The bankruptcy of evangelisation

Returning to Belgium in 1948 after a tour of Latin America and parts of Africa, Cardijn could not contain his shock at what the “anguishing problem” he had witnessed.

The Church had allied itself or at least failed to separate itself from a series of evils that he summarised as follows:

the occupying power of the colonists and the Europeans;

the scandalous profits of the colonists and the great exploiters alongside the shameful misery of the indigenous masses;

the ignorance of the indigenous languages by nearly all Europeans;

the several hundred thousand Europeans in the face of millions of Muslims and indigenous peoples;

the inadequacy of the efforts deployed in the fields of education, housing, water services, etc. as well as many other factors explaining this watertight partition of two juxtaposed worlds.

This, he warned, had led to what he did not hesitate to call out as “the bankruptcy of evangelisation.”

Often, mostly in fact, Cardijn was extremely diplomatic. Not on this occasion!

Stefan Gigacz

A letter from Fr CARDYN

First impressions of a world tour – Part I

The missionary problem

Almost like a disturbing film, my far too short tour of the continents unveiled to me the immense missionary problem that the Church, the Hierarchy as well as the laity are all facing with increasing acuity and inescapable urgency: 350 million Muslims – Arabs, blacks, Hindus – 30 million pagan fetishists as well as hundreds of millions of Christians who fail to live out their Christianity.

And this global missionary problem is complicated by all the human problems that embody it, namely problems of colonisation, races, industrialisation, tentacle-like cities alongside immense desert regions, towns and bush; problems of language, idiom, customs and civilisation; family, women’s social and cultural problems; problems that stoke opposition and hatred; impenetrable barriers in the face of solidarity, exchanges; aspirations that increasingly tend to break down separation and distance and unify humanity as part of an inseparable community.

And everywhere and above all else there is the problem of the masses, the indigenous and proletarian masses, hundreds of millions of wage-earners that the world economy is multiplying in every race and on every continent and who, alas, are condemned to misery and exploitation as well to live in unworthy conditions, in ignorance and insecurity, to feel like “the wretched of the earth” and eventually form a breeding ground for disturbance and revolts.

Even less than ever the Church and Christianity must not be confused with a race or a class, with an economic, political or nationalist interest. More than ever the universal mission of Christ “Ite et docete omnes gentes… evangelizare pauperibus misit me” seems to me to be the only solution to the unity and peace of the world. And everywhere, in the face of an urgent lack of clergy, we repeat the Master’s prayer: “Rogate Dominum ut mittat operarios in messem suam.”

Alongside certain painful misunderstandings and shorcomings, how happy we are to find an increasingly numerous and more active elite everywhere and an extraordinary missionary spirit, which today more than at any other time of our history, is spreading throughout the Churrch, and which above all difficulties is sparking generosity and heroism that arouses admiration and makes tangible the incommensurable love of the Divine Master.

North Africa

After leaving Brussels at 8p.m.1, I arrived in Algiers at four o’clock in the morning. It was not without emotion that I set foot for the first time in this old land of North Africa, so illustrious for its saints, martyrs and doctors: St Cyprian, St Perpetua, St Monica, St Augustine and so many others.

A secretary of the archdiocese and three jocist militants were waiting for me as I descended from the plane. After mass and a brief rest, we had dinner with the venerable Archbishop Leynaud, so young at heart and full of attention, as well as with the auxiliary bishop, the vicar general and the superior of the seminary.

The next day there was a visit and dinner at the Square House, the headquarters of the White Fathers in Africa, where, as well as the superior generals, I was happy to meet his Excellency, Archbishop Mercier, the new Apostolic Vicar of the Sahara.

Meanwhile, there were also contacts with jocist leaders and militants as well as the MPF family movement, visits to the city, the port and to indigenous neighbourhoods.

A day later, there was a trip to Constantine through the mountains and desert regions, with visions of camel troops, little donkeys, sheep and cattle, which was followed in the evening by a reception with the forty day students who came for the Study Session.

Constantine, which with its rocky escarpment managed to resist the most famous sieges, is like a relic of Phoenician, Roman, Christian and Arabic civilisations, and with its deep gorges, its souks, mosques, retains an imperishable attraction of curiosity.2

There were also visits, interviews and meetings as well as talks with young Bishop Duval, the miltants as and former jocists.

From there, we travelled to Bone via Bled and Philippeville with a visit to the famous cathedral of Hippone, barely started diggings at the former seat of St Augustine as well as meetings and talks. So many emotions, particularly during the too fleeting contact with the most glorious centres of the Church, now sadly still almost buried beneath the sands.

