Young domestic workers at Vatican II

Young domestic workers at Vatican II? Unless they were serving any of the 2500 Council Fathers and 500-odd periti and other officials, there were certainly no young domestic workers there. 

Yet in a powerful indication of how Cardijn viewed the priorities for the Council, he fought hard to get the Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate to address their plight.
Actually, Cardijn had a lifelong concern over the exploitation of domestic workers, perhaps inspired by the fact that his own mother, Louise Van Dalen, had been one herself.

Moreover, one of his earliest research papers, L’ouvrière isolée, published in 1913, analysed their situation in detail. And he was convinced the Church had a responsibility to respond, noting that the 1909 Belgian Catholic Congress of Malines had itself called for action on the issue.

Fifty years later in 1961, the YCW which now existed in 90 countries, was developing action to educate and defend the rights of those young workers, particularly in the Third World as it was then becoming known.

Cardijn’s frustration

But as a member of the conciliar Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate (PCLA) to which he had been appointed by Pope John XXIII in August 1960, Cardijn quickly found himself frustrated by its approach.

In fact, the Commission’s method of work had been determined even before its first meeting in November 1960, with its members allocated to three subcommission, each with a particular area to address:

a) Evangelisation

b) Charitable action

c) Social action.

Yet, for Cardijn, who found himself allocated to the subcommission on Evangelisation, which focused on spiritual matters, the lives of people could not be split up in this way.

In effect, it was the same battle that he had faced ten years earlier regarding the organisation and agenda of the First World Congress on Lay Apostolate in 1951, which had begun with a very theoretical framework far removed from the daily lives of ordinary lay people.

As we have seen previously, Cardijn and his allies were successful in transforming the agenda of that Congress into a see-judge-act based on his famous keynote address “The world today and the lay apostolate.”

Starting from the reality of people’s lives

Now, in a note entitled simply “The lay apostolate” and dated 30 October 1960, Cardijn took up the same battle again.

All lay people face the same essential and primordial problems, which are inherent in their personhood and in their lay life,” Cardijn’s note began (his emphasis).

“From time to time, it is necessary to list them down again,” he continued. “Evidently, since we are making an analysis, we are forced in our presentation to distinguish these problems one by one. This is also so when we wish to begin to analyse solutions and institutions.

“However, in the reality of our existence, these problems – like the solutions and institutions that respond to them – are nearly always united and inseparable,” he explained.

And he spelt out the various levels that these problems encompassed: Personal, physical, family, community, culture, professional life, civic life at national and international levels.

Unlike the World Congress on Lay Apostolate, however, the PCLA was an exclusively clerical body. Even though there were a significant number of former JOC and Specialised Catholic Action chaplains among its membership, Cardijn’s proposal clearly made little headway.

Second attempt: The International YCW

However, he did not give up. In March 1961, with another note entitled “The International YCW,” he sought again to highlight and emphasise the importance of beginning with the lives and problems of young workers.

“In each parish, in each diocese, in the whole Church, in the whole world, hundreds, thousands of young people each year enter into the life and milieu of work,” Cardijn wrote this time. “They find themselves faced with the problems, dangers, influences, institutions to which it is impossible to face up to with a Christian and apostolic attitude if they are abandoned to themselves. This de facto abandonment is a disaster for themselves and the Church.

“They must be strongly united, to seek and find together a personal and collective solution to this grave problem: to be able to help and save the millions of their brothers and sisters at work,” he continued. “Thus, they bring a decisive cooperation for the future of the world of work.”

In support of this approach, he cited Pope Pius XII’s speech to the Second World Congress on Lay Apostolate in 1957 in which the pontiff observed that “twenty million young people each year around the world start work each year.”

And he quoted Pius XII’s speech to the IYCW World Council in Rome in August 1957, which praised the movement’s see-judge-act enquiry method:

Your enquiries have already revealed and continue to show you each day the suffering of the workers of various continents: problems of the sending to work of young people leaving school as well as the perils of prolonged idleness; problems of unemployment, housing, transport, leisure; problems above all of the very conditions of their daily labour, dangers that they face in their health and their morality.

Despite these papal citations Cardijn quoted in support of his position, the PCLA remained immobile in its method.

Third try: The plight of young domestic workers

Still undeterred, Cardijn tried a third time at the PCLA meeting of July 1961, where he delivered an  intervention on the plight of exploited young domestic workers. Although I don’t have the details of his presentation, it’s easy to imagine what he said and the passion with which he would have delivered it, simply because it was the message he had repeated on countless occasions in speeches around the world for more than 30 years.

“Young workers, are not machines, or animals or slaves,” he had stated in his 1935 Three Truths speech. “They are the sons, the collaborators, the heirs of God.”

