Cardinal – not for yourself but for the YCW

Today is the anniversary of Cardijn receiving his red cardinal’s hat from Pope Paul VI on 22 February 1965.

In their biography of Cardijn, Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert recorded his doubts and anguish over the appointment:

Two weeks after Mgr Cardijn wrote, asking to be allowed to resign as international chaplain of the YCW. Paul VI made him a Cardinal. His first reaction: “This is impossible. I can’t go against my vow to give my whole life to the working class!” And to some of his close friends: “The scarlet soutane and all those other Cardinal’s things go with a certain mentality and are tied up with the honours people are expected to give you. You are the one who is always right. In the end you think you are God because you are dressed in red! ..”

In personal notes he tries to bring his faith and charity to bear on his hesitations:

“Is it the devil who torments me or the Holy Spirit rousing me? The further I go, the more I believe that grace and personal promotion are incompatible. I am in a queer state of mind, not of self doubt, but doubt about the state or function to which I am being called. Me, Archbishop and Cardinal? And this quite suddenly and against all probability? May the Holy Spirit enlighten and strengthen me! I am just Cardijn in my own inner being, ideas, feelings, words and actions. I can’t be otherwise. That would by my destruction… and at the same time Archbishop and Cardinal? Other people’s astonishment will be nothing compared with my own. Is it possible to go beyond all this and say: It is God’s will? .. .”1 

And just as at times of tension with authority in the old days, he would say: “I am going to Malines” so now it was: “I must go and talk to the Holy Father about it!”

So he put his worry to Paul VI: he wanted to remain Cardijn and could he please not be obliged to go and live in Rome; how could he survive in all these offices and in an atmosphere to which he was not accustomed?

He would like to die at home, in his room in the Rue de Palais, where he could meanwhile take his meals with the YCW leaders who lived in the house, and from where he could easily do some world travelling!

“You are not going to be a Cardinal to die, but to live,” the Pope replied with a smile. “You will continue talking on the YCW all over the world and with a great deal more weight. ..”

This anguish lasted till the very morning of the red hat ceremony as John Maguire, an Australian priest who was then studying in Rome, recorded in this video:

With the support and encouragement of his friends and collaborators, Cardijn overcame those fears and he was ordained as titular bishop of Tusuros on 15 February 1965. And a week later he received his red hat.

At the reception that followed, Pope Paul explained his reasons for making Cardijn a cardinal to the YCW leaders and chaplains who had accompanied Cardijn to Rome:

Your presence here today is extremely significant for us, evoking moving memories and joyful hopes.

It is not just the family of the new Cardinal or a group of his friends: it all his spiritual descendance, the Young Christian Workers, who come in your persons to thank us for having raised him to the Sacred College, who have surrounded him with your affection and testify to your esteem and joy at this solemn moment.

We not only understand these feelings but we make them our own and we want to be the first, if you will allow us, to express them here in your name.

Yes, it was a great joy, a very great joy for Us, to be in a position to recompense as he deserves one of the men in this century who has worked the most for the Church and for souls.

It is a long time that we have known, admired and loved him, and we have followed him with emotion over the course of the years the magnificent rise of this great movement which has emerged, if one could use those words, from his heart of a priest and apostle and that God has so visibly blessed.

We should not forget the welcome given by our predecessor Pius XI to the first openings of he was then the young Fr Cardijn; and you know as we do the immediate encouragement that this great Pontiff granted to the formula of the apostolate of like to like: a formula which served as the basis for all the forms of specialised Catholic Action, with the success that you all know.

The honour that is given today to Cardinal Cardinal thus also reflects in a certain way on the whole of Catholic Action. It also reflects more particularly on the YCW, and on you above all, dear Belgian jocists, and we also greet you in Flemish.

Wij groeten met blijdschap de Kajotters en Kajotsters, de Leiders en Leidsters van de verschillende Takken van het A. C. W.

We greet with joy the YCW members, Chiefs and Leaders of the various branches of the ACW (Christian Workers Movement)

All of you, you will appreciate in our gesture a testimony of the Pope’s love for young workers. We love to think that you will draw from it an ever increasing love for the Church, which has just honoured your founder and father in such a striking way. We also would like that his elevation to the cardinal’s red marks fro all the young Christian workers of the world a sort of new beginning for an even more generous apostolic action than in the past; that it be a stimulus for them also to give witness to Christ among their brothers and to make the Church present and active in all the milieux of work.

It is our dearest wish to leave you with our paternal Apostolic Blessing, a sign of our affection for your new cardinal and of our goodwill towards all of you, to your families and to all the Young Christian Workers of the whole world.

It’s clear from Paul VI’s words and from his action in making Cardijn an archbishop that this was not simply a personal honour. Rather it heralded a new mission for Cardijn with the YCW and among the Specialised Catholic Action movements.

Stefan Gigacz

Read more

Paul VI, Reception for Cardijn and the YCW (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert, Cardijn, Chapter 14, The workers’ cardinal (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

John Maguire – Cardijn becomes a cardinal (Stefan Gigacz/YouTube)

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)