John Fitzsimons

Biography of Patrick Keegan

Chapter 4 – Cardijn

Cardijn, first Father, then Canon, then Monsignor and finally Cardinal Archbishop, was a great charismatic and prophetic figure in the Church of the twentieth century. In time past such men and women founded religious orders or congregations the objects of which were the contemplative life or preaching, teaching, the works of mercy and foreign missions. In the latter part of this century the laity have come of age in the Church, and Cardijn was very much of his century because, while founding no religious congregation, he devoted himself to the apostolic formation of young men and women, specifically of young workers. As one of the recent Popes expressed it, the object of the movement founded by Cardijn was to recruit and form, not foreign missionaries, but “missionaries of the interior.” The life histories of many such eminent figures come to be embellished with mythological elements, all of which though retailed in good faith really have no foundation in fact. Such has been the fate of Cardijn.

Yet, if there was anyone who knew the many facets of that complex Flemish priest it was Patrick Keegan. Cardijn, before the second World War, anxious to organise the growth and expansion of his movement at world level, had seen England as the key to the English-speaking parts of the world. The key to the USA, to the greater part of Canada (although the JOC existed for some years in the Pas de Quebec he rightly thought that it would not have much influence on the rest of the country) and the rest of the British Commonwealth, Dominions and Colonies. He had a finely tuned intuitive sense, and it seems as though from the first post-war encounter with Pat he decided that this was the man to spearhead the approach to the English-speaking world. Already, before the war, it had been necessary to set up in Brussels an office to maintain international contacts, to answer queries and to help those in many different countries and continents who were interested in or who wished to start the JOC.

By 1945 the time had come to give the office a more formal existence in relation to its international role. Many years earlier when Cardijn had been complaining to Pius XI about difficulties in growth and development the Pope had said to him: “My friend, a child begins by talking, and it is only later that he learns grammar.” This became Cardijn’s method: create something that is needed, bring it into existence, and only later get down to the business of providing it with a structure. So, at the end of August, 1945, a meeting was held in Brussels – during the visit of the English group described in Chapter 2 to formalize the existence of an International Bureau. Along with some members from the English group delegates from four other European countries (Belgium, France, Holland and Luxembourg) joined the two day discussion. The conclusion was that there should be, for an interim period, an International Secretariat based in Brussels, under the direction of an International Bureau made up of Belgium, France and England. It was agreed that Pat Keegan would be the President/Secretary of the Bureau.

This was a very astute appointment, inspired no doubt by Cardijn. Despite the sporadic contacts between the French and the Belgians during the German Occupation, they (and especially the Flemish) were never really at ease with one another. There were historical and cultural reasons for this which went very deep. It would have created many difficulties, even crises, if one or other had been named as leader of the international team. (p) This team consisted of Pat Keegan (England), Roger Cartayrade (President of the French JOC), Jef Deschuyfeleer and Emilie Arnould (Belgium), Cardijn and the secretary, Marguerite Fievez. Thus Keegan became the tertium gaudens, and with hindsight this may be seen as a turning point in his life, moving him up to ever increasing activity at the international level.

It is almost anomalous to think of him being preferred to the leaders of the long established movements of France and Belgium. Each of them had many more thousands of members than England had sections. But Pat did not suffer any inferiority complex. They had followed on others who had built up their numbers over many years – he was the lay founder of the authentic English Young Christian Workers. They could never aspire to be members of the “Founders’ Club.” Moreover he meant to make it clear that he would not be a mere figurehead. An instance of this: he would have to go fairly often to the Headquarters in Brussels and found that, probably because he was not in permanent residence, he always had to look for a spare desk. That had to change. He insisted that there there should be a desk that was his even though he might use it no more than a couple of days a month.

The first contact came at Whitsun 1938 when Father Rimmer took the small group of young men from Wigan to Brussels. One morning during that visit they assisted at Cardijn’s Mass and then were entertained to an English breakfast of bacon and eggs. All this took place at 90 Rue Palais where Cardijn had lived for many years. At that time he had already been a priest for more than thirty years, and in 1946 when their collaboration began he was well into his sixties. He had a well-established lifestyle, the good comfortable life of a Flemish parish priest.

The house was quite big, fronted by a courtyard, and several chaplains had rooms there. The chapel was at the end of the garden at the back of the house. Cardijn lived on the second floor. It was there that he had a large study and office. It was full of neatly piled books, newspapers and periodicals. He was an avid reader, marking passage in books and articles in papers. Each time Pat came to see him he always had passages he had marked, in his reading of English material, to show him. On the walls were photographs of priest friends. Over all hung a persistent smell of tobacco smoke – he loved his cigars and his pipe. His creature comforts were taken care of by a married couple, Andre, who was his chauffeur and odd job man, and Madeleine, housekeeper and cook, who lived on a lower floor.

