8. Suenens vs Cardijn

Lay people in the frontlines

A book at last

‘I think I was too optimistic regarding the obtaining of the imprimatur,’ Marguerite Fiévez wrote on 13 February 1963 to Jean-Pierre Delarge, the manager of Editions Universitaires, with whom Cardijn had just signed a contract to publish Laïcs en premières lignes.

‘Msgr Cardijn thinks it may be better to request the imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Paris, and not derogate from the usual rule that the process should take place in the diocese where a book is published.’[517] It was the first sign that trouble was brewing in his home archdiocese over the publication of a book he had been preparing since 1958.

Surprisingly, it was the first book Cardijn had written, except for the Manuel de la JOC. Although the English YCW had produced two short compilations of speeches and articles – The Church and the young worker published in 1948 [518] and Challenge to Action in 1955,[519] nothing equivalent existed in French. But the experience of the 1957 World Congress on Lay Apostolate had revealed an urgent need for a more systematic, theological presentation of Cardijn’s thought and methods.

Short of time, Cardijn requested Fiévez to prepare a selection of articles for a broadly targeted book on lay apostolate.[520] In parallel, Cardijn began discussions with French publisher, Jean-Pierre Dumée-Dubois, who was launching a new series entitled Chrétienté nouvelle to be published by Editions Universitaires under Delarge’s direction.

Ironically, it was the same Franco-Belgian company that, unbeknown to Cardijn, was on the verge of publishing Comblin’s controversial Echec de l’Action catholique?.

However, with Cardijn’s constant travels, his involvement in the Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate as well as Fiévez’s own roles in the COPECIAL and ICO Conference, the draft remained incomplete until 1962. By this time, the advent of Vatican II had caused Cardijn to switch his target audience to ‘the Council Fathers and their advisers in Rome (3,000) as well as priests and religious interested in the point of the Council: the lay apostolate.’[521]

By early 1962, Delarge was pressing for the manuscript, which was finally completed in September, too late for the First Session, although Cardijn still hoped for release by year’s end. Hence, he took the manuscript with him to Rome in November 1962, hoping to obtain a preface from Montini to whom he sent the manuscript although there is no indication of any reply.

No doubt intending to pre-empt any difficulties, he delivered a copy to Secretary of State Dell’Acqua, and another to Garrone, whom he was unable to meet. After apparently hesitating, Cardijn gave a copy of the manuscript to Suenens during a meeting that, he thought, went ‘very well.’[522] Meanwhile, he sent copies to several close collaborators, who responded encouragingly.

After his emotional Rome meeting with Camara, Tavora and Larrain, the outlook appeared bright. Two months later, in February 1963, he received his nomination to the conciliar Lay Apostolate Commission. It was around this time – was there a connection? – that he became aware that Malines wanted changes to his manuscript.

Laïcs en premières lignes – Lay people in the front line

Originally entitled ‘L’apostolat des laïcs à la dimension du monde’ (The lay apostolate on world scale), the final title, ‘Laïcs en premières lignes,’ borrowed from Pius XII’s famous 1942 phrase: ‘[T]he faithful, and more precisely the laity, are in the front line of the life of the Church; through them the Church is the animating principle of human society.’[523]

Not long at 75,000 words, the manuscript provided a tour de force of Cardijn’s thinking on lay apostolate and Catholic Action, including several more theoretical or theological articles from the 1930s and 1950s, updated with the addition of biblical references plus several new chapters. Revisiting his classical themes, including the Three Truths dialectic, the see-judge-act, serve-educate-represent, and life-milieu-mass, it offered a compelling synthesis of Cardijn’s theology, philosophy and methodology – the first time he had attempted such a comprehensive task.

A new triptych: Lay apostolate, Christian dialectic and mission

Organised in the form of a triptych – lay apostolate, Christian dialectic, and mission, Cardijn’s Foreword, somewhat paradoxically entitled ‘The end of the road,’ provides a second key to his thinking.[524] Originally drafted in 1958 in response to a paper presented by Emilio Guano at the Second World Congress on Lay Apostolate, it had never been published.