“The life, the actual conditions of existence of the mass of young workers is in terrible contradiction with their eternal and temporal destiny…” he continued in that iconic talk. “We must have the courage to face this reality, just as we must always face the reality of their eternal and temporal destiny. We must remain with our eyes fixed to heaven and our feet on the earth, as inexorable for the brutality of the conditions of earthly life as we are inexorable for the demands of eternal destiny.”

No doubt, he hoped the shock value of the conditions experienced by young female domestic workers around the world would awaken the collective conscience of the PCLA membership.

And the PCLA was indeed finally moved to action, commissioning a statistical study on the experience of Italian and foreign women carried out by Italian Catholic Action chaplain, Ferdinando Prosperini.

However, as Agnès Desmazières has written, Prosperini’s report apparently focused narrowly on the moral dangers of domestic work for young girls, including the high number of single mothers in their midst and the corresponding risk of falling into the hands of pimps. Worse, according to Desmazières, Prosperini viewed the young girl not only as a victim, but also a potential “seductress” of the honest father of a Catholic family!

Thus, although Cardijn had at least succeeded in placing the plight of young domestic workers on the PCLA agenda, it was far from the outcome he was seeking.


Three weeks later, Cardijn’s hopes were dashed again when the PCLA secretary, Mgr Achille Glorieux, wrote to him sending a report of the July meeting together with a short handwritten note.

“In the last line (of the report),” Glorieux informed Cardijn, “mention is made of your important intervention on domestic workers and the suggestion by Cdl Cento: not to decide anything at the moment regarding the most suitable place to discuss this; however, it will be done.”

Glorieux, who had been a local JOC chaplain in his home diocese of Lille, France, was evidently embarrassed at this outcome, which risked postponing any action indefinitely.

Cardijn too was deeply disappointed with this response. On 8 August 1961, he wrote personally to Cento, enclosing a copy of the letter he had sent a day earlier to Mgr Glorieux on the young domestic workers issue.

“I am taking the liberty of communicating to your Eminence the letter that I have just sent to Monsignor Glorieux concerning my intervention at the last session of our Conciliar Commission, as well as with respect to several other points that concern me,” Cardijn wrote.

“I apologise for disturbing Your Eminence in this way, bringing to your attention concerns of which You are very well aware, but which I again humbly submit to your authorised judgment,” Cardijn emphasised.

Beneath the polite words, his displeasure and his insistence were clear.

I’ll have to go back to the Cardijn Archives in Brussels or the Vatican II Archives in Rome (and improve my Latin) to find out exactly whether the PCLA ever did follow up on the issue of young domestic workers.

Nevertheless, even though Pope John XXIII’s encyclical had recently endorsed the see-judge-act in his May 1961 encyclical, Mater et Magistra, the PCLA never did come around to adopting this framework for its own work which ended in 1962.

Success at Vatican II

Still, Cardijn’s voice was not lost. Other members of the PCLA supported him and once the First Session of Vatican II began to meet in October 1962 they found many more allies among the Council Fathers, over 200 of whom had been jocist and Specialised Catholic Action chaplains in their youth.

The outcome can be seen in the structure of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Today, Gaudium et Spes, the final Vatican II document adopted in December 1965. Beginning with an outline of the situation of people in the world of today, Gaudium et Spes did in fact adopt Cardijn’s see-judge-act approach. Like water wearing down stone, Cardijn had achieved his objective.

And while Gaudium et Spes makes no specific mention of domestic workers, it does make five references to slavery. Somehow, through the advocacy of Cardijn and his allies, the lives and stories of those young domestic workers had impacted on Vatican II.

As the global Church begins its two year path towards the so-called “Synod on Synodality” in 2023 and as the Australian Church prepares for the Second Assembly of its Plenary Council in July 2022, perhaps there are still lessons to be learned from Cardijn’s efforts.


Joseph Cardijn, L’ouvrière isolée (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Joseph Cardijn, The Three Truths (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Joseph Cardijn, Note 1 – The apostolate of lay people (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Joseph Cardijn, Note 5 – The International YCW (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)Joseph Cardijn, The world today and the apostolate of the laity (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)
Stefan Gigacz, Cardijn and the First World Congress on Lay Apostolate 1951 (Cardijn Research)

Stefan Gigacz, The leaven in the Council, Joseph Cardijn and the Jocist Network at Vatican II (Australian Cardijn Institute)

The plight of young domestic workers (Cardijn@Vatican2)

Ferdinando Prosperini, 1930-1975 (ISACEM)Agnès Desmazières, Généalogie d’un « silence » conciliaire, Archives de sciences sociales des religions
Domestic workers issue to be addressed (Cardijn@Vatican2)
Malines Congresses (Wikipedia)


National Museum of American History (Smithsonian)


Stefan Gigacz, Young domestic workers at Vatican II (Cardijn Research)