From there, we moved to Tunis, Carthage and Sousse! Here again, we had several great encounters and moving meetings with Archbishop Gounod of Tunis, another veteran of North Africa, his auxiliary, Bishop Perrin, and so many priests, White Fathers, religious and seminarians as well as militants, former jocists, a few MPF families. There was also a visit to the rich museum of the White Fathers in Carthage, ancient basilicas and Carthaginian and Roman ruins, Arab souks, and, alas pitiful “slums” not to mention encounters with interminable processions of Bedouins and nomads with their camels, little donkeys, veiled women with dresses and bright jewels as well as with so many kids whose eyes sparkled with intelligence.

Then, we returned to Algiers for more talks with the clergy and the general public under the presidency of the indefatigable archbishop.

From there, we travelled to Bel-Abbes, the centre of the Foreign Legion with its highly flourishing jocist groups, to the Study Session at Mercier-Lacombe; then to Oran, where, under the presidency of Bishop Lacaste there were more talks to the clergy and militants.

Finally, we had short stays in Rabat and Casablanca3. Rabat, the capital of Morocco, the city of Lyautey, a genuinely imperial residence, still stained alas by its poor medina and its “slums.” Casablanca is destined to soon become the most industrial and most populous city in North Africa but the contrast between the European city and the indigenous neighbourhoods is as sad as in any Algerian, Tunisian or Moroccan city.

Bishop Lefèvre, a former jocist chaplain, the new bishop of Rabat and Morocco, spent himself tirelessly to host me with all his affection and to preside over meetings with so many clergy, seminarians and lay people.

An anguishing problem

Evidently, it’s not possible to offer judgment after such a quick visit. But one remains confounded before the immensity of a missionary problem that people hardly suspect.

This impenetrable world of Muslims quickly turns into an obsession: the veiled women, the closed families, the proud Arabs, dressed in turbans or chechias, in their white or coloured burnous; groups seated alongside the objects they are selling; old people and ragged beggars; Muslims praying in the mosques, the fields, the streets and trams; ragged yet sparkling kids; souks so crammed with people, their shops, workshops, tissues and jewellery which is sometimes so artistic; with morals as well as a mentality and conception of life so opposed to ours and which has demonstrated itself to be so impermeable to the Christian apostolate for centuries.

In addition to this religious fanaticism, there are many political, economic and cultural causes for this bankruptcy of evangelisation: the Church and Christianity assimilated to the occupying power of the colonists and the Europeans; the scandalous profits of the colonists and the great exploiters alongside the shameful misery of the indigenous masses; the ignorance of the indigenous languages by nearly all Europeans; the several hundred thousand Europeans in the face of millions of Muslims and indigenous peoples; the inadequacy of the efforts deployed in the fields of education, housing, water services, etc. as well as many other factors explaining this watertight partition of two juxtaposed worlds.

And this juxtaposition seems untenable. Industrialisation is advancing in giant steps and carying along the indigenous and Muslim masses, who proliferate in the face of falling birthrate of the occupier, all this creates a situation that does not appear to be viable and which depends on military force that is extremely ephemeral.

The only solution

“Humanise in order to Christianise” appears to be the primary condition for all effective and lasting evangelisation.

It is here that Catholic Action, the lay worker apostolate and the JOC in particular, take their irreplaceable and primordial place for the solution of the missionary, indigenous and Muslim problem.

Cohabitation in the same neighbourhoods, working together on the same chain and in the same establishments raises common problems, multiplies opportunities for contact, mutual aid and joint efforts, as well as offering opportunities for living, direct, irrecusable witness that will end up by causing prejudices and misunderstandings to disappear.

Long term work is the only thing that will enable us to overcome oppositions and misunderstandings that have lasted centuries. This work of approaching and collaborating at the human level, which operates at the top among intellectuals and leaders as well as developing from below among the deepest layers of the people, will foster a vision of longstanding problems in a more sympathetic and confident atmosphere.

Alas, many missteps, neglects, political, social and economic injustices multiply the defiance and hatred.

But there are so many magnificent examples of fraternal collaboration, heroic sacrifice for this penetration of the charity of Christ among the milieux which seem the most closed. How to fail to pay homage to those colleagues, propagandists – young men and women workers – who have sacrificed everything for this missionary apostolate? To those teams of militants, young couples, who with an unheard of faith and disinterest so often give us the example of a missionary spirit and heart, open to every audacity and initiative?

How many times at every stop on my trip, at study weeks, personal meetings, etc., I felt moved and upset by the facts, tracts and examples that made me feel ashamed and led me to repeat the words of the Master: “Blessed be, my Father, because you have revealed these marvels to the small and the humble whereas you have hidden them from the proud and powerful.”

Certainly the problem is a long way from being resolved. However, it will be. This will evidently require formation that is forever deeper and more appropriate to the leaders and militants.

