5. John XXIII’s New Pentecost

Who is Pope John?

“John XXIII, who is he?” exclaimed Cardijn, who had just arrived in Formosa (now Taiwan), when he heard the news that Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the Patriarch of Venice, had been elected on 28 October 1958 as the successor to Pope Pius XII. “Roncalli… never heard of him!”

This was no surprise in fact since prior to his appointment to Venice, Roncalli had spent his life in the Vatican diplomatic service, having taken up his first appointment in Bulgaria in March 1925, the very month that Cardijn first met Pius XI. At this point, Cardijn was also clearly unaware of the new pontiff’s familiarity with the French JOC from his posting as nuncio in Paris between 1944 and 1953.1

The upshot was that, for the first time since 1925, Cardijn did not personally know the reigning pope. This added to his growing fears for the future of the JOC, the lay apostolate and Specialised Catholic Action, particularly after the setbacks of the Second World Congress on Lay Apostolate, which had come on top of the Vatican crackdowns under Pius XII on the “nouvelle théologie” promoted by Congar, Chenu and other theologians close to the JOC and on the worker priest movement, which had also begun among French JOC chaplains.

Characteristically, he determined to make Pope John’s personal acquaintance as rapidly as possible. Together with JOCI president, Romeo Maione, Cardijn therefore travelled to Rome at the end of February 1959 to seek a private audience with the pontiff. Maione later recalled Cardijn’s nerves and fears prior to his memorable first meeting with John XXIII, who calmed him immediately with the words: ‘You are sure an important man, a man must be elected Pope before he is allowed to meet you.’2

‘I have known you for such a long time!’ the pope told an emotional Cardijn. ‘I have been following you and your work. I will support the YCW as Pius XI and Pius XII, indeed even more than they did!’3

More than Pius XII? Perhaps. More than Pius XI? This was a stirring and amazing promise. Nor did the pope fail to mention the Council. ‘He spoke so freely of a new Pentecost!’ Cardijn recalled. ‘I will never forget our first meeting.’4

The pope who ‘knew’ Cardijn

Although this first audience astonished Cardijn, their immediate rapport is less surprising given their one-year age difference and John’s own personal journey. Prior to his first diplomatic appointment, Pius XI had sent Roncalli to France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands to study ‘missionary action,’ the very year in which the Jeunesse Syndicaliste first came to prominence.’5 The young diplomat was thus already familiar with the context of the JOC’s birth.

Twenty years later, Roncalli arrived as nuncio to France, still basking in the golden age of Specialised Catholic Action. Perhaps because of the tensions brewing over the worker priests and the new theology, the French JOC founding chaplain, Georges Guérin and the lay leaders of the movement made a point of regularly meeting with Roncalli, who was duly impressed, noting twice that these meetings were ‘particularly remarkable.’6

It was also while Roncalli was stationed in Paris that Marc Sangnier died on Pentecost Sunday 1950, prompting him to write to the Sillon founder’s widow.

‘The powerful charisma of his words and his spirit enthralled me,’ Roncalli recalled of a 1903 speech by Sangnier that he had heard in Rome. ‘The most vivid memory of my whole youth is of his personality and his political and social activity.’7

Indeed, Roncalli had been heavily involved in Catholic social action from his seminary days in Rome when he first began to work closely with Fr Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi, then national chaplain to the Italian lay organisation, Opera di Congressi.8

Earlier, Leo XIII had sent Radini-Tedeschi and the future Pius XI, Fr Achille Ratti, to France in 1893 to promote his 1892 encyclical Au milieu des sollicitudes, which called on French Catholics to abandon their dreams of restoring the monarchy and ‘rally to the republic.’9

Moreover, as Roncalli recalled in his biography of Radini-Tedeschi, revealingly entitled My bishop, the latter had shared an apartment in Rome with Msgr Jules Tiberghien, another French monsignor from Tourcoing near Lille, who with Msgr Gaston Vanneufville had mediated with the Vatican on behalf of the Sillon.10 These links no doubt help explain how young Fr Roncalli came to hear Marc Sangnier speak during one of the Sillon pilgrimages to Rome in 1903 and 1904.

By now, however, Pius X, who had been elected on 4 August 1903, was pope. Less than a year later on 28 July 1904, in an event that foreshadowed the fate of the Sillon, the new pope suppressed the Opera di Congressi, precisely because of its democratic orientation and its independence from episcopal control. Soon after, in January 1905, the pope appointed Radini-Tedeschi as bishop of Bergamo, where the latter made Roncalli his secretary.

