1950 – The Lay Apostolate

Patrick Keegan

The Lay Apostolate

Pope Pius X who is now a Saint, one day at a meeting with his Cardinal Advisors asked them what they thought was the most urgent need of the Church in this modern age. The Cardinals freely expressed their views, and some thought the main thing was for more Churches, others for more clergy, and some thought more seminaries and more schools were needed. To all these suggestions, this Holy Pope shook his head, and said that in his opinion, the most urgent need of the Church was that in every parish there should be groups of apostolic laymen and women.

This Saint clearly saw the New World that was taking shape – a world based on democratic processes, a world staggered by the impact of industrial development, a world in which the ordinary man had become conscious of his strength and worth through trades unions, and other organisations. This great Pope pleaded with Catholics in Letter after Letter to accept this new World, and make their contribution to it.

He decided that the Church could not find its lay apostles unless a deeper religious formation was made available. He launched the tremendous Liturgical revival within the Church, where all apostolic endeavour centred itself in an active participation in the Mass.

The response to this saintly Pope was slow and often insufficient. Nevertheless, Popes Pius XI and XII continued to stress this need of a Lay Apostolate. In practically every speech that they made, there is this stress that apostles are not born but must be formed and trained.

Whether it was through the pressure of world events or not, the whole work of the Lay Apostolate really developed, especially in the field of young people and in 1951, Pope Pius XII convened the first World Congress of the Lay Apostolate in the history of the Church. It was my privilege to lead the English delegation.

It was stimulating to meet and speak with the different types of men who united by this simple desire to serve the Church. These were trades union leaders, politicians, professors, employers, coal-miners, housewives, and young workers. One got a ‘ sense of the universal character and mission of the Church. The sense that it was not just the Church of the white man, but of men of all colours and races.

Present also were men and women who were refugees from their countries, where the Church now is being brutally and shamefully crushed. They represented the Church of Silence. I wondered if we had not often been guilty of a kind of indifference to their fate. How easy to settle down in forgetfulness as one settles down in comfort and I felt that one of the most serious chapters of world history, one of the most tragic ordeals in the life of the Church, risks remaining on the surface of our consciousness and finding no deep echo in our souls. We can be ennobled, renewed, and purified by communion with our persecuted brothers behind the Iron Bamboo Curtains. But again, one saw at this meeting, the beauty of the Church, crushed in one place, but rising with greater splendour in another. Ever new, ever beautiful, ever fresh.

So after many years of work, the Lay Apostolate now is present in all different but necessary forms in the Church today. The intuition and vision of Pius X guaranteed this. True, it is all a beginning, and the work must still be done. At that Congress, one couldn’t but admire the brave and fearless work of such movements as the Legion of Mary, who in all, but especially in missionary countries, gave such witness of the Church. Even though it was small, the work of the Catholic Employers was extremely interesting. In their desire to build an industrial structure based on the dignity of the human person, one felt only the keenest admiration for the work of Pax Romana in the student field, and side by side with that, was the Lay Apostolate in the worker field. As the Holy Father pointed out:-

“Today in every factory we need disciples who are conscious of their double vocation as Christians and workers, knowing no peace or rest until they have transformed their neighbourhood and workplaces to the demands of the Gospel”.

“An important task falls to your lot – that of giving this world of industry a Christian form and structure”.

It is in this worker field that I myself have had the most experience and I would like to tell you more of the Lay Apostolate in this vital era.

When one speaks of the Lay Apostolate in the worker field, one essentially comes back to the YCW – the Young Christian Workers Movement, because it is from this that the modem forms of worker apostolate have come into existence. At this Rome Congress that I mentioned, when Mgr Cardijn, the Founder of the Young Christian Workers Movement came into the room, all of them spontaneously stood and cheered. I think they cheered and loved this old Monsignor Cardijn because from coming out of the Seminary, he had believed in the apostolic riches and potentialities of the simplest young worker.

As most of you know, the YCW groups young adult workers so that they may do something, however small, to make their daily life of work, leisure and family, more Christian. The YCW also gives the working youth a spirit of Christian Service and prepares them for their future role and responsibility in the Civic, social and work field, as called for by the Popes. I could speak for a long time on the YCW, but I think it would be better if I told you of the results of the Movement.