Significantly, each point of Cardijn’s new triptych rebutted Suenens’ own conception of these issues as well as expounding the merits of his own conception of Specialised Catholic Action. After his previous difficulties, Cardijn must have anticipated some reaction from the cardinal.

Even so, Cardijn continued to insist on ‘the specifically lay apostolate of lay people,’ which he regarded as both ‘absolutely necessary for the future of the Church’ and an increasingly ‘universal’ issue. For Cardijn, the essence of this rested on the fact that each person had ‘a divine destiny and a divine mission, beginning not after death, but from today, in the conditions of their everyday life, where they are the first and immediate apostles of God in their environment and among their comrades.’ This affirmation formed ‘part of the very essence of Christianity’ and applied ‘to the whole conception of the Christian laity.’[525]

The second leg of Cardijn’s new conciliar trilogy recapitulated his ideal-real Three Truths dialectic as the Christian response to the Marxist dialectic.[526]

Finally, he presented his conception of a universal mission and apostolate ‘entrusted to them [by God] from the very moment of the creation and the redemption.’[527] This mission, ‘found its fullest expression in the lay apostolate’ whereby people played their part in continuing God’s creative and redemptive work by building ‘a world according to God’s will, a fraternal humanity where the humble are loved and helped by their brothers,’ and witnessing ‘to the presence and the life of God, for the establishment of this kingdom of peace and glory,’ Cardijn wrote citing Pius XII.[528]

Moreover, it was ‘through lay people that the Church is in the world,’ Cardijn added and as the formal title of Gaudium et Spes would later express it.[529] Hence the urgency for lay people to become ‘conscious of, convinced of, and united for the realisation of this mission.’[530] Such was the path to ‘justice, peace, brotherhood and the glory of God: ‘on earth as it is in heaven’,’ Cardijn continued, again echoing Gratry.[531]

Cardijn’s Review of Life

As Cardijn concluded in his ‘Epilogue,’ Laïcs en premières lignes was fundamentally an attempt to explain the ‘secret’ of his priestly life, which he summarised as ‘the interplay of a divine, irreversible solidarity between priest and laity.’ This in turn formed the foundation of ‘the commitment of thousands… of lay people who unhesitatingly committed their whole lives to the service of Christ.’[532] In this sense, the book constituted an apologia pro sua vita, a review of his own life as a priest, which he structured in see-judge-act format.

See: Part One – Looking back

Thus, Part One was essentially a retrospective, beginning in Chapter 1 with his battle to build and achieve recognition for the JOC, its conception of Catholic Action and lay apostolate, and the eventual breakthrough with Pius XI.

Chapters 2 and 3 entitled ‘The lay apostolate’ and ‘The worker apostolate’ were updated versions of articles published in Notes de Pastorale Jociste in 1935, the year when Pius XI first characterised the JOC as an authentic form of Catholic Action. Here, he updated his terminology, preferring to speak of ‘transformation’ of the world rather than ‘conquest.’ But the essence remained, namely that each lay person had an apostolate proper to them, which was a primary and eternal necessity of the Church, willed by God.

Judge: Part Two – Towards a synthesis of facts, doctrine and experience

Part Two comprised Cardijn’s reflections on the principles and problems governing this field. Thus, the newly written Chapter 4 sought to clarify ‘Distinctions and confusions’ relating to the use of the terms ‘lay apostolate,’ ‘secular,’ etc.

Chapter 5, another new chapter, set out Cardijn’s vision of ‘The earthly mission of man and humanity,’ seeking to reconcile or synthesise man’s temporal and eternal ‘double mission.’ Chapter 6 was an updated version of Cardijn’s landmark speech to the First World Congress on Lay Apostolate in 1951 on ‘The world today and the lay apostolate.’ Chapter 7, ‘Dimensions of the lay apostolate,’ reprised another (roneoed) 1951 article originally entitled ‘The lay apostolate,’ in which he again insisted that every person had a mission sharing in the creation and redemption of the world.

Act: Parts Three and Four: Towards an authentic lay apostolate

Part Three raised the pertinent, almost prophetic question, ‘Will the Church of tomorrow have an authentic lay apostolate?’ In the wake of his struggles over the previous decade, this question was clearly Cardijn’s major preoccupation.

