The life of Joseph Cardijn

  • Born on 1882 in Brussels, Belgium
  • Henry Cardijn (father)
  • Louise Cardijn (mother) – very religious
  • Loved to chat with the artisans
  • Curious boy, voracious reader, loved school
  • Very sensitive to every human suffering he met
  • At dawn he always saw factory workers going to the factories with their 7-8 years old child.
  • Belgian workers work 12-14 hours and earned a penny with no rest.
  • Children were locked or tied at their worked so that they could not wander around.
  • No politicians, no authorities and sad to say no church authorities help them.
  • Workers saw vices as the only avenue to escape from their bad condition.
  • Strikes also occurred.
  • Belgian Bishops did nothing, judging that their intervention on workers behalf would provoke bloody class warfare.
  • Only one Belgian group stood up for worker’s defense – the Socialist, they were anti-clerical, anti-church – the only protectors the workers knew.

As Joseph grew older he heard all this things. His young heart was already heavy with the pain the workers suffered.

At Fourteen Joseph was completing his final years at the Notre Damme Institute in Halle. His parents were looking forward for his having a job that will add to their family income. But one night Joseph told to his parents that he wants to be a priest and with no hesitant his parents allowed him going to the seminary.

1897 – Joseph entered the minor seminary at Malines. He was happy and contented.

When the first holidays to return home came, he visited his schoolmates now working in the factories, mines and mills. But his friends gave him a cold and bitter reception believing that he betrayed them and joined with the forces that oppressed the working class. They connected the capitalist and the church. Factory works change the minds of his friends. Their rejection wounded the heart of Cardijn.

1903 – Henry Cardijn died. Joseph promised to his father that he would give his life to the salvation of the working class of the world.

September 22, 1906 – Cardinal Mercier ordained Joseph Cardijn a priest.

Cardinal Desire Mercier – recognizes Fr. Cardijn’s talents and desire to serve the workers and sent him to study social doctrine under Prof. Brants of the University of Louvain. The Professor urged him to travel throughout Europe to experience the various social programs on the workers behalf. The Professor is the one paying Caridijn’s study trip.

Fr. Cardijn’s experience in England, Germany and France confirmed what his studies indicated: that the youth is the key to resolving Europe’s social question. Adolf Hitler was saying “ Give me our youth and I will give you the world”.

At the end of Fr. Cardijn’s first year study, Cardinal Mercier assigned him to teach literature and mathematics at a middle-class boy’s secondary school in Basse-Wavre, Belgium. Although disappointed he accepts the appointment with faith and obedience. He dubbed his post as “providential misfortune.” But his new assignment gave time to journey throughout Europe because of long holidays.

1912 – Cardinal Mercier assigned Fr. Cardijn to the Royal Parish of our Lady of Laeken, Brussles. The Parish is close to the palace of the King and Queen of Belgium – it is called the Royal Parish.

Laeken’s working class district – one part of the Royal Parish where only few tourists visited. A place where 13,000 underpaid and overworked factory workers lived. Priest rarely went into this place because anti-clerical insulted them. But Fr. Cardijn has the courage to greet them every morning, walking beside the laborers and asking about their conditions. He never asked about their attendance in the mass or in the religious practices.

Fr. Cardijn would have gone to the factories with his workers, but at each factory gate there is a signed “Workers only” but he was not discouraged. He begun to develop plans to bring the gospel inside the factory with the workers themselves was his apostle.

Fr. Cardijn was assigned to take charge of the girl’s Youth Club. Within few months, the girl’s club claimed many members. Fr. Cardijn organized the girls to their type or place of work into individual groups called “CELLS”. Each cell meeting a procedure should be followed: SEE, JUDGE, and ACT. FR. Cardijn dreamed that his SEE, JUDGE, ACT method would eventually be translated and used by the whole workers of the globe. 

1912 – Fernand Tonnet, a bank clerk, begged Fr. Cardijn to establish similar units for men. Fr. Cardijn organized the Union of Apprentices and the League of Pius X, the number 900 members.

After 2½ years at Laekens, his workers movement was shaving a great success. Little by little, tenement dwellers returned to regular religious practice. He explained the Gospel according to what people will understand. He challenged them to bring the Gospel from the church tot he world. “You are the apostles, you are fishers of men, and only you can bring Christ to your factory, mills or offices.