Outside observers of the YCW consider the following results an indication of great hope for the future. I present them to you, ladies and gentlemen, most respectfully and humbly:-

1. At the present time, in more than 85 countries and territories, over two million working youth are receiving an apostolic formation in the local groups of the YCW Doctor Alexis Carroll, the Nobel Prize Winner, in a letter to us stated that the YCW was the finest form of informal adult ‘education that had yet been worked out. For his contribution in the field of education, Mgr Cardijn, our Founder has received no less than nine Honorary degrees from the different universities of the world. So, humbly, I would put this as one important result, this incarnate education of young workers.

2. In the Civic life.

The present Minister of Labour in France – Paul Bacon – served his apprenticeship in the YCW. He represents hundreds of former YCWs, who are now in responsible positions in political life. Only the other day, I had a letter from Jeff, who is now Senator in the Belgian Parliament. Rolf Lynton from the English YCW is responsible for a training house in Asia for worker and student leaders. On the Bermondsey Town Council, there are no less than five of our people. I could go on listing to the point of where you would be bored.

In the major International agencies ILO, United Nations, one is constantly meeting former YCW people. Again, I would stress that however great the number of these people, they are only an indication of that potential reservoir amongst young workers, providing that, through the YCW, they receive their training and their formation.

3. Vocations.

When I was in India, in four places I met 54 missionary priests and nuns all of whom had been members of our Movement. In a report that I had to do for Rome, we estimated that since the Movement started, we have more than 5,000 priests and religious who have served their apostolic apprenticeship in the YCW.

4. Field of the Family.

In most countries of the world now, there are thousands of families who, trained in the Movement, work to give a Christian witness of their beliefs in the simple everyday life of their communities. One man, known for his lack of sympathy for the Church, felt that the contribution of these families was key to the future.

With the world becoming more and more close together, the YCW is also making its contribution by its extension workers in the newly industrialised countries. Only last week, Jeff arrived from Belgium to learn English in London. He said “Hallo, OK.” After he has learned his English, he will go to Pakistan to work as a carpenter in a trade school, and to spread the YCW.

Jean Pew came through London last week, en route for Cape Town, where she will assist the Movement’s development there. These are two of hundreds of ordinary men and women from the YCW who are now giving themselves to this new work in other countries.

My tendency is to say much more on the YCW, as there is so much more to be said, but I would leave this point by appealing to all to feel our responsibility to the young worker in the Community. The Pope has said so often how providential the YCW is and it should be unthinkable that in the future there will be many areas where the YCW does not flourish and develop. I often remember a conversation with Pope Pius XII when he discussed a report that I had submitted on Latin America and referring to the training of young workers as apostles. He gently said “Why, why are we always so late in this vital field?”

Adult Field:

Following in a logical way, the work of the YCW in the Youth field now are modern movements of the Lay Apostolate in the adult worker and family field. All part of the Catholic Social Movement they group men and women who desire to do all they can to help in the reconstruction of Society with particular emphasis on the spheres of family life, work, civic and International life. In this country, this growing movement is known as The Family and Social Apostolate and aims to:

a) Help each person to discover his or her providential role in the Plan of God and the ways and means by which all can play an effective part in the Apostolate.

b) It aims to be a Movement of service, providing by personal acts and organised projects a response to the needs of individuals and groups.

It desires to represent the needs of people and especially the family before all public and private bodies that in any way can affect the situation. Grounded in the doctrines at the basis of the Lay Apostolate, having as its spine the progressive social doctrine of the Church and centred on the Mass and the Liturgy, the FSA will, in the coming years, be of great value.

In this Field, we know we are not on our own but part of a Movement of Catholic Social Action grouping throughout the world which desires to do all to sustain and protect the Christian Family.

All of us can be proud that the first experiments in English-speaking countries of the Lay Apostolate in the Worker Field originated here in Lancashire.

Whether it may be in the USA, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, or India, where this worker Apostolate is growing, offering great things for the future of the Church we can be proud that it originated in our own County of Lancashire.

Patrick Keegan


English YCW Archives