Overcoming any disappointment over the fate of the Opera, Bishop Radini-Tedeschi now made it his mission to transform the industrialising Bergamo Diocese into a powerful and influential centre of Catholic Action. Study circles, trade unions, cooperatives flourished in a diocese that became a model for the whole country and also cultivated strong international links, including with the Sillon.

No doubt it was experiences like these that Cardijn and the pope shared when, as Romeo Maione recalled, “they started to talk like two old timers sitting on a park bench” during their memorable first meeting in early March 1959.11

Did they also discuss Pope John’s headline-making announcement on 25 January 1959 that he was calling an Ecumenical Council (and a Synod for the Archdiocese of Rome)? Cardijn left us no indication on this although he does note John’s concern for ecumenical dialogue. In any event, Cardijn was surely encouraged that he had won the confidence of the new pope.

A New Pentecost

Although the announcement of a Council shocked the Roman Curia and the world, its initial aims – at least on paper – were quite limited: ‘[The Council and the Synod] will lead happily to the… updating of the Code of Canon Law, which should accompany and crown these two tests of the practical application of the provisions of ecclesiastical discipline,’the pope had stated.12

Perhaps the only hint of greater hopes was Pope John’s statement – no doubt inspired by his diplomatic experience in Istanbul, the ancient seat of Greek Orthodoxy and the See of Constantinople – that the Council was not just for ‘the spiritual good of the Christian people’ but also ‘an invitation to separated communities for the search for Unity.’13

At this stage, perhaps one of the first theologians to realise the Council’s true potential was Yves Congar, an expert on ecumenism, who in mid-February 1959 suggested five areas of work, including confirming the unity of the Church, promoting pastoral activity, reasserting the spiritual vocation of the human person as well as combating doctrinal error and completing the work of Vatican I a century before.14

The next public clue to the scale of John’s ambitions came in his homily on Pentecost Sunday 17 May 1959 when – as he had indicated to Cardijn – he called for the coming Council to become ‘a new Pentecost’ in the life of the Church.15

The antepreparatory stage

More details began to emerge with Pope John’s first encyclical Ad Cathedram Petri on ‘Truth, unity and peace in a spirit of charity,’ published on 29 June 1959 as a guide to the ‘antepreparatory’ or preliminary phase of the Council’s work.16 Cardijn undoubtedly studied this document attentively. Indeed, the encyclical’s general themes of the search for truth, unity and peace resounded with his own vision of unifying a world in need of peace.

Moreover, the encyclical made specific reference to Catholic Action, noting that ‘priests, religious men, and virgins consecrated to God cannot reach every class of person’ (§115), a phrase that quaintly echoed Cardijn’s own concept of specialisation. On the other hand, the encyclical’s narrow understanding of it as ‘the cooperation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy’ and instruction that members ‘must align themselves beside their bishops and be ready to obey every command’ was bound to disappoint him (§121).

More positive, from Cardijn’s point of view, was the distinction the encyclical recognised between Catholic Action and ‘the many pious associations which flourish in the Church’ (§119). For John, at least, not every lay initiative fell under the rubric of Catholic Action. Also significant was the insistence on ‘particular attention to personal formation in Christian wisdom and virtue,’ most of all for the young (§123).

The Antepreparatory Commission begins work

Meanwhile, on 17 May 1959, John formally appointed an Antepreparatory Commission to provide initial direction and begin the massive task of technical planning.17 One month later on 18 June 1959, new Secretary of State, Cardinal Dominic Tardini, announced an open-ended worldwide consultation process.18 And in an encouraging sign, the Commission eventually received 2150 responses, although there is no indication of any involvement by Cardijn at this stage.19

Moreover, despite the number of responses, the final consultation report dated 12 March 1960 and grandly entitled ‘Final synthesis of the resolutions and suggestions for the coming Ecumenical Council from their Excellencies the Bishops and Prelates of the entire world’ totalled a mere eighteen pages.20

According to historian Etienne Fouilloux, the report, which was distributed to the Antepreparatory Commission, drew mainly on the response of the Italian bishops. Its observations included concern about developing disorder in seminaries caused by ‘the spread of methods, so-called of “self-education, self-control and personal autonomy”,’ which was evidently deplored and ‘the restoration of discipline requested.’21 Cardijn, fortunately, probably had no knowledge of this but it was evidence of the prevailing Curial climate.

