The YCW and the parish

(Report presented at the Liturgical Week of Mont Cesar at Louvain, 11 August 1925, by Fr Jos. Cardijn, General chaplain of the YCW Brussels) 

I have no 'title' to be on this platform. I am not a liturgist and am no longer attached to a parish. Yet I thank Fr Kreps for his kindly invitation. It offers me a unique occasion, in front of a chosen audience, to show by the concrete example of the YCW, how the social organisations in general must - and if they are well structured and well directed - can become one of the most appropriate means of our time to revive PARISH LIFE; to reconstitute the parish community in its integral nature of doing good. 

Unfortunately, in many industrial regions, the parish is no longer significant except among the clergy. Ask the people, and those who still understand the name will respond: "The parish, the parish priest… that's where people go for baptisms, for children's first conmunion, for marriage and funerals." The bonds which exist among the parishioners, between them and the parish clergy… their rights and reciprocal duties… the family and the parish union… all that no longer lives for the masses. That kernel of the militant Church, united in the struggle for the Christian organisation of earthly society and the conquest of blessed eternity… scarcely appears any more to most people. 

And yet, the body spirit the conscious and strong union among all the parishioners which manifests itself to the public by a united front in the defense as in the attack - is more indispensable than ever in order to restore Christian life… to re-infuse the sense of catholic/universal … not only in the working class, but in all of society. And we think that the parish social works are an easy means to bring back the masses to that community of life, to that body spirit (esprit de corps), to the understanding of the parish spirit. 

We must truly dare to admit, among ourselves, that apropos of the social organisations, there are regrettable misunderstandings which prevent many generosities. "The social organisations, according to some people, exist and work at the margin of the parish"... "The social sphere, the social framework (cadre), according to certain people, is in opposition to the ... parish framework". To the directors of social works, some say "You come and divide the parishioners, with your organisations which take into account their interests, their conditions and their requirements-bringing sometimes hostile divisions". Haven't you already heard the remark: "pretty soon different parishes will need to be created for the workers, for the farmers and for the employers". 

These misunderstandings come from a superficial concept. In a society truly Christian, the social organisations would be indissolubly united to the parish, as the body of this earthly life is united to the soul … and as the members are united to the body. When, in view of eternal happiness, the parish interests itself in all the needs of the parishioner, when the parish finds a favorable solution, an assistance for all the problems which arise in concrete daily life, humble and often difficult; ... when the Church and the parish clergy are no longer strangers to the vital questions posed by the conditions of modern life - which, moreover have a fatal repercussion on religious life.., then our modern society - in all its manifestations: social, economic, artistic and recreational - will again be as it was during the Middle Ages: guided, clarified and protected by the parish spirit which is the true Christian social spirit. 

Look at the Concrete Case of the YCW 

At the age of 14 - and before the war, at the age of 11 - 12, a large number of our young parishioners leave school to begin their life as paid workers. This new life, ordinarily takes place outside of and often far from the family and the parish. It has a decisive influence on the mentality, on the conduct, and on the spiritual and temporal future of the adolescent boy and girl. There are half a million such youngsters in Belgium, aged 14 to 21 - the entire working class of tomorrow. 

Oh, who knows about their life, conversations, acts, habits; the dangers to which they are exposed; the abuses of which they are often the victims; the temptations, the scandals, the promiscuities which surround them in their work, in the transport they use to go to work; at the office, in the workshop, in the factories, the mines … during their rest periods, during the leisure and recreation? The parish - is it interested in the life of these young parishioners? How many are there in each parish? How are they prepared for this life at work? Has one brought them together on the eve of their entry into the factory or office - to show them the interest that we take in that new stage … so important in their life? Does one celebrate a mass for their intention? Does one try to interest other parishioners in such a ceremony? Does one give to these newcomers to the world of work - older companions - true guardian angels - who would watch over their first steps in the apprenticeship of this life of liberty? And then, who forms their professional conscience? Who assists them, counsels them ... helps them in the numerous cases when it is impossible for them to manage alone … in teaching them about their professional tasks, in their apprenticeship, in their morality, in their safety and hygiene at work, in relation to all the accidents and conditions of their work which have a preponderant influence on their health, their future, their religious and parish life? … And when they return from work in the evening, or on Sunday, who offers them normal occasions to continue their education, their recreation? Who helps them save, have insurance, who helps them prepare for a healthy ... integral … true family life? Let's admit it humbly, for all those problems, particular to the working youth and which are essential for the development of their moral and religious life - that is to say their parish life - the majority of young workers are abandoned to themselves. 