There were offices, shared by various secretaries, not all of them full time. The Belgian movement was a vast enterprise, at one time with over 100,000 members. They were divided into four branches: Flemish men (KAJ) and women (VKAJ), and Walloon men (JOC) and women (JOCF). Each branch had its own national chaplain, while Cardijn as general chaplain was the link between them and had to see that each preserved its own autonomy.

He was well served by his secretaries, especially because of a situation that was little known. All of his closest collaborators were members of a secular institute founded in Malines, and the Cardinal had mandated Cardijn to be their spiritual superior. Anomalous if you like, but they were women working for the Belgian young workers’ movement (and in one instance for the International), paid by the adult workers’ movement, and at the same time spiritual subjects of their boss.

Two of Cardijn’s most important collaborators in the international field were Marguerite Fievez, who ran the day to day affairs of the Bureau and was one of the great architects of the International, and Emilie Arnould who saw how important it was for the JOC/YCW (as a non governmental organisation) to be in the new international institutions, such as UNO and UNESCO, from the beginning. It was she who opened the doors for Pat at the international level.

To Pat this slight man of medium height with stiff upstanding grey hair had, behind his pince-nez, eyes that were kindly but sharp. He moved about quickly but was normally relaxed, calm and straightforward, with an inner peace. One felt he had an inner order and discipline and was at ease with his vocation of priest. But there was another self which appeared when he was shocked or angered by injustice. It was this self that became the impassioned, dynamic and almost rabble-rousing public speaker.

Pat was never happy with these huge rallies and assemblies which he dubbed, along with marching, flags, ties, war cries and the rest, “typically Flemish.” In this he was not quite fair, his attitude probably jaundiced by some particular tension in the Flemish-French situation. However, when Pat expressed his doubts and criticisms to Cardijn, the reply was that these events in themselves were of no great importance, but their preparation was. He believed preparing events, great or small, national or parochial, made a great contribution to the educative and formative process of all who were involved. But here one feels that Cardijn was not being altogether candid. He did believe that such large rallies were a public demonstration of strength to those in power, especially perhaps when laid on in Rome. Yet he insisted that nothing could be gained by confrontation, and that progress would only come through diplomacy and friendship.

His day was ordered and disciplined. After meditation he said Mass at 7 o’clock, quietly without exaggeration in tone or gesture. Then he began his working day with a substantial breakfast, and was at his desk all morning, interviewing and preparing speeches and articles, often calling on an archivist to provide him with the material he needed.

Before a long trip this preparation was most detailed, and involved reading a great deal of background information on the countries he was to visit. He expected the same meticulous preparation from his collaborators. Also, before such a journey he would inform the Secretariat of State in Rome, in practice for many years this meant Mgr Montini who would alert the appropriate nuncios and delegates. Then on his return he would report back in person with a positive attitude to the situations as he found them. There was, no doubt, an element of tit for tat in this, but underlying it was a deep sense of Rome as a unifying factor. He was always anxious for it to be well known that he, and the movement, had the sympathy and support of the Holy See. An example of this occurred during the period when the priest-workers in France were under a cloud, before being suppressed. He went to Rome and was most anxious to have his photograph taken with Pius XII, so that he could give it the widest possible diffusion. This, he felt, would make clear the distinction and would speak more convincingly than any number of printed words.

Lunch, each day, was a light cooked meal at 12.30. Immediately at the end of the meal he would disappear until 4 o’clock. Visitors who were unaware of his rigid timetable would be somewhat disconcerted when, perhaps in the middle of a discussion, he would suddenly rise, make his excuses and depart. But this was an expression of his inner order, the need of self-discipline. Experience taught his guests that, if they had something important to say, they should get it said early in the meal. Another instance of this discipline was anxiety about punctuality, an obsession that became even stronger as he grew older. His thirst for knowledge never diminished, ranging from a visit to a Buddhist monastery, to talk to the monks about prayer, to a childlike desire to see the elephants in Ceylon – both of these in his seventy first year. In all the countries he visited, as well as meeting the great and the good, he always contrived to do some walkabouts, to see how the people lived.