Worse news emerged on 3 July 1959 when Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo, Cardijn’s longstanding nemesis at the Holy See and now the Secretary of the Holy Office, wrote to French Cardinals Feltin and Liénart clamping down even further on the French worker priests, many of whom had been JOC chaplains, prohibiting them from even part-time work.22 Externally, the signs for the Council were far from promising.

A new social encyclical

Nevertheless, encouraged by his first audience, Cardijn returned in February 1960 for a second meeting with John. Clearly, he was hopeful that the pope would be responsive to his suggestions.

The same month, he had drafted a short paper, ‘Les prêtres et la doctrine sociale de l’Eglise,’ in which he lamented the lack of understanding of Church teaching that he had observed during his recent trip to Latin America. ‘Rare are those who exalt the dignity of human work, of workers, worker families and their most basic rights,’ Cardijn wrote.23

Thus, Cardijn now dared to suggest that John prepare an encyclical to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum.24 ‘The [social] question is not the same in 1960 as it was in the time of Leo XIII or even in the days of Pius XI,’ he told the pope.

‘An encyclical on the world of work of today would have even more influence than Rerum Novarum or Quadragesimo Anno, but an encyclical that is positive and open to all the collaboration that would be needed!’ he proposed, no doubt with an eye to the Council.25

In a sign of their growing mutual esteem, John requested Cardijn to detail his proposal in a written note.

Mater et Magistra

A focus on labour

Cardijn responded quickly with a twenty-page typed document entitled ‘L’Eglise face au monde du travail’ (The Church and the world of work), containing a detailed analysis of the worker problem. Sending it to Archbishop Angelo Dell’Acqua, Substitute at the Secretariat of State, on 13 April 1960, he noted that ‘the moment is truly ripe for a psychological shock in the world,’ which he hoped the new encyclical would provide.26

‘Never has the problem of labour taken on (such) a dimension, significance and gravity,’ Cardijn began apocalyptically. The present changes were ‘merely the beginning of a vertiginous transformation both with respect to work and all the agents involved in it.’ Work, Cardijn continued, was in the process of overturning the whole world, becoming increasingly technological to the point of radically transforming ‘various aspects of human life – personal, family, social, cultural and recreational, political, national and international.’

Hence, the need for an encyclical centred on the problems of labour, including the ‘birth of the proletariat,’ the Church’s position, ‘work as a global issue,’ formation of the laity, particularly young people, as well as ‘collaboration towards fraternal union,’ meaning ecumenical relations.27

The drafting team

Ever the realist, Cardijn clearly had little expectation that his suggestions would be taken up in the form he proposed. Nevertheless, he recommended that a ‘study committee’ be created to draft the text, a suggestion adopted by the pope who appointed four of his former colleagues from the Lateran University.28

These were Pietro Pavan, Msgr Agostino Ferrari Toniolo, a professor of labour law and grandson of the Leplaysian Italian Catholic Action pioneer Giuseppe Toniolo, Msgr Santo Quadri, chaplain to ACLI, the Italian Catholic Workers Organisation, and Msgr Luigi Civardi, a longstanding chaplain and writer on Italian Catholic Action, who was also personal confessor to the pope, all of whom were well known to Cardijn.

Like Pavan, Toniolo was also a partisan of the see-judge-act, at least in its Leplaysian form (situation, doctrine, application) as later noted by Congar during a 1964 meeting of the Schema XIII Commission.29 Others who contributed to the eventual encyclical were the German Jesuits Oswald von Nell-Breuning and Gustav Gundlach, the latter of whom covered the Sillon experience in his lectures at the Gregorian and also knew Cardijn.30

As the testimony of the Belgian priest, Fr Basil Maes, illustrates, Cardijn also had contact with the drafters during the preparation of the encyclical. ‘I still see him joyfully entering my room, enthusiastically shouting: ‘Basil, it’s happened! See, judge, act!,’ Maes recalled concerning Cardijn’s reaction after Mater et Magistra was published on 15 May 1961.31

Canonising the see-judge-act

Indeed, Mater et Magistra did adopt the Cardijn method in §236:

There are three stages which should normally be followed in the reduction of social principles into practice. First, one reviews the concrete situation; secondly, one forms a judgement on it in the light of these same principles; thirdly, one decides what in the circumstances can and should be done to implement these principles. These are the three stages that are usually expressed in the three terms: look, judge, act.32

Moreover, the document also followed the see-judge-act in its structure, beginning with a review of developments since Leo XIII’s encyclical, moving to a study of Catholic social teaching on current issues before dealing with ‘new aspects of the social question’ including ‘remedies,’ a particularly Leplaysian expression.