Thus Chapter 8, ‘Priests and laymen in the Church’s mission,’ originally published in 1951, set out Cardijn’s vision of how to develop the lay apostolate within a context of a Church understood as a lay-clerical partnership. Chapter 9, ‘Priests and laymen working as a team,’ further developed this theme.

Finally, Chapter 10 addressed ‘The formation of laymen for their apostolate,’ a theme which would become one of Cardijn’s main contributions to the decree on lay apostolate.

Part Four, entitled ‘Laymen into action,’ contained only a single chapter, ‘The world of the future according to God’s will,’ amounting to an appeal to develop the lay apostolate, understood as building the world in all its aspects: physical, economic and social, cultural, civic and political, moral and ultimately religious.

‘We know that baptism and confirmation confirm on the believer an explicit mission relating to the Kingdom of God,’ Cardijn stated. ‘How then is it there are still so few who are really committed to their own place in the providential plan?’

For Cardijn, the answer lay in his challenge to the Church to go beyond its traditional parish-based structures, beyond the boundaries of the Catholic community and to reach out to all people, Christian or not, to go ‘to the very centre of the masses which do not belong to the Church.’ This was certainly a ‘superhuman task,’ Cardijn recognised, but it was precisely the mission to which Jesus, the Divine Founder, had called his people.[533]

Hence the need for formation, support, and organisation of lay people in self-managed movements. The Church too needed to provide institutional backing by animating, encouraging and breathing life rather than stifling initiative, Cardijn concluded.

An urgent call to publish

Even to those who had known Cardijn for decades, it was a sparkling, inspiring text, as those with whom he shared the roneoed text confirmed. Now assisting Liénart as his conciliar adviser, Palémon Glorieux, recommended its publication ‘without the slightest hesitation,’ calling for it to appear ‘before the Second Session of the Council. [534] Dondeyne agreed, describing it as ‘excellent’ and ‘incontestably deserving publication.’[535]

Larrain’s secretary signalled the ‘great service’ that the book would provide for the drafting work of the LAC,[536] while Brazilian Bishop Eugenio Araujo Sales communicated his ‘complete agreement with your point of view.’[537] French and Belgian JOC chaplains Georges Guérin, Maurice Zinty and Ernest Michel were similarly bullish, with the latter eager for its publication ‘as quickly as possible.’

Garrone was even more exuberant, suggesting as a sub-title ‘The secret of your life.’ ‘I owe everything to the JOC,’ he added, ‘through which the Church has re-presented its eternal message to us in the language of reality.’[538] Cardijn was no less appreciative. ‘You know perhaps better than anyone that I attach so much importance to the Council, above all regarding the lay apostolate,’ he replied on 20 December. ‘The Council could change the face of the earth if the clergy is unanimous and lay people are encouraged!’[539]

Conspicuously, Suenens had not offered any written feedback, although his meeting in Rome with Cardijn gave no hint of difficulty. Thus, Cardijn signed a contract with Editions Universitaires for French and worldwide distribution while Editions Ouvrières, the Belgian Jocist publishing house, prepared a local edition.

Suenens’ shock ‘remarks’

The first sign that something was amiss came in Fiévez’s letter to Delarge asking him to consider obtaining an imprimatur in Paris.[540] There is no record of Delarge’s reply to this suggestion, which was not implemented. But, obviously, Cardijn knew something was afoot.

Meanwhile, composition of the book was already under way while Delarge prepared an advertising campaign, including an interview with French Catholic television and a corresponding vinyl record. First proofs were out by early March. A month later, Delarge was pressing for return of the corrections.