When Cardijn began the JOC he did not set out to “make Catholic Action”, but to help the young workers to solve their problems because he believed in the apostolic potentiality of the simplest working folk. But when Pius XI referred to the JOC in an encyclical letter as “the very model form of Catholic Action,” he was only too happy to accept this compliment. Nothing would change, but he calculated that the papal boost would pay dividends. In some areas it may have done, but it also led to many difficulties not the least of these being

At times his obsession with solving the problems of working youth through the JOC/YCW hovered dangerously on the edge of empire-building. Hence the inclination to accept any kind of group in the U.S.A. calling itself YCW, and the barriers he created in places like Detroit and Boston, claiming too much and talking too much. After one audience with Pius XII Pat noted in his diary: “C. talked too much.” Above all it was demonstrated in the Vatican Council. In the early sessions he was present as a peritus (expert), and was perched high above the benches of the bishops in what he called his “pigeon loft.” But then, when Paul VI created him Archbishop and Cardinal, he took his place among the Fathers of the Council, with the right to speak. He did speak, overshot his time limit, ignored the signal from the chair, and was finally, in mid- sentence, pulled back into his seat by his neighbours.


1The complete text of the address will be found in Appendix 1, p….

2It is interesting to note that this same sentiment was being expressed over thirty years later in the 1987 Synod on the Laity. Bishop Patrick D’Souza of India in his intervention summed up what many had said or presupposed: “We in this Synod have a choice to make: we can either emphasize the differences or stress the equality of the dignity of all Christians as God’s children and the co-responsibility of all in the one mission of the Church. The Synod will evolve according to the alternative we select.”

3Although in the Order of Saint Benedict the monks normally live in a community in an Abbey or Priory, the English Benedictine Congregation explicitly makes provision in its Constitution for some of their monks to be in charge of parishes. It is said that the reason for this is that in the penal times of the post-Reformation era individual monks would risk death (like the martyr St Ambrose Barlow) in order to minister to the “remnant”.

4The Catholic Worker was launched in 1935 by a small group of laity and clergy from all levels of society. A monthly, it was unique among Catholic periodicals in England. The (Catholic) authorities insisted that each issue should be vetted by a priest censor before printing. The title in itself rang alarm bells, but the editor was not only a layman he was a worker, in fact a Salford docker. So, quite solemnly each month, alongside the name of the printer, appeared the words Cum permissu superiorum. Thus, no doubt, reassuring the workers who bought the paper that they would not be led astray.

5Some explanation is needed of YCW terminology. The basic, usually parish, group is called a section. This Is made up of a number of leaders.

In the original Belgian and French movements these were, and still are, called militants, but the use of this term was felt to be inappropriate In England. In the light of developments in the Labour Party nearly fifty years later, this was a wise decision.

The term leader was chosen because, ideally, each fully fledged member is expected to have a nucleus of fellow workers who make up his team. Organisers are those who work full time to extend the movement in a specific area of the country. Again ideally, all the leaders and their teams in a particular section should meet together at regular intervals in a General Assembly.

6This confusion continued for some time, and was to be found even among the elect. At one point Monsignor Montini sent, on behalf of the Holy See, a sum of money to the Apostolic Delegate in London to be given to the Young Christian Workers. A few weeks later Archbishop Godfrey called Pat Keegan to the Delegation and mildly admonished him for being dilatory in acknowledging the generosity of the Holy Father. Pat was baffled, but when the Archbishop went on to say “And I don’t like your attitude to Spain either,” he realised that the money had been sent to The Catholic Worker.

7This soon proved, “too small and an old disused shop and house were found only about five minutes walk away. This was rented and all the administration and offices transferred there, leaving the Offley Road premises free for living quarters for the chaplains.

8During each month organisers spent three weeks “on the road”, i.e. working in the area assigned to them, and one week “at home”, back at headquarters for reports, planning and further training.

9Within weeks Pat was one of six delegates sent to Germany to investigate the position of youth there and the attitude of the Control Commission. Later Cardinal Griffin thanked him for going, saying that from his reports he had contributed more to the delegation than any other member, and that SCNVYO had written to him to say that he had done a good job.

10By membership of various sub-committees.

11At the time of the Coronation Lady Cadogan hosted a meeting in her London house between the Papal Legate and her nephew, Sir Alex Cadogan, from the Foreign Office. The outcome of this meeting was the appointment of the first Apostolic Delegate to England.

12A local Seminarians Study Week had already been organised in Liverpool the previous year.

13Pat had suggested that his title should be general chaplain rather than national chaplain. The Youth Department of the NCWC was at that time anxious to have all national youth organisations under its control. This was a way of avoiding such control.