As Maes’s testimony indicated, Cardijn had lobbied for this, although the note he sent to Pope John, did not particularly follow the see-judge-act format nor did he make specific mention of it. Pavan’s biographer, Franco Biffi, also confirmed Cardijn’s influence on the drafting process, noting that the method Pavan proposed ‘was the one he had come to know through his friend Fr (later Cardinal) Joseph Cardijn.’33

A sense of responsibility

Significantly, Mater et Magistra also included the phrase ‘sense of responsibility’ seven times. This was an expression Cardijn had also used in his preparatory note. Indeed, the word ‘responsibility’ was almost a leitmotif of the encyclical. The English version contained a total of twenty-three references to responsibility and its derivatives,34 while the (mostly original) Italian version contained thirty-one references to ‘responsabilità,’ ‘responsabili,’ ‘senso di responsabilità,’ etc., which in turn implied the need for an ‘Educazione al senso della responsabilità,’ i.e. education for a sense of responsibility (§182).

In the official Latin text, however, the term responsibility was mostly rendered as ‘officium,’ literally office, duty or function, since ‘responsibilitas’ was not yet the accepted Latin word, a problem that would recur in the drafting of Gaudium et Spes. On the other hand, the Latin often used the term ‘conscii’ instead of sense or attitude, e.g. ‘officiorum conscii,’ meaning ‘conscious of responsibilities,’ which, as we know, was the Pius XII and Cardijn gloss on the Sillon definition of democracy.

Also significant was the fact that Mater et Magistra sourced this expression from Pope John’s 3 May 1960 address to the FAO in which he called for ‘consciences’ to be ‘awakened to the responsibility’ to tackle the problem of world hunger.35

Was this use of the Sillonist expression also the work of Pavan? Did Gundlach have a hand in it? In any event, it fit with John’s own sympathies for the Sillon. By this time, however, there were few who recognised the origin of the expression. But one who appeared to do so was Pierre Haubtmann, future redactor of Gaudium et Spes, who highlighted the use of the term in his annotated version of Mater et Magistra published in 1961.36

A theology of work?

As Cardijn had requested, the encyclical also tackled the issue of human labour. In §18 it spoke of work as ‘a specifically human activity’ that was ‘not merely a commodity.’ It endorsed worker ‘associations’ in §22 and repeated Leo XIII’s doctrine that work was ‘a duty and a right’ that ought to be regulated by the state. In §259, it referred to human work as ‘helping extend the fruits of Redemption all over the world.’

Still, it lacked the punch of Cardijn’s own theology of work, linking labour not only to the Redemption but also and above all to God’s Creation:

The worker by and through his work is the necessary and irreplaceable collaborator of God in the execution of his plan of love in the work of Creation; and after original and actual sin in the work of the Redemption. The worker, conscious of the meaning and purpose of work, collaborates with the Redeemer to restore the divine order in the world of work and in the whole world: the worker by his collaboration participates in the terrestrial and eternal glorification of God Creator and Redeemer.37

Reception of the encyclical

Whatever its limitations, however, Pope John’s new encyclical immediately won plaudits for its ‘new tone,’ its openness to the modern world, as well as for its new methodology.38 Canadian Cardinal Paul-Emile Léger noted its ‘youthful spirit of confidence in the future’ while Belgian Jesuit Jules De Meij highlighted its ‘open appreciative reception’ of ‘modern society’ in contrast to ‘the nostalgia for outdated structures’ that had previously characterised much Catholic thinking.39 Indeed, these were all marks of the positive approach advocated by Cardijn and Pope John.

But Vatican II would soon add enormously to this impact, with Mater et Magistra becoming a benchmark for the drafting of Council documents. Gaudium et Spes contains sixteen references to the encyclical, the greatest number of citations of any encyclical in any conciliar document. In this sense, Mater et Magistra marked the first decisive impact by Cardijn on the documents of Vatican II.

John XXIII greatly appreciated Cardijn’s contribution, explicitly crediting and thanking the JOC founder for his inspiration on several occasions.40 Before the Council Fathers gathered, however, much work lay ahead in the Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate, where Cardijn would face a much cooler reception than he had received from John XXIII.


