1962 – The world dimension of the social apostolate


(Talk given by P. Keegan to Catholic Social Guild Study Week, August, 1962).

Sincerest thanks to the Guild for the privilege of speaking for the first time to the CSG Summer School.

Like many other people engaged in the social apostolate, I have gained much inspiration from the work of the Social Guild. Many years ago, before being committed to the YCW, I was a member of a Catholic Social Guild group in Wigan, where one discovered for the first time that the Church even had a social doctrine.

In that group we used a small brown booklet written by Virginia Crawford, on the Church and the Worker. This certainly opened up to me my first knowledge of the existence in history of the Catholic Social Movement. Through this publication of the Guild I heard of men like Albert de Mun, Descurtins, Bishop van Keller, Gibbons and Manning. One discovered with a certain shock the opposition that these great people met from people within the Church. It was puzzling to see that the Church was not united in a desire to give a Christian solution to the worker question, or to relieve poverty by basic change rather than by paternal gifts. It seems ridiculous now, but even that simple CSG group in the Wigan of my youth, in the midst of real poverty, was rather suspect within the Church.

One might think of that as history, but in so many parts of the world today the hostility of good Christians to the social doctrine of the church is still the scandal of the 20th century.

Only two weeks ago I was engaged in helping to find money to bale out of gaol YCW leaders in Spain, because they had dared to agitate and strike for free trade unions. It was a bleak road walked by Tom Leyland, Maurice Leahy, Bob Valah, Father Plater and O’Hea, and other pioneers of the Guild.

On reading Virginia Crawford, I remember being terribly puzzled that there were such large numbers of Catholics, even Prelates, Who were Indifferent to the social doctrine of the Church and sometimes even downright hostile.

After a number of years experience in the worker apostolate, I am still puzzled at this fact, and possibly one of the great jobs still to be done is that of the work of education and persuasion within the Church on the need and relevance of organised Christian social action. At this point, however, I simply want to express toy thanks to the Catholic Social Guild for opening up to myself and so many others the vision of a Christian social movement and its mission, and the urgent need for such a social movement, for an active Christian social movement, in every country and not only in every country, but in every pariah and city. So again, deepest thanks to the Guild for the inspiration they have given to men throughout the English-speaking world.

I am no expert on the technical application of Christian principles to economic questions, etc. Here we need the guidance of men who are not only deeply Catholic, but professionally expert in their field. A number of these distinguished people have already spoken this week. My point is that they will labour in vain unless they are backed up by increasingly strong movements of Christian workers, both young and adult, in every country, actively engaged in attempting to solve real problems that block the ordinary man from discovering his vocation and his mission as a son of God, not when he is dead, but here and now, in and through his daily life. Not merely in every country, but in every neighbourhood and in every parish we need groups of committed men and women engaged in this task.

I always remember a conversation that Monsignor Cardijn and I had with Pope Pius XII. We had been speaking to him on the situation in Latin America and he said: “I can write encyclical letters, but I can neither spread them, nor make people live up to these teachings in their workshops. I cannot do it, nor can the bishops and priests. To do that, workers are needed who are apostles.

In the same way, the blueprints of social thinkers and planners must be implemented by men and women, young and adult, in the simple activities of daily life. This is what Pope John XXIII means when he talks about Christian social teaching being an integral part of the Christian conception of life. In Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII had to establish the Church’s right to speak on social questions, as this was questioned by both clergy and laity. A statement made by the Chilean landowners of the time, who succeeded in preventing the publication of the social encyclicals, is indicative: “We are bound,” they said, “to protect our people against the erroneous social philosophy of the Papacy.” Today, in Mater et Magistra, the Holy Father does not have to stress too much the Church’s right to speak because, as John XXIII says, the Church has evolved with the cooperation of enlightened priests and laymen, especially during the past century, a clear body of social doctrine. I personally feel that the big difference between the time of Leo XIII and John XXIII is the existence throughout the world today of organised movements of lay people committed to work and change in the temporal order. They may vary in strength and quality, but they exist.

Those organised movements have come into being and have become strong because their members have been launched into an action inspired by Christian charity to take themselves and their fellow men out of isolation. The practical achievements in a number of countries of Christian co-operatives, Christian trade unions, Christian credit unions and the like, are a wonderful proof of the strength and power of Christian social teaching. For different reasons people might brush them to one side as being irrelevant, but when one looks at the social misery and poverty in many newly industrialised countries, one surely sees that such an attitude is a further scandal of disincarnate Christianity and clearly contrary to Pope John’s attitude. The Church today is faced with the immense task of humanising and Christianising this modem civilisation of ours. This is a labour urged on the Church, and indeed is almost begged for by our age itself, for the sake of its further development and even for its continued existence.