The shock arrived on 15 March, not in a letter from Suenens, but in a three-paragraph series of ‘Remarks by His Eminence,’ circuitously transmitted to Cardijn by the diocesan censor, Msgr Ceuppens, via Cardijn’s assistant chaplain, Marcel Uylenbroeck. According to Fiévez, Ceuppens felt that Cardijn would be more disposed to accept the proposed changes from Uylenbroeck. But ‘above all, it would not implicate’ (mettre en cause) Suenens.[541]

‘Regarding the terminology used,’ the note read, ‘the Council, the bishops, the diocesan authorities consider that General Catholic Action is equally valid as Specialised Catholic Action and do not accept that it be said that CA is essentially specialised CA.’[542] This was an extraordinary claim considering that discussion on this issue had not gone beyond the Coordinating Commission of the Council of which Liénart was also a member.

The second point read:

Instead of saying that the proper role of the lay person is formally the christianisation of the temporal, he (His Eminence) affirms that the proper and formal role of the lay person is double: on one hand, it belongs to the [lay person] to take an active part in the work of evangelisation, by preparing, supporting and prolonging sacerdotal action; on the other hand, it belongs properly – but under his or her exclusive responsibility here – to christianise the temporal. [543]

Again, it was the old spiritual-temporal dualism that Cardijn rejected. This reduced ‘the proper role of the laity’ to a secondary position, while prioritising the role of the laity in ‘prolonging sacerdotal action’ in his view. Moreover, it seemed to imply that the work of evangelisation belonged primarily to the latter category, a very clerical conception.

Suenens’ third point added that rather than evangelising action passing first through temporal action, there was ‘a connection and an independent relation between the two actions.’ Citing the cardinal’s own comments in L’Eglise en état de mission, the statement confirmed once again that Suenens still regarded the Cardijn method as ‘humanising before christianising,’ the longstanding critique of Montuclard’s Jeunesse d’Eglise movement.


According to an amazingly restrained but personal note added to Cardijn’s archives by Fiévez, Cardijn ‘was very sharply surprised and saddened, both by the cardinal’s desire for changes which affected his [Cardijn’s] own conception of Catholic Action, as well as by the procedure used, which appeared to deflect responsibility.’[544] However, since he was leaving the same day for Germany, Cardijn decided not ‘to act without reflecting.’

However, the first two points on a contemporaneous handwritten note illustrated the depth of his shock:

1) Suffering: First time

2) The apostolate of my whole life.[545]

As Fiévez explained, again with great understatement, this was the first time in his life that Cardijn found himself ‘in complete disagreement’ with his hierarchical superiors on ‘the essentials of his thought.’ In effect, Suenens was asking him ‘to deny something that he had always affirmed and in which he had been unconditionally supported by the popes and numerous bishops and theologians.’ He thus ‘did not see any possibility of changing anything essential in his text.’

Yet even Cardijn’s personal note failed to express the extent of ‘the turmoil that took hold of him,’ Fiévez added in her note, clearly appalled by Suenens’ behaviour. According to a later note by Cardijn, it was a ‘very painful trip’ despite ‘the welcome received, the enthusiasm stirred up’ by a German JOC experiencing its own golden age. Indeed, the contrast between his experience with Suenens and ‘the declaration of the [German] bishops’ simply rendered ‘my personal suffering even more intense.’[546]

‘I spent several sleepless nights,’ Cardijn’s note concluded. Back in Brussels, he immediately wrote to Suenens on 2 April seeking a meeting. Expressing his dismay over the ‘misunderstanding’ caused by his manuscript, he noted that he had ‘hoped for an imprimatur from Your Eminence ‘ex toto corde’, signalling our complete agreement on the fundamentals and passing over reconcilable nuances.’[547]

‘The principle that has guided my whole life and will remain until the end: faithful and complete submission to Authority,’ Cardijn wrote, expressing his hope that an audience would ‘clear up the misunderstandings and avoid unfortunate consequences.’ In an accompanying note, he highlighted the fact that most articles had been previously published and translated into different languages. Although Cardijn was too diplomatic to say it, this meant that the articles had necessarily previously received an imprimatur according to prevailing Church practice.

Secondly, he cited the positive feedback he had received from bishops and theologians who ‘all pressed me to publish’ the book. Thirdly, he noted that a contract had already been signed with the publisher involving financial consequences. Nor did Cardijn fail to mention the plans for a television interview and the record.