1Joseph Cardijn, “John XXIII and the New Pentecost,” IYCW Bulletin, No. 90 (1963): https://www.josephcardijn.com/en/item/73

2Romeo Maione, “Cardijn, The Man,” 1982: http://romeo.josephcardijn.com/p/some-knew-cardijn-as-joseph.html

3Cardijn, “John XXIII.”


5Paul Dreyfus, Jean XXIII (Paris: Fayard, 1979), 64.

6Angelo Roncalli, Journal de France, Vol. I (Paris: Cerf, 2006), 51.

7Angelo Roncalli, “Lettre à Mme Sangnier,” 1950: http://www.sillon.net/msgr-angelo-roncal

8Angelo Roncalli, My Bishop, A Portrait of Mgr Giacomo Maria Radini Tedeschi (London: Geoffrey Chapman,1969), 27.

9Ibid., 29.

10Ibid., 43.

11Romeo Maione, “Cardijn – The Man,” 11/1982: http://romeo.josephcardijn.com/p/some-knew-cardijn-as-joseph.html

12John XXIII, “Announcement of an Ecumenical Council,” 25/01/1959: http://www.vatican2voice.org/91docs/announcement.htm


14Giuseppe Alberigo, “The Announcement of the Council: From the Security of the Fortress to the Lure of the Quest,” in Alberigo-Komonchak, I, 35.

15John XXIII, “Omelia, Celebrazione dei secondi vespri nella solennita di Pentecoste,” 17/05/1959: http://www.vatican.va/content/john-xxiii/it/homilies/1959/documents/hf_j-xxiii_hom_19590517.html

16John XXIII, Ad cathedram Petri, Encyclical Letter, 29/06/1959: http://www.vatican.va/content/john-xxiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_29061959_ad-petri.html

17Etienne Fouilloux, “The Ante-Preparatory Phase: The Slow Emergence from Inertia (January 1959 – October 1962)” in Alberigo-Komonchak, I, 91

18Ibid., 94.

19Ibid., 98.

20Ibid., 146.

21Ibid., 147.

22Cardinal Pizzardo, “Lettre à Cardinal Feltin et Cardinal Liénart,” 03/07/1959: http://catholique-mission-de-france.cef.fr/diocese/histoire/reperes/dates/1959a.htm (No longer online)

23Joseph Cardijn, “Les prêtres et la doctrine sociale de l’Eglise,” 02/1960, AC1299: https://www.josephcardijn.com/fr/item/2048

24In his 1963 article, Cardijn cites the date as 1959 as does Maione. However, Fiévez and Meert place the meeting in 1960, the date of Cardijn’s correspondence with the Holy See on the encyclical.

25Fiévez-Meert, Cardijn, 211.

26Cardijn to Dell’Acqua, 13/04/1960, AC1807: https://www.josephcardijn.com/fr/item/2054

27Joseph Cardijn, “L’Eglise face au monde du travail,” AC1807: https://www.josephcardijn.com/fr/item/1650

28Marvin L. Mich, Commentary on Mater et Magistra, in Kenneth Himes, Modern Catholic Social Teaching, Commentaries and Interpretations (Georgetown: Georgetown University Press, 2004), 194-195.

29Yves Congar, My Journal, 501.

30Anton Rauscher, Email to Stefan Gigacz, 27/09/2012.

31Delbeke, Basil Maes, Un homme de foi et un ami (Belgium: Privately published, 2007): https://www.josephcardijn.com/fr/item/1714

32John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, Encyclical Letter, 15/05/1961: http://www.vatican.va/content/john-xxiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_15051961_mater.html

33Franco Biffi, Prophet of Our Times, The Social Thought of Cardinal Pietro Pavan (New Rochelle, NY: New City Press, 1992), 126.

34John XXIII, Mater et Magistra: §83, 84, 90, 118, 145, 158, 195.

35John XXIII, “Discours aux participants à la Xe conférence internationale des ONG,” 03/05/1960: http://www.vatican.va/content/john-xxiii/fr/speeches/1960/documents/hf_j-xxiii_spe_19600503_fao.html

36Pierre Haubtmann, “Introduction, annotations et index analytique,” in John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, L’Eglise mère et éducatrice (Paris: Fleurus, 1961), 77.

37Cardijn, “L’Eglise face au monde du travail.

38Mich, Commentary, 196-197.

39Cited by Mich, Ibid., 197-198.

40Fiévez-Meert, Cardijn, 213.