable vocation each young worker, each working family must fulfil for the establishment of the kingdom of God.

‘Neither laicism or clericalism, but what I call the laity, a workers’ community once again conscious of the irreplaceable task it has to fulfil in the Church, and which is proud of it. We could not save the working masses without the workers, the clergy cannot save the working masses on their own. The Holy Father has often said to me : ” I am at my desk, but I am not in the midst of the workers, and in order that my encyclicals may be lived, the clergy must understand that we have to create in the Church — and this is the task of Catholic Action –, a powerful laity to the measure of the problems of our times,: a laity for the age in which we are living. ” In the age of the atomic bomb, a radiating, influential, Christian laity must represent the Church in the world council, which will adopt the charter of working youth, which must be a Christian charter.

You can see how this laity will do away with the prejudices, the stupid objections, the enormous ignorance of the working masses, which are all based on a lack of understanding ; there is no light from within. The training of our leaders for the masses, which must be achieved by the whole Y.C.W., will no doubt demand personal and intimate contact with the chaplain,’ but the chaplain should not be thinking of the leader himself, but of the working masses. We are essentially a missionary movement, and we must create missionaries for working life, for the working life of the masses.

We have to fulfil to the utmost our priestly task, our task of apostolic and spiritual fatherhood. The masses need to live an absolutely total religious life, they need prayer, recollections, retreats.

I was moved to tears when our deported leaders came to tell me : ” The war has made us discover the meaning of eucharistic life. Monsieur Cardijn, you must go to Rome, you must see the Pope, all the religious authorities, we must be able to continue receiving Holy Communion every day. Over there, we could receive Our Lord every night. Give us once again the same chance.” And they also said to me: “Over there, we consecrated ourselves to Our Lady Co-redemptrix and Mediatrix, and we want the Y.C.W. and the working class to be consecrated to the Blessed Virgin.” Our leaders came to tell me this; they had realised over there, in the concentration camps, under bombardment, the worth of Our Lady’s protection, and they felt that the whole working class needed the same protection. All this must be brought out in the recollections, in the retreats, the theme of which must always be the supernaturalisation of all working life and all human life.

That is the history of the Y.C.W. I could tell you the story .of those six poor little workers who could neither read nor write, who suddenly discovered that tremendous thing, which they would never have thought of, the divine value of each young worker. They discovered this divine life, this vocation of the body, the feelings, all the aspects of life. And I could show you how, little by little, at the cost of every sacrifice, they brought this discovery to their comrades, gave their life for it, went to hospitals, the slums, the working-class streets, to give this truth which they felt was alone capable of saving the working masses. I ask of you but one thing ; simply to have faith in this fire, this light, this warmth, this dynamism of true Christianity, to have faith in the true value of the working masses.

If you have faith in it, it will kill you, but you must have faith. We speak of a lack of faith in the masses. Let us examine our conscience, and ask ourselves where this lack of faith comes from. Has our faith always been a living one ? Have we been witnesses to this truth in the working masses, for the working masses ? The Church must be that witness, and there lies the problem of Communism and the Y.C.W. I have no belief in anti-Communist refutations and organisations, no more than I have faith in the anti-Fascists slogans of Communism. I am convinced that we must go beyond that ; our ideals are infinitely finer, infinitely greater, infinitely more glorious for youth and the working masses. How does it happen that the working class is not dazzled by the beauty and the glory of truth ? There is a barrier between this working mass and the meeting with Christ, which will decide the future of the world. We must prepare the meeting of Christ and the masses.

When, tomorrow, the working masses will meet Christ, through the Church and above all through the lay apostolate, through an ever more apostolic laity, when this meeting takes place, Communism will be lost. The future is Christ’s, we are in Him, let us persevere. Let us learn to die, and -little by little, giving ourselves completely, we will give Christ to working youth and the working masses.

Joseph Cardijn

September 1945


Joseph Cardijn, A YCW of the masses to the scale of the world (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)


Stefan Gigacz / May Day Rally, Lille, 1 May 2023