1949 – The world problem and our responsibility

 “The World Problem and our Responsibility in the International YCW”

Given by P. Keegan at the Seminarists’ Study Week – 3.9.1949)

This week there has been much discussion and exchange of experiences on the work of the local section. The role of members and leaders in the movement and the role of priests in the job of re-Christianising the whole of the working-class. My job is to give you news of the International YCW, but I may say that the International YCW is particularly futile and a waste of time unless there is a strong local section in every community; its energy is derived from the enthusiasm of the members of the local section; to be effective, its work must spring from solid, sound local sections. The future of the working-class demands young worker leaders. At this hour, the working-class has a most important role to play in the whole life of society, and the whole future depends on the part they are to play now. If we accept this fact – the role of the worker in society – we can see that their education is of vital importance. This Seminarians’ Study Week is important, not only to the YCW of this country, but to the whole world of work.

The big question I have got to ask is “Who is going to reveal to these young workers their responsibility to the working-class?” “Who is going to disclose to them the whole Body, the magnificence of the Christian Doctrine?” The answer is simple: Without the priest as educator, the young worker will never venture into society to carry out his tremendous missionary task. This is our movement, a young workers’ movement, but it is made more difficult if we do not have priests; there can be no working-class movement unless the members and leaders are strong in their faith. That is what makes me nervous this morning, because so much depends on the future priests for the whole International YCW, because you are the educators of tomorrow’s young workers. I feel convinced that the average young worker is willing to make any real sacrifice to work for the Christian transformation of the world of work, providing he knows the reason why, providing he has a dynamic and intelligent reason to make such an effort, and that dynamic can only come from the riches and depth of the Church. Therefore, the future is dependent not so much on your conviction as to your role as educator and animator.

In the last few years, the sympathy of a great number of priests for our work has increased, and I am more than confident, because, hen I had the privilege of seeing the Holy Father, he said: “Have you priests enough?” I answered that we wanted more. The Holy Father said: ” You must have more priests so that you will be able to have leaders with a deep spiritual life’ You must pray to have more priests!” The Holy Father continued: “You must have more and more intelligent, fervent and zealous priests!” Thus, this Study Week will be of primary importance to the working-class of our country if from it we will get priests as the Holy Father desires.

Before giving you news of the International YCW: think we should briefly examine the need for such an International movement as an answer to the problems of the young worker. The revolution of economic life, which started in England and on the continent of Europe 150 years ago, has developed and perfected itself to such an extent that it now embraces the whole world. To-day, every country is to some degree industrialised and possesses the same kind of industrial technique and the same kind of civilisation. In every country this industrial civilisation has called into existence the a property-less working-class.

In Asia we now see the violent transition from simple conditions of work to highly concentrated industry, and the result is the same. The civilisation of the Machine Age is world-wide and will not be changed easily, and, as this brings frustration and the same problems and difficulties to the working-class, a solution that is world-wide is necessary. Every young worker is a son of God. Every young worker in Asia, Africa, America, China and India requires the redemptive necessity of our movement. We must see the tremendous necessity of bring to the young worker the discovery of his value as a son of God. It is absolutely essential that every young worker understands his value and be brought to realise who, what and why he is on this earth Perhaps the YCW is not the complete answer to the problems which the working class has to face but I do feel that it is the first step, and we must, therefore, begin with the young worker! There are other groups necessary to make their own particular contribution. I mention as one example the necessity of an adult movement of workers, to bring about action on a local plane on the labour field. There is a necessity for a movement in universities, and a Co-Operative spirit from those who are having the riches of a decent education and they must see that their work, their job and responsibility to the working-class. A missionary conception of the Church in the England of to-day.

Since the war, the International YCW has developed, springing from the spontaneous and natural desire of the movement in each country to get together. In August 1945, the YCW grouped itself on an international plane, and its task was to get closer co-operation between the work of the movement in different countries, and to bring about a Christian solution to the problems of work that are now an international level. Our first job was to render assistance to the countries where the YCW was beginning, and to contact those countries which did not the possess the YCW, and the growth of the YCW in Germany, Austria, the United States, and in parts of South America are primarily the results of the efforts of the International YCW formed in 1945. Although this work has taken four years, there are still vast countries like India, Africa and China which must still be opened up to the YCW.