Therefore the main point I would respectfully present to you is that on every level Christian people must be inspired and trained to become engaged and committed in an action which has as its objective this humanising and Christianising of modern civilisation. Mater et Magistra clearly states that Christian social doctrine is an integral part of the Christian conception of life. For too long, in too many countries, has this social doctrine been looked on as a hobby of rather nice but strange do-gooders. This reaffirmation of the Pope one hopes will clear the air once and for all. Not that everyone will practise this, but it will be difficult for people to keep on presenting in such authoritarian ways the disincamate conception of Christianity, as if men were pure angels.

With Cardinal Suhard, I believe Catholicism is either social or it is nothing. Because of this I am convinced that the most urgent need this country has is for a strong Christian worker movement in the youth field and in the adult field, dedicated to militant action on the problems of daily living today, respectful of the present worker structures in our country.

This goes not only for England but for every country in the world, otherwise social doctrine in the Church will remain pleasant platitudes that solve nothing.

I can only speak from my experience as national and international leader, first of the YCW and now of Fatally and Social Action and the World Movement of Christian Workers.

One can see that these movements are strong to the extent that they have been able to inspire their members with a conviction that Catholic social teaching is something to be lived, and capable Of being translated into concrete action. As we know, there are many complaints about the lack of success of study groups. Why? I think because these study groups have often been kept separate from action and organisation.

In my experience, people are trained to be apostles, to be social reformers, through action springing from an awareness of the contradiction between Christ’s teaching and the actual experience of daily life. Their strength and conviction spring from an understanding of their faith as something to be lived in the context of their own providential and daily situation.

I cannot put too much emphasis on this point. Formation, training through action end Inspired through love of God, manifesting itself through love of one’s neighbour.

What is happening?

One of the great facts in the Catholic Social Movement today is the existence and growth, in the field of young workers, of the Young Christian Workers movement. Varying in strength and quality in different parts of the world, it nevertheless, as the present Holy Father so warmly stated, has shown by its achievements that a great reservoir of apostolic possibilities exists amongst young people. The YCW has proved that, given reasonable help, young workers will respond to the mystique of the social doctrine of the Church.

In a report I submitted to the Holy Father on the work of the YCW, some of the following experiences might be of interest to you. I present them purely as Indications of the apostolic possibilities that still remain untapped amongst young working people.

A Few Young Workers discovered, the problem of working youth and their own problems.

In all starts, I suppose the best way is to start at the beginning, and the beginning of any apostolic social conscience is when a fellow or a girl discovers the need and the situation of people around them and are challenged to do something, however small, about them. The following example is rather simple, but one has to see it in the context of this particular part of Africa where women ere treated rather as chattels. The Secretary of the YCW of Yaounde in the Cameroons reported: “We had a meeting of 130 girls and the following was included in the report: The meeting was conducted by us girls ourselves. (Much to the astonishment and disgust of the men who ware pressing their faces to the window panes.” This may seem very small, but it is indicative of people who begin to take their responsibilities in their own environment.

From Costa Rica a representative of UNESCO reported that in a number of villages the YCW had built its own meeting halls, “For a youth movement it has done amazing things for the education of youth. At the meetings I attended I was struck by the earnest attention and conviction of the leaders.”

The United Nations Organisation for Technical Assistance h e already employed a number of them. These YCW people started several co-operatives.”

From Brazil:

“I wanted to try and have much more Influence on the floor of my workshop, but the whole standard was made by one man who was very generous, but had no time for Christians. First I tried to gain his friendship, to help him whenever I could, especially by lending tools. I met him in the evening and we agreed to organise small parties after working hours for different fellows Who were having a birthday. I asked his co-operation. He remained a little mistrustful but could not very well refuse. Gradually he became interested in the YCW.

Now he has gone to work to develop the YCW in the north.

This type of small act is repeated so many thousands of times in all those little YCW groups, even the weakest of them, in affluent and non-affluent countries. A belief is being born in one or two Who have understood and acted accordingly. I present these simple facts Which I know are not world shattering, as an indication that at the present time there are over million young working people who, through the inspiration of the original social encyclicals and through the work of the YCW, are receiving to same degree an apostolic formation baaed on the principles of an incarnate Catholicism. I hope you will agree with me that no-one who leaves school, whether at 12 or 15, is fully educated, that the great period of education is between the age of leaving school up to 25. I think this sort of thing gives one hope for the future in the Christian social movement.

From these small discoveries and personal action, people in this movement are led to see the need of an organised movement and to develop institutions Which train and serve groups of people, building these as a result of enquiries mode into the situation and needs of those around them. Often it is the story of the grain of mustard seed. The small simple commitments that lead to more organised effort, in the report from countries that I submitted to the Pope, included details of the YCW teams in work, teams in a local neighbourhood, study days, study sessions, campaigns, by means of enquiries, services for preparation and assistance at work and so on. Here are a few facts that may be of Interest to you.