‘Won’t significant modifications have consequences regarding the commitments made?’ Cardijn asked. ‘Above all, won’t they cause regrettable commentary that will do more harm than good and out of all proportion to the nuances of the proposed corrections?’

‘The publishers are seeking urgent clarification,’ he concluded.

Evangelising action

Meanwhile, ever mindful of his ‘complete submission to authority’ and retaining his ‘confidence’ in a positive outcome, Cardijn set out to respond to Suenens’ critique and to formulate several changes and additions to the text in the hope of satisfying the demands of Ceuppens and Suenens.

He regretted but accepted the suppression of several short passages relating to Catholic Action. Importantly, he seemed to feel that the essentials of his thought remained clearly expressed elsewhere. Significantly, although he does not mention it specifically, there were no demands to include passages that contradicted his thought.

Hence, he remained free to compose his own clarifying texts, although in a sign of his continuing turmoil, he asked himself whether it would be better to delay the book until after the Council and rewrite it completely, or whether a new preface would suffice to overcome any ‘untoward interpretations.’ Ultimately, he chose to write several new paragraphs that he hoped would resolve the issue.

As he pointed out in another private note, his overriding concern was always ‘to bring religion back into life, the milieux and problems of life.’ People’s whole life ‘must become an apostolate’ and therefore needed to be united ‘to Christ and his Church.’

‘There can be no question of humanising before christianising, nor of first changing temporal structures, but only of transforming souls,’ Cardijn added, noting that many sections of the book insisted on this point.[548] And he added more in another particularly significant paragraph in which he now began to define the work of the JOC as ‘evangelising action’:

It is not a matter of temporal action but of spiritual evangelising action in life, the milieux of life and the issues that it raises. This action requires union with the Hierarchy and the priesthood whose action it extends. This concern for the apostolate in the life of lay people does not exclude other concerns, quite the contrary. A concrete book on the JOC would show it very clearly. The number of priestly, religious (even contemplative) and missionary vocations is an eloquent testimony to this.[549]

Although JOC chaplains, particularly from France, had often used the word ‘evangelisation’ in relation to the JOC, Cardijn had generally avoided the term – as he did with most other technical or theological terms. Now, however, he was confronted with accusations that the JOC was failing in its duty to evangelise.

Thus, just as forty years earlier Cardijn had begun to articulate the movement’s work in terms of Catholic Action in response to early critiques of the JOC, he now began to explain it in terms of evangelisation, as illustrated by several new sentences that eventually appeared in the book:

The lay apostolate is not primarily a temporal action; it is essentially an evangelising action working through the environments and problems of life. This evangelising action must be united with the hierarchy and the priesthood, whose own form of apostolate it prepares and continues.[550]

Although Cardijn himself would not live long enough to witness the fruits of this new formulation, it would have a great impact five years later when the Latin American bishops meeting in Medellin, Colombia in 1968 adopted the Jocist method as the basis of their proposed ‘new evangelisation.’ But none of this was foreseeable as Cardijn prepared to meet Suenens.


The audience took place on 8 April and once again it was Fiévez who movingly recorded its impact on Cardijn in her own notes: ‘Cardijn travelled to Malines… where he was faced [heurté] once again by the apparently very cordial and fraternal welcome offered to him by the cardinal, who took him in his arms, denying that there was ‘anything’ between them.’

Cardijn’s sense of betrayal was palpable. So too was the contrast between Suenens’ backroom modus operandi and that of his predecessor, Cardinal Mercier, who had always had the merit of being upfront. While there appears to be no written record of the meeting between the two men, the outcome was swift. The next day, 9 April 1963, the vicar general, Msgr P. Theeuws, gave his imprimatur, accepting the modifications that Cardijn had made to his text.

Did Suenens blink? Fiévez and Meert certainly thought so, writing in their biography of Cardijn that he ‘stood firm’ despite the pressures that were placed on him ‘to change his emphasis.’[551] Moreover, while remaining rigidly faithful to his vow of obedience, Cardijn had forced Suenens to face up to his own responsibilities.