The YCW in Germany is developing very favourably and strongly There has been a constant exchange since 1946 of young workers from Germany and England. They now have 400 sections going throughout the country. The feminine side of the YCW needs to be developed much more, and the International YCW is giving their assistance in this matter.

Austria, during the last two years, has developed very well. In these two countries we have the heart of Europe, so very close to that tremendous force of Communism which offers to enslave and betray and degrade the working class.

I know you will be particularly interested in the development of the YCW in The United States, bound as we are by a common language and because we have so many ties with them. At the request of the chaplains and leaders of the YCW there, Father Hopkins and I visited America and later were joined by Canon Cardijn. The big thing that strikes one about the USA is that it is a vast reservoir of potential strength for the mission of building a Christian working-class. There is a depth and love of the Church there which makes one more anxious to see it used. The YCW movement there, really began to get going 12 months ago. Amongst some Americans were the old, old, usual objections to the movement, namely “That there were no workers’ problems!”, and that the moment was “foreign”. We are quite prepared for these two, and, after they were answered, there was a deep desire to know more and more about the practical work of the movement, on the practical work of the local section and the work of the leaders and members.

My main job was to assist the national leaders and teams in their work at this stage. From the results of enquiries; it became very apparent that there many grave problems facing the young worker in America. The idea that everyone has a chance to become president created a tendency on the part of the young worker to look on their present jobs merely as a rung in the ladder to success. The question of wages in many places was an acute problem, particularly for the young married couples setting up a home. In regard to conditions of work, the figure for 1948 of workers injured on the job was 1,960,000. Facts came out about the textile mills in New England moving to the south because unions were being organised in their present location, where coloured labour was being employed to cut down on costs. (‘There was no workers’ problem?). There were problems of over-supervision, overwork, nervous disorders in great abundance.

In addition to all the difficulties of young workers generally, the coloured young worker merits special consideration. His are more acute and he has more of them. Just because his skin is coloured he is the last hired on the job and the first to be fired from it, when business slackens. The majority of young workers live in segregated neighbourhoods, specially allocated to the coloured workers, where housing is inhumanely overcrowded. It is a fact that many families live in one or two rooms. Everywhere he faces the personal prejudice of individuals. If he tries to move into another district, he faces violence from white people, even from Catholics, consequently each working-day brings a host of frustrating trials to him.

Once, when I was travelling, I met a young coloured soldier on the train and, after talking to him for a while, made an effort to buy him a drink. It soon became obvious that the bar-man had every intention of ignoring us, and he treated the soldier to a show of discourtesy when he finally brought them which made me realise the attitude of other human beings to those who have a coloured skin.

From the short time I spent in the States, I realised that unless the Church faces squarely and honestly this colour problem, and produces more people like Archbishop Ritter of St. Louis, Bishop Hass of Grand Rapids, Bishop Shiel of Chicago, the integrity of her doctrine and mission will be questioned or misunderstood.

There is a genuine workers’ problem in the States, and there is also the big question confronting the Church, which is: How to bring about at this present time, the application of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and the need at the present to put Christianity into the whole of life, into the most mundane things of life and to treat man and as a whole must be answered. The Marxist look upon man as pure matter and there is often the danger that we look upon him as pure soul.

In most industrial cities in the States there is either a section in existence or contacts who will be able to make sections so that the work Father Hopkins and I did was, briefly, as follows:-

We had 16 conferences with the headquarter’s team, a team we worked together on such questions as the general situation and structure of the movement, the role and responsibility of the local section, the regional and headquarter’s teams, the planning of a 12 month’s programme, the work and training of full-time organisers, the application of the YCW to the American scheme. We also discussed the work of the priest and questions of organisation, like finance.