At Leopoldville, young people find it very difficult to get employment. Others find it very difficult to approach official bodies or to write letters. Our Section here tried to find a solution and they have founded little services in different parts of Leopoldville, called people’s secretariats. They are small information centres. Young workers find there information documents, people to help them on how to request employment. They also learn how to write letters of application. We are now having little group to help people to learn to read. Some of the YCW leaders who are clerks give three evenings a week…

From Japan: “We had a strong campaign on the need of houses for the poorest working families. We were able to persuade those towns in Japan to support the action of the YCW by building a number of these houses.”

From Durban: “We have our little bureau here to give advice on legislation to help our fellow Africans in case of accident or difficulty with the pass law.”

From Rio: “During the last year we had a campaign on the health of the young worker. In Rio we had 504 public meetings, attended by 25.000 people.”

From Morocco: “Our section started a small carpenters shop, where the boys who are unemployed are able to learn a trade, to earn a living. This only exists in two sections at present.”

From Montreal: “For the last few years we have not had less than 3,300 men and 3.800 women who benefited from our service of preparation for marriage.”

I myself visited a model village being built in the bush by the YCW of the Cameroons, to try new methods of crop rotation, one could mention also the establishment of vocational guidance and other services in many of these countries, but I have just mentioned these small points to give an indication of how, through all of these small services, people can discover the mystery and meaning of the Church in terms of their own situation and the relevance of the social doctrine.

People in public life and in the adult field from the YCW

In moat countries where the YCW has existed for some time, there ere now vital groups of worker apostolic families. Gr owing in England now we have the Family and Social Action, and apart from this impact on the family great influence has been exercised in the social, civic and political field, by reforms suggested and inspired by the YCW, but more especially by the worker leaders which the YCW furnishes in different sectors of life.

Trade unions, apostolic movements, whether they are called PSA, ACO, LOC, or Christian Family Movement, many of their leaders are from the YCW. On the local and administrative bodies, foremen and directors of social services. When you visit a country you have to ask but a few people and at once you hear a list of names of former YCW who occupy posts of great responsibility.

In Chile the YCW has established an institute for People’s Education, and the first non-governmental vocational guidance centre. In Colombia the largest trade union organisation is led by YCW people from the early days of the movement. In France, in Belgium, in Bolivia, former YCWs have been Ministers of Labour, of Family, of Health and the Interior. An increasing number of them are working at the International Labour Office and at the United Nations. One could go on with such a list, but on a more current topic I would like to mention Spain.

Ten years ago I was in Spain to assist in the formation of the YCW Movement there. Today, many of these men have been the leaders of the strikes in the Asturias. Some of them are leaders of the adult workers movement, HOAC. Often misunderstood by their fellow Catholics, these men are giving an example to the world that the social teaching of the Church must not be confined to the sacristies.

A dear friend of mine, Ramon Gonzalez, leader of the free union in Cuba, was brain washed by being put in an ice chamber for over two days. He made a public confession on television for two hours and has now lost his mind.

Recently, in the election in London, seven YCW people in one rather small area, are on the Council.

These, I think, are an indication of what is possible if people believe in the need for this informal adult education of young working people.

Within the context of the Church and Her Mission

The YCW has inculcated a new conception of religion in the young workers, in which religion is presented as a life centred on God, on his service to his neighbour in the daily situation of living.

Recently the President of the Japanese YCW was over here. He told me with joy that his mother, a Buddhist, had become a Christian. He himself, When he came to the YCW, was a Buddhist. Here are some little facts from a report given to Rome:

Singapore: We have had catechism classes for 130 young workers.

From my own experience in England and in English-speaking countries, the number of people who have come to the Church is considerable. One of the grand things that strikes me is the large number of priestly end missionary vocations which the movement has helped er fostered to some degree. I myself have met so many YCW people, new priests end nuns. In 1958 we estimated et least 5,300 who had been members of our movement and who the movement must have helped in some small way to discover their vocation. Therefore, when one sees this, one owes the very great potentiality that exists among working people in all countries. For myself, I am convinced not only of the method of the YCW, but that it is the indispensable first step in most countries, not only far the Church to have contact with the mass of young workers, but the first and indispensable stage of any Christian social movement.

Alexis Carrell, author of Man the Unknown, wrote to Mgr Cardijn, “I am struck more and more by the extraordinary greatness of this movement. If Christian inspiration in penetrating economic and social forms likely to live on, it will perhaps come to build up a firm and indefinitely perfectible civilisation.”

Patrick Keegan


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