In this remarkable book, Stefan Gigacz, has shone new light on the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), revealing how significant was the influence of Canon (later Cardinal) Joseph Cardijn in the Church’s engagement with contemporary social, cultural and economic realities.

For an outstanding exemplar of Cardijn’s work and aspirations, one need look no further than Pope Francis himself in his efforts to reshape the Church into a community of believers more fully committed to its mission which includes social transformation so that everyone can live with dignity and respect.

The influence of Cardijn on Pope Francis is striking. The Pope has strongly endorsed the ‘see, judge, act’ process as an inductive process of dialogue and enquiry about social and living conditions, exploring the meaning of these situations in the light of the Gospel, and determining action to improve human and planetary wellbeing.

As Cardinal Bergoglio, he supervised the writing of The Aparecida Document in 2007, summarising the results of the ten-yearly meeting of the Latin American bishops’ conferences in Aparecida (Brazil). It was explicitly based on Cardijn’s inductive ‘see, judge, act’ process, which was extensively used in networks through Latin America, and was adopted by the Latin American bishops’ conferences from their first assembly at Medellin in Colombia in 1968. This method is also apparent in Pope Francis’s own documents and encyclicals, particularly Laudato Si’.

Pope Francis has garnered much of Cardijn’s message, including into his promotion of ‘synodality’ in the Church: extending listening and dialogue at all levels; ‘walking together’ humbly and in solidarity with the poor and distressed, with the marginalised and oppressed; encouraging new structures of participation by lay people in the Church, with a huge focus on lay action for social transformation, in collaboration with all people of good will who seek human wellbeing; and insistence on simple living, along with his rejection of clericalism and elitism in the Church.

Francis repeatedly uses favourite words of Cardijn: consciousness, responsibility, dialogue, the poor and exploited, participation, collaboration. He has also strongly integrated the secular and sacred, while recognising the power of evil in the world and the duty of the all people of good will to confront it.

Cardijn’s life and ideas

Alarmed about the exploitation of young workers and their alienation from the Church, Cardijn founded the Young Christian Workers Movement (YCW), Jeunesse ouvrière chrétienne (JOC) in French, in the early 1920s in Belgium. Within four decades, it had tens of thousands of young activists throughout the world, and Cardijn’s ideas and hopes were embraced in key documents of Vatican II, especially The Church in the World Today and The Decree on the Laity.

Astonishingly, Cardijn’s influence on the Vatican Council has been largely overlooked in the literature, partly because he was only made a bishop and cardinal in 1964 and so was only then able to take part in the formal Council debates. However he had played a major role in earlier drafts of the documents about the role of the laity. Moreover some hundreds of the bishops, as well as many of the expert advisors, had been involved in the YCW movements and strongly supported Cardijn’s thought and methods during the Council debates.

The Leaven in the Council: Joseph Cardijn and the Jocist Network at Vatican II remedies this obfuscation of Cardijn’s influence. Cardijn’s genius was not just in adapting similar methods used by others before him, but in making his ‘see, judge, act’ a method that even poorly educated factory boys and girls could use, starting from their experience, sharing and discussing this in small groups meeting regularly, then reflecting together on a relevant passage from the Gospels, but not stopping there: members of the group would decide on some action to change things for the better, in a continuing process of action/reflection. Cardijn saw the role of the priest in YCW groups being not as director but as animator, educator, guide and counsellor, encouraging lay people to make their own conscience decisions in their discernment and actions.

This ‘see, judge, act’ process encouraged young people to raise their awareness and social consciousness, to enquire about and research situations, to learn the skills needed to speak up and be heard, to master methods of organisation in unions and assemblies, and very importantly to act on their own conscience decisions and initiative, not as agents of the clergy. In short, it was a method of personal and group empowerment that was a formation for one’s entire life.

Based on extensive research and interviews, Gigacz not only explores Cardijn’s personal journey and battles with opponents, but also the origins of his thinking about the Christian task in social transformation from his precursors in the post-Napoleonic period.

Gigacz traces the developments of thinking from Félicité de Lamennais in the early nineteenth century, Frederic Ozanam (founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society but also a prominent academic, writer and social activist) and Lacordaire, followed at the turn of the century by Le Sillon (The Furrow) of Marc Sangnier, who enthused thousands of Catholic activists working for reconciliation with democratic ideals and participation. The Sillonists emphasised the critical role of Catholic lay people acting on their own initiative to promote social wellbeing. Alas, in 1910 Pope Pius X condemned the Sillon, on the grounds that it was trying to escape Church authority.

Cardijn’s movement also faced enemies, and was saved from condemnation in 1925 by the personal patronage of Pius XI who recognised that the YCW successfully integrated faith commitment with autonomous social action.

Cardijn insisted that lay people were called to fulfil the divine plan in the work of Creation and Redemption, thereby foreshadowing the Kingdom of God. He disagreed vehemently with the contemporary split between the secular and the spiritual, as if they were entirely separate, and insisted that God’s Creation and Redemption were at once both secular and spiritual.

Networks of bishops, priests, theologians and lay YCW associates deepened their thinking about its significance for the wider Church. Cardijn’s allies included many of the key architects of Vatican II: MD Chenu, de Lubac, Pietro Pavan, Yves Congar, Helder Camara (Brazil), Maurice Roy (Canada), Denis Hurley (Durban), Gerard Philips (Belgium), Louis-Joseph Lebret, Pierre Haubtmann (France), Manuel Larrain (Chile) and many others. The two World Congresses on Lay Apostolate in 1951 (Rome) and 1957 (Manila) involved debate about the relation of YCW networks to earlier forms of Catholic Action and charitable organisations directly accountable to the bishops, anticipating debates in the Council.

Cardijn enjoyed good relations with all the Popes since Pius XI and particularly John XXIII and Paul VI. Cardijn suggested to Pope John that he might issue a new encyclical on the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, and John asked him to make a proposal. Cardijn sent him a 20-page document on the Church and the world of work. The writing team that prepared the encyclical, Mater et Magistra (1961), adopted the ‘see, judge, act’ structure itself and recommended it as a process. Cardijn’s key words of ‘conscience/consciousness’ and ‘responsibility’ are used repeatedly through the document. Cardijn’s ideas were now incorporated into this major Church encyclical.

Gigacz forensically examines Cardijn’s involvement in the work of the Council’s Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate, and despite then being 78 years old, he drafted 17 papers on the lay apostolate and the YCW method. Cardijn reiterated his ideas about the essential mission of lay people being in the task of social transformation, a mission flowing from their baptism and confirmation, continuing the work of the Creation and Redemption in pursuit of universal human wellbeing. However he insisted that people need formation for this, with both religious knowledge as well as knowledge of human life and of the world. The mission was to serve all people, regardless of religion, race or nationality.

This book is a work of immense, painstaking scholarship, highlighting the continued and even growing importance of Cardijn’s contribution to the Church in how to serve the world in its hopes and fears, and how to foster the full engagement of lay people in their Christian mission of social transformation.

Bruce Duncan CssR.