I went under a low door – sat on a cushion on the floor, and put my feet to warm in a hole, in which there was a charcoal heater. I was a guest in the home of Johnnie Inohara, the YCW leader in Japan. He was real polite and a girl brought in little cups of tea. In broken English, he discussed the YCW, telling me how for years before, he, like most of the YCW’s, had been a Buddhist. In such a polite and exotic setting, it seemed ridiculous for us to talk about teams and general members and the meaning of the subscription – yet that is what we did. In the conversation, he suddenly said “What did the YCW Badge stand for”? and I said “Christ’s cross, and the ear of wheat denotes a new life and a harvest of young workers who want to serve the Church amongst their friends and the people they meet during the day”. Then he took off on the Church – the wonderful prospects for it in Japan and how people were looking for a meaning to their life. He spoke of the little groups of apprentice Christians -he met in the factories during the break and how they were being told for the first time the life of Christ. He told me of their plans – gripping in their simplicity. I thought afterwards how in some countries, the Church is being battered to death yet always there is this fresh new life. The big thing was that Johnnie felt responsible for the mission of the Church – he realized the Church was not a building of bricks and mortar, but that the Church was him and his mates working with the Pope, Bishops and priests to spread that love and respect which the first Christians did “Look how they love one another….” the pagans said about them.
There was another man I met who made a lasting impression on me. I met him at a section meeting in Worth London and we will call him Fred – he was a quiet type but during the Social Enquiry you felt he knew well the apprentices he worked with. The Gospel Enquiry was on the Death of Christ. Fred seemed as near to tears as I have ever seen anyone and this puzzled me. He was a fellow from a Jewish family and this apparently was the first time that he knew the details of Our Lord’s death. I never knew a man who worked so hard and happily for the Movement, because after he was baptized, he gave himself to serve the beginners at work in his big factory. Fred to me still represents the ordinary man each one of us meets each day who are our friends. These men, through our friendship, can discover that they are someone – are truly important and capable. The Pope couldn’t do the job that Fred did with the beginners at work – he could encourage Fred as he has encouraged all the YCW The Pope has said “Today in every factory we need pioneers 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”.
The important thing about Bernie Kelly was the fact that he was an ordinary young American. The unusual thing about Bernie was when he discovered the YCW, he went all out for it and gave his life to it. Bernie grew up in South Halstead Street, an Irish-American neighbourhood, undergoing great racial changes. From the age of 11 onwards, he worked part-time in a grocery store to earn money for his education. He went to College and during his holidays, worked in a steel mill. He liked good clothes and was thrifty. He got an excellent job as office manager for a steel products firm in charge of a staff of 14. He joined a local YCW Section which David O’Shea from England started. After a time, he became a fulltime YCW organiser, which meant great financial sacrifice. You might say “What is extraordinary about all that?” Frankly, nothing. However, at the age of 16, Bernie had contracted the deadly Hodgkins disease. He lived with the idea of approaching death for ten years – knowing that there was no chance of recovery.
I worked with him for the last three months of his life when he was national President – I knew nothing of his sickness and we went starting sections – in Minneanapolis and New York. He constantly dragged his feet, and I thought it was the James Dean gimmick! Once I said “Look Bernie, I don’t think you are well” and he replied “Who the hell do you think you are – my mother?”. Anyway, after the Minneapolis meeting, when we went to the place where we were lodging, he couldn’t get his clothes off and he told me of his disease. The following month I was with him when he died in hospital – he was the first person I had ever seen die in my life. An hour before he died he said “Gee, it was great working for the YCW and the Church….” The story of Bernie’s dedication for the short period of three years stands out today when the Church is challenging people to give themselves totally to the Church. There are many people like Bernie, here in England and the world who desire to give themselves generously to becoming important partners in the business of living. If O’Shea had not gone from England and got the little group going – the Apostolate may have missed Bernie. Therefore, our little groups meeting in homes, our YCW teams, can be the bridge between the lonely individuals and the mission of the Church in the modem world. Isolated, the young worker with all his talents can be lost without these small groups. Throughout the world, the YCW must continue building these small groups, involving teenagers and young adults in the life of the YCW, so that they can cultivate friendships, associations, loyalties and above all, a deep sense of belonging to a living Church which declines to live meditating on Her past glories, but brings the wisdom of centuries to bear on the modern situation.
These are three ordinary fellows, typical of the thousands throughout the world who are responding to the call of the Church for each one of us to be missionaries in our own field amongst the people we normally meet and work with, and amongst the people in our neighbourhood. The response is not just coming from workers, it is coming on from men in the universities, men in management, men in political and civic life, men who like all of us here, know that the first apostles of the world of work and industry are the ordinary simple folks, whether workers or Management, who are there to earn their daily bread.
All of us in the Apostolate are like Johnnie, Fred and Bernie – a part of this great upsurge in the Church, men who desire to live and spread the justice, understanding and love of Christ that He always showed when He was on earth – feeding the hungry, comforting the sick and lonely – showing the respect for the poorest and simplest because they were His brothers and all called to be Sons of God. This great upsurge is called the “Lay Apostolate” and whilst there is still much to be done, the YCW should be confident as it has played no mean part in the pioneering of the Lay Apostolate in its modern form. That was clear a few years ago when the Pope convened the first Lay Apostolate Congress in the history of the Church.
I went as an English delegate to the World Congress of the Lay Apostolate held in Rome. It was stimulating to speak to and meet with the different types of men, united by the simple belief in the Apostolate. There were Trades Union leaders, politicians, professors, employers, coal-miners, and housewives. As a member of the YCW, I was shaken by the reception given to Mgr Cardijn, our Founder, when he entered the hall to speak. Spontaneously, people stood and cheered. Whilst he was talking, I tried to work out why this diverse and large group should be so genuinely fond of him. Was it because the YCW grouped nearly two million young workers? Was it because from the YCW had come hundreds of trades union and political leaders, or was it because over 5,000 of our members had become priests and nuns? Frankly, I didn’t think it was for any of these reasons. All of us engaged in the Apostolate know that whatever our technical skills, it was the priest in our parish who opened up the vista of the Apostolate, and sustained us. I think they cheered and loved this old Mgr Cardijn because from coming out of the seminary, he had believed in the apostolic potentialities of the simplest young worker. He began with two and sparked them. Since then, hundreds of priests in all continents have done this. If all the shouting and writing on the Lay Apostolate leads to this, then it is worthwhile, as possibly in the genuine belief of the priest in the apostolic possibilities of the average man, coupled with his action of grouping and training even two, lies the key to the action of the Church in the modem world.
The fellow and girl across the street are caught up in the hugeness of modern industrial life. They feel anonymous in the big trades unions, political parties and even in the parish with little possibility to shape decisions which so vitally affect their daily life. Without the Lay Apostolate, and for young working people, without the YCW, there will be no bridge between the lonely fellow and girl across the street and the Church. After a visit to South America, I submitted a report to the Holy Father, Pius XII, he put his head into his hands and referring to the Counter of the Lay Apostolate amongst workers gently said – “Why – why are we always so late in this vital field…” With the growth of active participation in the Holy Mass, it seems unthinkable that in the years ahead there could be a missionary parish without an organised Lay Apostolate.
Patrick Keegan, undated talk to Study Week, probably 1953 (after their visit to Asia in 1953 and following the First World Congress on Lay Apostolate in 1951)
English YCW Archives