The whole episode left a bitter taste in the mouths of Fiévez and other close collaborators of Cardijn who were familiar with what had occurred.[552]

Cardijn was deeply affected, even though he sought to avoid embarrassing Suenens, going as far as asking Fiévez to recover the initial proofs from the typesetter to ensure that these were not circulated.[553] All things considered, Cardijn’s attitude demonstrated almost heroic forbearance.


This finally cleared the way for publication with printing completed on 20 May and the book on sale by June. By the end of the year, a second French edition was out and six contracts had been signed for translation into English, German, Dutch, Italian, Catalan and Spanish, with a Portuguese translation to come later.

Given the earlier pressures on Cardijn, it is significant that the Dutch-language edition (imprimatur 6 March 1964, again by Theeuws) included a copy of the newly elected Pope Paul VI’s autograph letter addressed ‘to our dear son Joseph Cardijn’ dated 4 November 1963 in lieu of a preface.[554]

Similarly, the German edition published in early 1964 opened with a preface by Julius Angerhausen, who had just become bishop of Essen, and was himself a former national JOC chaplain. In an indication that Angerhausen was aware of the problems with Suenens, he recalled the difficulties with Church authorities that Cardijn had experienced over many years in his bid to give more responsibility to lay people.[555]

But the fact that several young people formed in Cardijn’s movement became official auditors at the Council was impressive evidence of the effectiveness of his methods. Finally, Angerhausen exhorted readers to ‘read these pages carefully’ and to ‘note what is written between the lines.’

The Spanish edition appeared in 1965, published in Barcelona with the imprimatur of Archbishop Gregorio Modrego y Casaus, perhaps to avoid potential problems in Madrid under the conservative Archbishop Casimiro Morcillo Gonzalez.

Meanwhile, the English edition Laymen into Action was published in mid-1964 by Geoffrey Chapman with a preface by the translator, Edward Mitchinson, an English YCW chaplain, who noted that Cardijn’s achievements in the lay apostolate field made him ‘a precursor of Pope John’s aggiornamento.’[556]

‘It is not difficult to see his influence on all the most profound stirrings in the Church of the last forty years, and in the changes which Vatican II is bringing about,’ Mitchinson observed. Moreover, ‘a course of Cardijn’s dialectic would be the best remedy for the fears and hesitations with which some of the Council’s changes have been received.’

Good and desirable change was ‘the fruit of a dialectic between reality and faith, between how things really are and how God wants them to be,’ he continued. Therefore, the Church’s life needed to be ‘a continued incarnation, a Christian transformation of reality, a Christian revolution of hearts and lives’ as proposed by Pope John, in Mater et Magistra,’ he stressed.[557]

Seven languages

By Cardijn’s death in 1967, nearly 5000 French-language copies had been sold mainly in France and Belgium, which was significant although well below Delarge’s expectations. The English edition was more successful with nearly 8000 sold by 1968, mostly in the USA. For the German edition, the figure was 5000, for Italian 1800, Dutch 1800, Spanish 1700, and Catalan 600 with no figures available at that time for Portuguese, most of which sales likely occurred during the Council.

With respect to Vatican II, however, the most important matter was that Cardijn’s book reached its target, namely the Council Fathers and periti. Thus Cardijn, Fiévez and the JOCI sent copies to nearly thirty cardinals plus another one hundred bishops, including all the Belgians, as well as half a dozen nuncios and apostolic delegates. These periti included Congar, Philips, Haubtmann, Dondeyne, Houtart as well as Chenu, whose only official role was as adviser to Bishop Claude Rolland of Antsirabé, Madagascar.[558]

LAC periti included Bonnet, Rodhain, Bonet, Klostermann, the German Jesuit Johannes Hirschmann, as well as Pavan and Tucci, who would soon propose a new plan of work for the schema on lay apostolate that corresponded in many respects to Cardijn’s own desires. Lay leaders featured prominently on the list, including philosopher Jean Guitton, the Pax Romana leaders, Veronese, Sugranyes de Franch and de Habicht, the ex-Jocist Auguste Vanistendael, as well as Henri Rollet, all future lay auditors.