All this part of their life, by far the most important; takes place far from the influence of parish life and clergy. All these difficult and complicated problems are solved … without the knowledge and often without any contact with parish clergy and parish life. In the young worker's life, how often are the parish, the clergy, the church, the ceremonies … criticised, and ridiculed? And little by little, often very quickly, the young worker is no longer interested in the parish life or clergy. He becomes indifferent; he distances himself … since all that has become foreign: absent from his daily life so humble, difficult … which he lives far from that one hour of time (if at all) he might spend on Sunday in the parish church. 

Now there is the problem which is presented in urgent fashion: How to maintain… I would say, how to re-establish the contact between parish life and the habitual life of the young workers in the parish? How to achieve … that the parish, its life and organisation, its clergy have a preponderant and decisive influence on the life of the young workers - not only to assist them, to prepare and protect them from temptations ... and the initiations and the scandals of abuse? Beyond that, and above all how to influence their life at work, en route to work, with their companions? Were the parish to show such interest, youngsters would be proud to be faithful parishioners, practising Christians and audacious … apostles of parish life. Then it would appear clearly to them as Christian life, lived socially and organically, in community, in strong union with other Christians. They would also be proud to imprint their daily life with the principles of the Divine Master, who continues to act and teach through the church, the parish and its clergy. 

This is how we believe the problem can be faced efficaciously and practically ... There is but one means: that of a specific group of young workers in a parish section of YCW as soon as they leave school. There, among themselves, by themselves and for themselves, with the assistance of the parish clergy - they face all the problems of their life as young workers; they form themselves to seek practical solutions; they learn to think, to speak, to discuss and to act as Christians; they organise all kinds of services; they offer mutual aid in a concrete and living manner in order to live a Christian life … linking their life at work with their parish life; inspiring their life at work with parish ideals. They learn to sanctify their life at work through a communion of thought; feelings, acts, prayers and sufferings ... uniting their daily life to the sacrificial gesture of the parish clergy … at the altar where the Divine Victim who alone can give the strength and courage necessary to reach and save their fellow workers. 

This parish union of the young workers puts Christian doctrine at the base of their life as young workers. It is as young Christians, young parishioners that they learn to practically and concretely solve the problems of their life as young workers. What is the significance of their work? What kind of conduct/attitude should one have at work? What are the legitimate and necessary demands necessary to their parish life? What are the institutions for saving, for insurance, for further education and recreation which are favorable for the development of their professional, physical, moral and religious life? The parish doctrine, which is Christian doctrine applied to the organisation of Christian society - could furnish all the answers. When the young workers understand that; when they have sensed and touched that ...because it was explained simply and concretely - oh how proud they are to be parishioners, to live as parishioners everywhere: at home as with their fellow workers! How proud they are to reply to insults against the clergy, the sacraments and the church and religion. The parish section of the YCW unites them freely, and voluntarily of their own choice ... without violence … inculcates in them an esprit de corps, a spirit of association, of mutual aid, of mutual caring, of Christian loyalty which is the best cement for parish life. 

The clergy who approaches these young people … who speaks to each one will see what generosity is encountered in these souls. It is the history of the primitive church relived for them. The meetings in the catacombs, the contact of the first Christians and martyrs with the non Christian families and population … all this speaks to the imagination, to the heart of the young workers, who are ready to re-live those heroic times. It is enough to simply tell of this, in a lively way, in the meetings... one is astonished at the impressions produced. Isn't it the history, the origin and the growth of those very first parishes which comes alive for the young workers? The parish then is no longer an abstraction. Like their very own section of the YCW, lively and active; an association of Christians who give mutual aid ... in response to a world which has again become pagan. These are the true doctrines of fraternity, of justice, of the integral uplifting preached by Our Lord Jesus Christ. Not the Christ who lived 1900 years ago, but He who lives in and through the parish, among the young workers. He descends daily on the parish alter, in the mass. ..the obligatory gathering at which all the parishioners should participate to unite themselves to Christ; to re-learn from Him the spirit of sacrifice, of apostolate. It is the function of the parish clergy to make this concrete to their eyes. The clergy continue, replace and interpret that adored Master. By the intermediary of the parish clergy they are united to the bishop, and to the pope. By their parish community they are united with the whole church visible, militant; conquering.. .which has expanded for twenty centuries, struggled, spread among all the nations and peoples to bring to the world a true fraternity and true human peace! "Pax Christi in regno Christi". Then it becomes easy to make people understand the necessity of better participation in the parish life … by attendance at Mass, the liturgical songs, by frequent communion, recollections and retreats, participation in processions and public ceremonies. 