We also had 3 conferences with the Publications team.


We had two study days for priests and over 5 attended. They were very keen to know many things, some of which were: how to choose one’s leaders, The role of priests at the leaders’ meeting; How to start a section and how to maintain it. Here there was a Seminarist Committee, composed of students from different seminaries who met to plan regional study weeks in different parts of the country for seminarians. There was a tremendous spirit amongst them and they realise the part we are to play and the part we do play in catholic action. There is a good contact with the YCS and the YCW but this liaison needs to he strengthened.

There are 30 sections of the adult movement, which is good, but it is doubtful whether they will he the right continuation for the YCW as they were not quite working class families. To give you an example of what they were one of the “problems” was that they couldn’t get servants. The priests seemed to prefer to give their time to the adult movement. When tackled about this they claimed that it was easier to start a section of the adult movement, it was more satisfying, and it is more permanent. Special mention out to be given to Monsignor Reynold Hillenbrand, Rector of the Mundelein Seminary, who organised groups of seminarists to study the whole question of the lay apostolate in respect to social problems. Through his efforts the first section of the YCW was formed. There is here an industrial population of 4,461,401, and a Catholic population of 1,652,587. So you see the tremendous possibilities and scope for the movement.

New York Here they have many girls sections. The main work we did for them here was on the work of the local section, development of teams, discovery of local problems, and their particular problem of central sections.


It was here that we found a very willing spirit amongst the priests, who will be very good if they get the right type for YCW.

They did not seem to know many of the young workers of the district.

The YCW seemed to suffer from a lack of a simple plan, a knowledge of how to launch a new section, to maintain and develop it, and they badly needed an organiser to visit the priest; and make the necessary friendly contact.

There are 1,0623,996 Catholics in this area out of a total population of 4,600,022, which affords good prospects for the YCW development.


We had a meeting with six priests and found that they were very willing. One of the questions put to us was “How to find the typical young worker?” It was quite evident that they were looking for a grim looking out of work boxer type of boy and did not seen to realise that it was the ordinary worker who was required. As this attitude is typical of many priests, we were able to solve their problem and they were left a little more hopeful as to the future and success of the movement.

The great difficulty here is that there is a large number of Mexicans who cannot speak English, Another problem is the coloured young workers, who are made to feel socially inferior by reason on their colour. The war opened up many opportunities for coloured workers, but not many of then endured. These workers must be made to realise that they are one with the mystical Body of Christ, otherwise how are they to change their environment? How are they to realise their value as sons of God? In this respect we must have priests to educate us, to give us the fruits and the riches of the Church of Jesus Christ, and so enable us to conquer the whole of the working world. There should not be priest organisers of youth. They are too valuable. They are too necessary.


We spent one day here at a conference on Catholic Action.

St Louis

There are many problems in this locality and a great desire for the YCW. We started seven sections.

San Pedro

A large industrial area having only 2 local sections known as the YCW but really that was a label for a recreational club which these were. The priests, although keen were perplexed by the fact that the existing sections were merely clubs but we put them on the right track about this.

San Francisco

We found here when we arrived one section comprised of 120 members. The priests were very keen but were disappointed in the section as it was. The general attitude bespoke of nothing of the “worker-conscience” at all. In fact, apart from one lecture during the week, the time in the section was given up to dancing in various forms. We did our best to dispel this delusion… a very hard job.

Seattle he arrived and were met by two members of the 12 who were responsible for a large flamboyant building bearing a large notice “YCW Headquarters, Seattle” Here again the idea of the YCW had been misconstrued. They were inclined to be a little too intellectual and had acquired a large problem of finance in seeping with the large house.

We have great ties with the USA and the close relationship offers to be one of the great things in the history of the working class of the future. We are united not alone by language, but in the Mystical Body of Christ, in the Universal Church. All this effects the local section in our country and in other countries. There are real ties between the YCW in Manchester and the YCW of Manhattan. The ties of faith; the ties that come from their work and their life as workers. When things are based in sections in Manhattan, the can also be strengthened by the development of the local sections in Manchester.

