Social action as a means of reviving parish life

Although the YCW was not officially and formally founded until 1925, Cardijn always insisted that its real foundation was in the parish of Our Lady at Laeken, not far from the centre of Brussels, to which he was posted at Easter 1912.

Placed in charge of women’s projects in the parish, within a year, he had organised over 1000 women in various groups, including several embryonic study circles for teenage female workers.

It was an amazing demonstration of what a Catholic parish could be!

Nevertheless, he – and the emerging YCW – often faced criticism. And in a famous 1925 speech entitled “The YCW and the parish,” Cardijn sought to respond to these criticisms.

This talk, he said, “offers me a unique occasion to show by the concrete example of the YCW, how the social organisations in general must – and if they are well structured and well directed – can become one of the most appropriate means of our time to revive PARISH LIFE; to reconstitute the parish community in its integral nature of doing good.”

“Unfortunately, in many industrial regions, the parish is no longer significant except among the clergy,” Cardijn lamented in words that could easily apply today.

He continued:

Ask the people, and those who still understand the name will respond: “The parish, the parish priest… that’s where people go for baptisms, for children’s first conmunion, for marriage and funerals.”

“The bonds which exist among the parishioners, between them and the parish clergy… their rights and reciprocal duties… the family and the parish union… all that no longer lives for the masses. That kernel of the militant Church, united in the struggle for the Christian organisation of earthly society and the conquest of blessed eternity… scarcely appears any more to most people.

And yet, the esprit de corps, the conscious and strong union among all the parishioners which manifests itself to the public by a united front in the defense as in the attack – is more indispensable than ever in order to restore Christian life… to re-infuse the sense of catholic/universal … not only in the working class, but in all of society. And we think that the parish social works are an easy means to bring back the masses to that community of life, to that esprit de corps, to the understanding of the parish spirit.

We must truly dare to admit, among ourselves, that apropos of the social organisations, there are regrettable misunderstandings which prevent many generosities. “The social organisations, according to some people, exist and work at the margin of the parish”… “The social sphere, the social framework (cadre), according to certain people, is in opposition to the … parish framework”. To the directors of social works, some say “You come and divide the parishioners, with your organisations which take into account their interests, their conditions and their requirements-bringing sometimes hostile divisions”. Haven’t you already heard the remark: “pretty soon different parishes will need to be created for the workers, for the farmers and for the employers”.

These misunderstandings come from a superficial concept. In a society truly Christian, the social organisations would be indissolubly united to the parish, as the body of this earthly life is united to the soul … and as the members are united to the body. When, in view of eternal happiness, the parish interests itself in all the needs of the parishioner, when the parish finds a favorable solution, an assistance for all the problems which arise in concrete daily life, humble and often difficult; … when the Church and the parish clergy are no longer strangers to the vital questions posed by the conditions of modern life – which, moreover have a fatal repercussion on religious life.., then our modern society – in all its manifestations: social, economic, artistic and recreational – will again be as it was during the Middle Ages: guided, clarified and protected by the parish spirit which is the true Christian social spirit.

Here we find Cardijn’s integral conception of the role of Church of assisting parishioners to address the problems of daily life and of modern society. This, he argued, was the true Christian social spirit.

And in a later reflection, we will look at how the YCW became Cardijn’s model of this vision.


Stefan Gigacz


Joseph Cardijn, The YCW and the parish (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)


Laeken women’s groups 1920s