In France, Guérin ensured that key personalities received a copy. When he enquired into the apparent delay in publication, Fiévez confidentially informed him of the ‘difficult palabres’ with Malines in relation to the imprimatur.[559] Thus alerted, Guérin ‘spoke to several bishops.’[560] Immediately, he launched a personal campaign to distribute the book to the French bishops and their advisers. Similar campaigns in other countries enabled the book to rapidly reach its target audience.

Despite Cardijn’s own discretion concerning his dispute with Suenens, Fiévez felt much less compunction about divulging the events, at least among Cardijn’s closest collaborators. As Angerhausen’s preface to the German edition showed, word was clearly spreading. Whatever Suenens’ motives had been, his campaign now risked backfiring.



The enthusiastic, often very personal replies that Cardijn received from more than a dozen cardinals, over twenty bishops and a range of theologians and officials, offer some insight in the impact of the book. Several directly acknowledged its importance for the ongoing work of the Council.

From the Vatican, Pizzardo offered his congratulations while Tisserant acknowledged that no-one was more qualified than Cardijn to speak on laity. Other cardinals to personally reply included Montini, Frings, König, Richaud and Lefebvre (France), Silva Henriquez (Santiago), McIntyre (Los Angeles), Doi (Tokyo) and Gracias (Bombay).

Among the first to write on 3 June 1963, the day of John XXIII’s death, was Brussels Dean L. Boone, who expressed the prophetic desire: ‘May the successor of Pope John XXIII, a Cardinal Montini help you, help us, in the promotion of the laity.’ Meanwhile, on 19 June, Suenens’ secretary replied to Cardijn that the cardinal, who was about to leave for the conclave, had read ‘important passages’ of Cardijn’s book and proposed to reply further later, although there is no indication that he did.

Confirming the gap between Suenens and his Belgian episcopal brothers, Charue wrote that it was ‘good to have your testimony in black and white’ for Council deliberations. He added that ‘we have drafted, I think, a good doctrinal text on the subject’ for the schema of Lumen Gentium, but that Cardijn’s book would be important for ‘the practical implementation of this apostolate,’ i.e. in the draft schema on laity.[561]

Similarly, Van Zuylen from Liège noted that the book was ‘doubly opportune for the Council’ while his auxiliary, Joseph Heuschen, signalled the book’s importance in highlighting ‘the baptismal mission’ of each person.[562]

The French commitment

Characterising Cardijn’s book as of ‘very great weight,’ Palémon Glorieux underlined its importance with respect to the ‘baptismal character’ of the lay apostolate. This was just one of a series of warm responses from French bishops, including Maziers, Théas, Rougé and Puech, who remembered Cardijn’s famous speech at the national seminary of Issy les Moulineaux in 1929.

Recalling ‘with emotion’ the ‘apostolic earthquake’ Cardijn had caused him at their first meeting in 1928, Chenu expressed his ‘communion of thought’ and his hope that the book would shed a ‘decisive light’ on ‘the Church-in-Council.’[563] Congar replied that Cardijn had guessed correctly that ‘lay people have a key part in my faith and my love.’[564]

In an extensive reply, Guerry testified to the profound influence Cardijn continued to exercise among French bishops and theologians. ‘Since the prophetic insight that the Holy Spirit caused to shine in your soul some fifty years ago,’ he wrote, ‘you have been able to verify by your long experience the urgent and profound needs to which it responds.’[565]

Insisting on the theological importance of Cardijn’s work, Guerry noted that ‘you have posed to the Church and the world an issue… that has provoked much fruitful research, as well as bringing about deep transformations in the Church, even in its structures, regarding its mission in the midst of the world.’

Moreover, adopting Cardijjn’s own Gratry-inspired terminology, Guerry explicitly endorsed his conception of lay apostolate: ‘You have caused the mission of lay people in the Church and the world to be discovered beginning from their double temporal and supernatural destiny, from the Creation and the Redemption.’[566] This too was a clear rejection of the Suenens line.