If one is weak and the other strong, it will help us to see beyond our own particular section to the needs of the young workers in other countries. It v/ill make us realise that the people who lived yesterday in the bush and the desert are now drawn aid scattered in new industrial areas, brutally facing the growth of industrialism. The international concept of the YCW. demands that we must rejoice wherever a new section is formed, in whatever country, because we know that through it will come the transformation of the workers of that neighbourhood.

This realisation of the Mystical Body, this conception of a Universal Church, can help us to keep things in proportion.

Thousands of young men and girls, formerly bound by their tribe in Africa, are now being released to the towns, to which they are summoned by the call of industrialism. They are being called to work in the mines, in factories where the conditions are appalling and the living conditions fit for no human being. Eric Tyacke who was trained by us here, sustained by our leaders and members in different parts of the country, is now in South Africa, laying the seeds of local section for that vast continent.

Let us face it. There is a danger that we wont see over our own pint pots. There is a danger in excessive nationalism or in excessive parochialism or individualism. More and more the young workers, both of this country and of other countries need the chaplains of the YCW, the doctrine of the Mystical Body, the implications of the Mystical Body in their own life and their own work. We need priests to get it over to us, to help us to get it over the young workers whom we contact. I would humbly ask that we have more and more priests who can give to the young worker apostles this revolutionary doctrine of the Mystical Body, which is the only long term answer to the cry of Communism.

This international mind, springing from this Doctrine, does not necessarily mean that we expect the YCW of Africa to be patterned on the YCW in England, America or anywhere else. It demands of us all an understanding and tolerance of the particular need of the particular country, and just as we have to adapt ourselves to our local conditions, the International YCW must adapt itself to the temperament and conditions of the particular country. This growth of the YCW throughout the world, this international concept in each local section, the magnificent doctrine of the Mystical Body can be the only answer to the need for a new social order.

Apart from assisting new countries, the International YCW has represented the young worker on such bodies as the International Labour Office, UNESCO, WHO, etc., and recently at the World Conference of Youth, it was an eye-opener for many to see the young workers of different colours, trained by our Movement, standing up before that World Assembly of Youth and disclosing the problem of the working youth in their countries. A fact came out here that one young fellow was told before he left to attend this Conference of Youth that his job was finished, and yet he had the courage to come and voice the needs of the youth of his country. The reason was that he was trained by the YCW. Never has the missionary character of the Church appeared more obvious and its expression more urgent. The Church elevates, inspires, spreads and unifies the world and humanity.

The missionary apostolate to the world of work throughout the world is more vital than ever, and I do feel that at no time has that missionary spirit been more marked than at the present time.

Today we need young lay workers who consider the labour problems from a point of view of the Mystical Body. For many of the human race, many of the workers of the world are yet in a subhuman period in many parts of the world. The lack of respect for the human person is something terrible; the shameful disregard of human rights of housing, feeding, hygiene, education, social security, for hundreds of thousands of human beings cries out for a Christian solution. How can we hope to be happy when there are such conditions prevailing in the world of work? The International YCW is arising, but much more needs be done. England can be justly proud, of the role of the English YCW. Not only to the English speaking countries, but to the other countries.

I can only appeal to you, the future priests of this country, to make it possible for theY CW to develop by placing your riches, the riches of your training, at the disposal of the young workers. You may prefer, when you are priests and interested in doing something for youth, to bolster up that edifice of youth work conceived by paternalists in the early 19th century, and still existing in our country. I think this is good, providing we do not think that we are going to build a Christian working-class by it. I think it is good if we feel that by it a missionary dynamic of the Catholic Church to the world of work is adequately expressed. The world of worn needs you, and I trust that when we go next year to the Holy Father we can answer to his appeal for more priests, we can tell him that we have more new priests. Through it a new world can be created. Through our YCW movement, we can bring home to every other young worker the realisation of his value as a son of God, but we must be firm and strong in our faith.


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