August 1914 – German armies, aiming to capture Paris, burst across Belgium plains. There was a war happened. Fr. Cardijn mobilized young people and gathered food, medicines, clothing and fuel for soldiers and other war victims.

1915 – Cardinal Mercier appointed Fr. Cardijn to be the Director of Diocesan Social Action The priest viewed his new post as a vehicle to carry his workers movement beyond the Laeken Parish. His innovative method (SEE, JUDGE, and ACT) received much resistance from priests, politicians, businessmen and even the Catholic trade unionist. His technique of encouraging workers to make their own decisions and act upon them frightened the traditionalists. Irritated by the insufferable patronizing attitudes of diocesan authorities, Fr. Cardijn accused them of squelching the legitimate rights of laborers to participate in the direction and control of their own movements. With Cardinal Mercier’s permission Fr. Cardijn continued to organize workers with the help of Fernand Tonnet, Paul Garcet and Jacques Meert. The trio was called “The Three Musketeers”. They pioneered the young workers movement, officially known as the “Trade Union Youth”.

November 1916 – Fr. Cardijn worked actively on the underground, spoke out publicly against unjust German aggression and deportation of Belgian workers to German war factories. German authorities arrested him and sentenced to 13 months in prison. With his imprisonment Louise Cardijn suffered nervous breakdown from which she never fully recovered. Fr. Cardijn used prison time to analyze and reflect upon his workers movement and to plan new directions. He read the Bible, Carl Marx and endless tracks on social conditions. He smuggled out his own writings in prison and received books and materials through the underground.

1918 - After two years, Fr. Cardijn was arrested again by the invaders on an espionage charge and sentenced him to ten years of hard labor. But fortunately, on November 1918 Armistice came and Fr. Cardijn was released from prison and eager to meet a troubled post-war Europe’s many challenges.

– Tuberculosis struck Fr. Cardijn because of the grueling job of propagating his movement, the imprisonment, the worry about his mother, and the tension resulting from disagreements from the social action department. As a discharged political prisoner, the government sent him to the Military hospital at Cannes, France. Fr. Cardijn was separated from his young workers. He knew that his political enemies would attack his young workers so he poured out torrent of advice to his leaders in endless letters. He begged the Three Musketeers to nourish the workers spiritual life. After long months in the hospital, health authorities permitted Fr. Cardijn to return to Brussels. He came back full of hope, and a spirit bursting with energy.

1923 – Louise Cardijn died at the age of 73.

If thousands of young workers held Fr. Cardijn in deep affection, there were also thousands of Belgians who saw him as a madman, a bull in China shop. His enemies called him a pied piper, a Napoleon, and a Communist.

Socialist were also angry with Cardijn because they no more monopolize the workers movement. Socialist strike factories employing the Trade Union Youth, many employers refused to hire Fr. Cardijn’s followers. Many of Fr. Cardijn’s foes neither appreciated nor understood his goals. It set out to ensure workers proper apprenticeship and professional training, fair wages, good working conditions, moral protection, the gathering of unemployment funds, and decent housing. But his fundamental purpose was to restore young people’s sense of personal dignity, to awaken in them their true value as brothers and sisters in Christ. He chose to develop the workers spiritually, intellectually, and culturally, and to encourage their apostolic activity.

1924 - To emphasize his organizations difference from that of Catholic trade unions, he changed its title from “Trade Union Youth” to Young Christian Workers”

  • During the Belgium Catholic Youth Associations Congress, the young workers presented themselves as a distinctive unit within the body of the congress. Twelve hundred delegates claimed the factual existence of the, the young workers presented themselves as a distinctive unit within the body of the congress. Twelve hundred delegates claimed the factual existence of the Young Christian Workers. Fr. Cardijn ask permission to Cardinal Mercier to visit Rome and to put his case before Pope Pius XI and the Cardinal gave him the permission. When the news spread about Fr. Cardijn’s visit to Rome most of his enemies were happy because they believe that Fr. Cardijn will not be given the chance to talk to the Pope. But they did not know that Cardinal Micara, Belgium’s Papal Nuncio, knew Fr. Cardijn’s work and took the delicate task to arrange an interview at the Vatican for Fr. Cardijn with Pope Pius XI. When the Pope already interviewed Fr. Cardijn he said all his intentions for the working class and the Pope said, “Finally, someone speaks to me of the working class.” As the interview ended, the Pope advised Fr. Cardijn, “Not only do we bless your movement – we make it our own.”