In addition, the book had arrived at ‘the precise moment when the Council will address the problem of the laity,’ Guerry noted. ‘I have no doubt that it will exercise its influence. Believe me that we will do everything in our power that this be so,’ he concluded.[567] Encouraged by this, Cardijn took the opportunity to send him the JOCI reflections on lay apostolate prompting the latter to respond that he was in ‘complete communion of thought.’ [568]

‘We, the French bishops,’ Guerry continued, ‘are deeply committed to the need to illuminate the apostolate of lay people in general and Specialised Catholic Action in particular at this time of great problems of underdevelopment and evangelisation of the worker world in every country and at international level.’

Without mentioning Suenens, Guerry warned that ‘at present there is a whole current of opposition to Catholic Action and perhaps Specialised Catholic Action in particular.’ Citing an article in the Dominican journal Lumière et vie, he noted that the editors seemed ‘to imagine that since Pius XI we have only understood the lay apostolate as an extension and complement of the sacerdotal apostolate.’ Hence, the importance of Cardijn’s affirmation of the human as well as the baptismal and confirmational basis of mission.

Worldwide welcome

From Germany, Hengsbach expressed the hope that John XXIII’s death would not put a brake on ‘efforts to give the right shape to the lay apostolate in the modern world.’[569] Jaeger and Angerhausen were both convinced of the book’s importance for Council deliberations. From Austria, König congratulated Cardijn on a book ‘long awaited by his friends’ and looked forward to the German edition, while Klostermann enthusiastically described it as ‘beautiful.’ Even the Italian Castellano characterised it as ‘very interesting.’

Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV looked forward to ‘increasingly happy results.’ From East Asia, Cardinal Doi called for ‘broad circulation.’ Similarly, Bishop Cheng of Taipei noted the book’s importance in having ‘described so well the need to situate the Church in its place in the midst of the world and within the reach of all,’ which would be achieved by ‘the participation of the laity in the mission of the Church.’[570]

Writing from Dakar, Senegal, the Internuncio, Jean-Marie Maury expressed the hope that ‘all Council Fathers read these pages,’[571] while US labour priest, Msgr George Higgins, described the book as ‘extremely well done.’[572]

In a clear confirmation that Cardijn had succeeded in his objective, CELAM secretary-general Msgr Julian Mendoza Guerrero indicated that the book would ‘enable us to draw orientations and lines of conduct for our own apostolate,’ the fruit of which would become clear at the CELAM meeting in Medellin in 1968.[573]

A manual for the Council

This was an extremely positive response. Apart from Suenens, the Belgian episcopate was favourable to Cardijn. Even more importantly, so too were the French and German bishops as well as many leading bishops on every continent.

The English, German and Dutch editions of Laïcs en premières lignes appeared before the vital Third Session in 1964, which adopted Lumen Gentium, and discussed the schemas on lay apostolate and Gaudium et Spes, even if the Spanish and other editions were only available for the last session in 1965.

With Cardijn’s manual for the Council, the bishops now had the best tool imaginable for understanding the Jocist conception of lay apostolate.

John XXIII to Paul VI

Amid all this came the death of John XXIII. Cardijn certainly felt the loss, recalling how freely John had spoken of a new Pentecost and his commitment to dialogue, to ‘person to person contact, simple, open, straight, whatever our opinion, ideology or the religion of our interlocutor.’[574]

Yet, he must have wondered how the pope, who had promised to support the JOC even more ardently than Pius XI and Pius XII, had become so close to his nemesis, Suenens. How did this happen? Was John XXIII aware of Suenens’ attitude? Certainly not from Cardijn, who had not met with John XXIII in private audience since Suenens’ nomination as archbishop of Malines-Brussels.

However, it is possible, perhaps likely, that Camara backgrounded the pope during the First Session of the Council on the context of Cardijn’s nomination to the LAC. Indeed, Camara proposed that John XXIII make Cardijn a cardinal – ‘not for you, but as a sign for the working class,’ a promotion, as Camara well knew, that would have removed Cardijn from under Suenens’ authority and placed him on equal footing.[575] But John’s health was failing and he did not hold another consistory.

Nevertheless, as Camara informed Cardijn in a 12 July 1963 letter, he planned to take up the matter once more with the newly elected Paul VI.[576] Indeed, with Montini as pontiff, many things would change for the founder of the JOC.


Footnotes to be added