The Muslim world is a world of believers and only a deep and absolute faith will enable the dissolution of criticisms that an officious mentality and a Christianity that is too little lived out have so often accumulated.

The penetration of the worlds of women’s and the family, which seems to be possible by lay women militants, will require sustained aid and support.

And in order to coordinate these efforts, that scattering seems to have condemned to sterility, the establishment of a jocist front in North Africa that will combine initiatives and realisations on site in an intimate union and collaboration appears to be the only effective solution to the Muslim problem which is similar throughout all the regions of North Africa.

West Africa

After leaving Casablanca at 4p.m., I arrived at Dakar towards midnight. The Holy Spirit Fathers were waiting for me at the airfield. They welcomed and hosted me and took me around with an affection and attention for which I will always have an emotional and grateful memory. During the months of September and October, Dakar is a furnace, where the boiling water vapour penetrates you and your clothes. The humidity and moistness are very tiring. Nevertheless, although I sweated profusely in Dakar, I also left part of my heart there.

The highly endearing black population is sweet and good natured.4 The women wear their large multicoloured dresses; they have glittering hairstyles and clinking jewels. Their children are comfortably attached to their backs, as they elegantly carry vases, packets, or even a pair of shoes or other object on their heads. Young people are well-built, polite and clean; kids are louder than anywhere.

And there are such crowds at the busiest and most varied markets, with groups squatting along the roadside placidly awaiting the time of arrival. Above all, what a welcome, what fervour in the little huts among the fields of millet, peanuts and bushes, near Thère, in the bled and the bush. There is a childish joy that expresses itself in shouts, gestures and songs under the eyes of the missionary fathers who love them and in whom they confide.

The visit to the island of Gorée,5 which became famous during the slave trade and which was for long centuries the bridgehead and the port of entry into West Africa, was also highly interesting.

Dakar, the capital of French West Africa, seems destined by its geographical position to have great international significance and by that very fact a great influence. Although the housing crisis does not seem to be as serious as in North Africa, it must nevertheless be very difficultl. The Muslim problem, although unsolvable until now, does not seem as highly charged with fanatacism. The black, European and Syrian populations appear to be closer to one another.

However, here too, how urgent and inescapable the missionary problem is! The great cities attract the indigenous masses of all the states of West Africa. People and races mingle and interpenetrate. A few thousand Europeans find themselves facing millions of indigenous people of whom more than half are Muslims. It is enough to raise the issue to understand how important it will be to find a solution.

And once again, the task of Catholic Action, particularly the JOC and JOCF, seems to me to be immense and irreplaceable.

These thousands of young people, attracted by the city and by industrial work, find themselves facing life problems that are unsolvable without apostolic action, organised by young people with a spirit and methods for missionary achievements. What influence and prestige could such a movement acquire?

Certainly, developing formation and perseverance of the leaders is difficult among such changeable young people. However, how necessary and ineluctable for effective long term action.

Here too, the coordination of efforts in view of a powerful action requires understanding and unity among the various bishops and the various religious superiors; but how such understanding and coordination would strengthen the prestige and influence of the Church at one of its strategic points which will be decisive in its penetration to the depths of the African continent.



1On the plane from Brussels to Paris there was a jocist air hostess from the JOC section at Ste Marie at Schaerbeek. I was very proud that the JOC had penetrated the aviation industry. She should be interviewed for “Joie et Travail.”

2Population of 150,000 inhabitants, mostly Arabs, Jews and a few Europeans.

I met two Belgian priests there: Fr. Charlier, seminary professor from the Charleroi region and Fr Callewaert, a former curate who formed Hillaire Willot et Paemans in Brussels. He is parish priest around 100km from here.

3 This city will soon host a million workers. Huge factories, parks, gardens, banks, big shops and all around incredible poverty among the indigenous people. Terrible.

4At the mass I was served by a little black guy, barefoot, wearing a red soutane and with a ring on his finger! Deep piety! After lunch they gave me a bit of quinine.

5Gorée Island about half an hour by boat from the city, famous for the slave trade, a very movemented history: taken and re-taken by the Portuguese, the English, the French, etc. It was a great slave market. There are still slaves! A very picturesque people: sailors, soldiers, children, women with their child on their backs, their possessions on their heads, their multicoloured dresses as well as Europeans in shorts!

6 On 1 October, Fr Cardijn wrote to us from Rio de Janeiro. This morning, we left very late at 2.45a.m. from the Dakar air field. I arrived in Recife at nearly 11a.m., i.e. after nearly seven hours of flight. There, we had a short stop for formalities before another seven hour flight to Rio. And finally I am here at the Cardinal’s palace!


Joseph Cardijn, Premières impressions d’une randonnée mondiale, in Notes de Pastorale Jociste, 1948-49, T. XIV p. 36-42.