1925 – Bishops who had formerly bitterly disapproved Fr. Cardijn’s program, supported it openly. This was the official birth of the YCW. By year-end the YCW claimed 20,000 boys and girls from ages 13 and 21.

1927 – Fr. Cardijn was interviewed by Pope Pius XI in Vatican. The Pope asks about the confidence of the people about his movement. Fr. Cardijn answered, that there are still plenty who do not believe in it: priest particularly. And the Pope was inviting Fr. Cardijn to come to Rome with his YCW. The Pope will show everyone what he thinks of the working youth and the YCW.

1929 – Fifteen hundred Belgian YCW entrained for Rome (girls on 1931). The young men formed processions and attended special workers Masses in Rome. Each YCW member, dressed in fresh work clothes, carried the tools of his trade.

The YCW Vatican visit attracted the attention of many priests and Bishops around the world. The first large YCW extension was established in France.

– YCW’s tenth anniversary, Fr. Cardijn had a forty foot statue of a young worker struck and placed on the roof of the headquarters in Brussels.

1940 – German once again invaded Belgium. Fr. Cardijn threw himself and his YCW into opposition to the occupation forces. They smuggled young men and women from forced labor battalions and rescued them from deportation to German factories. The Gestapo arrested Fr. Cardijn and several YCW leaders.

September 1942 – Fr. Cardijn was released from prison but he refused to leave prison unless others captured with him were released at the same time. The Nazis threw him out anyway, and within a short time Fr. Cardijn was back doing all he could to help the victims of the brutal occupation.

August 1944 – The Allies forced the German army to begin its retreat from Brussels. The Nazis took hostages to protect themselves as they left.

September 1, 1944 – German soldiers burst into YCW headquarters to take Fr. Cardijn hostage. But Fr. Cardijn was them ahead coming to the YCW headquarters, so he jumps on the back door and hide. He saw the Nazis excitedly scouring the Headquarters and frighten because of the Allied forces arrival.

  • Fernand Tonnet and Paul Garcet (two of the three musketeers) died in Dachau; they had been prisoners since 1943.

1946 – beginning this year Fr. Cardijn made several international visits to spread the YCW message. He experienced especially in the Third World, the terrible injustice.

1950 – YCW’s silver anniversary. Pope Pius XII honored the YCW movement by consecrating Fr. Cardijn as Bishop. Colleges and universities throughout the world bestowed honorary doctorates upon him. He received civic decorations and became a member of the French Legion of Honor. By this year the YCW was established in no less than 60 countries.

Bishop Cardijn suggested to Pope John XXIII that it would be good if His Holiness would prepare anew encyclical on labor. The Pope was asking Bishop Cardijn to write his ideas. The basis of Pope John’s encyclical Mater et Magistra was the note of Bishop Cardijn. Pope John also tapped Bishop Cardijn’s talents and experience for the 2nd Vatican Council. Two major documents, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the Decree on the Apostolate of the laity, owe much to Bishop Cardijn’s genius.

December 1962
– Bishop Cardijn’s 80th birthday. YCW was established in its 80th country in Madagascar, it was the happiest birthday gift for Bishop Cardijn. Despite his age, he still continues his daily punishing schedule. He threw himself into schemes for improving education, combating juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, and alcoholism.

January 1965
–Bishop Cardijn resigned as YCWs chief chaplain and Fr. Uylenbroeck, a veteran YCW chaplain, took over as chief chaplain. Bishop Cardijn turns his full attention to implementing the decisions of the 2nd Vatican Council.

  • Pope Paul VI appointed him Cardinal

June 1967 – Cardinal Cardijn was stricken with a kidney ailment. Cardinal Suenens, Archbishop of Brussels, came to the hospital to administer the Sacrament of the Sick to Cardinal Cardijn.

July 14, 1967 – Cardinal Cardijn lapsed into coma. The King of Belgium came, paid him a long and moving visit, but he Cardinal did not recognize him.

July 24, 1967 – His nurse felt his pulse and found him peaceful. But Cardinal Cardijn’s spirit still live in the YCW’s heart. By this year the YCW already had 109 countries.