In the YCW human respect is no longer so important. They learn how to dare, show themselves as true Christians ... lift their heads above the crowd. And how proud they are, little by little, young miners, metallurgists, those in glass and pottery factories - to come, in a group, with their flags and bugles ... in the face of their fellow workers by a public profession of faith which links them to the church. All one needs to do is call upon the reasoning they hear every day at work: the necessity of working together, solidarity, public displays, meetings, movements which influence public opinion! "Why are they embarrassed to follow the cross and the Holy Sacrament when so many others are proud to follow the red flag? Why do they not come to the parish center whereas many of their companions go to the House of the People (socialist centre). Where is the true 'House of the People': the one which abolished slavery, which ennobled work, which demanded respect for women, valued children and protected the feeble and the poor… the one where they find their true father in heaven... the one where they can sit at the true table of the human family … is that not the parish? 

Oh, I could recount so many facts revealed in the YCW sections which prove in an irrefutable manner, that the YCW is the concrete revelation of the true parish spirit and wishes to awaken it more profoundly not only among an elite, but among the masses of young workers. 

In order to become a lasting force, capable of transforming the mentality of the young workers, the YCW must spread beyond the boundaries of the parish. Young workers do not remain in the parish: they travel to other communities and meet other people at work. The clergy cannot follow them to workplace. Therefore young workers must be formed, organised in such a way that the influence of the parish goes beyond its geographic limits and prolongs itself through the intermediary of the YCW itself... into all the environments where young people are obliged to live. In order to act upon the workplace, with employers, with public authorities, on public opinion, the parish sections cannot be abandoned to themselves ... They must be in a federation of sections; and in a national federation which becomes a recognisable force denouncing moral dangers to which young workers are exposed ... struggling against the immorality which touches all young workers. The YCW must be able to be where the young workers are in order to organise a tutoring role, a protection ... It must also furnish the sections, the regional leaders with educational material: leaders' bulletins, badges, printed matter ... all necessary to have common methods, initiatives, spirit and mentality. And one should not fear that this centralisation brings the least threat to the autonomy of the parish or the authority of the clergy! No more than the diocese or the church destroys the parish - does the regional or national YCW step on the parish section. But rather we see - and here there are no exceptions - that wherever the parish section is in contact with the regional and national federation, wherever it participates in study days, recollections and retreats as well as all the initiatives of the YCW - it is that parish section which is the most lively and fruitful ... that is the section which produces the greatest fruit at the parish level. 

Nor should one fear that the YCW will lead to division among the parish youth. Wherever it is judiciously introduced and organised, - that distinct section, far from leading to division, is the cause of coming together, of unity and the most fraternal collaboration. It may seem at first view, that one single parish association, including all the young people, would be preferable to distinct organisations according to the different conditions, needs and mentalities. For my part, I do not hesitate to say that such an association, even strictly at the parish level and exclusively religious - would have much less influence than distinct organisations. To put students, workers and/or farmers in the same mould ... one might accomplish a superficial formation. One would never form social leaders with a social conscience … true elites necessary in all social classes.. .one would never bring the masses of young workers back to the parish life or community. 

It is not in this liturgical week that one can stop to discuss the possibility of starting YCW sections in rural areas. I ask that all those interested to contact our general secretariat. My personal experience permits me to say that, as soon as there are several young workers in a rural parish, a YCW section is more necessary than in the city, in order to form the young people. 

One must recall the Middle Ages in order to understand the extraordinary fruitfulness of parish organisations which were concretely adapted to the social conditions of different parishioners. 

The parish of the middle ages truly dominated the organisation of work. This was regulated according to feasts ... and the parish liturgy 

You will all have read the magnificant leaflet of Mgr. Andrieux, Bishop of Dijon, on "the Parish". Preceded by a letter from Benedict XV, it contains four pastoral letters he wrote on "the parish" during and after the war. The last letter on "the Canadian parish" insists on the fact that, if socialism was considered a failure in French Canada, it is thanks to the powerful social organisations which were attached to a strong parish organisation. And he cites this witness in a review from English-speaking Canada: 

"During these days of unease and incertitude, the province of Quebec occupies a special position. In French Canada, the socialist agitator was held in check by the Catholic Church. The parish priest did not permit him to interpose himself between the priest and his parishioners. The priests were the clear and just arbiters; they regulated hundreds of conflicts each year which would have become general strikes." 

Certainly the YCW, no more than any other social organisation - may not be an organisation of "caste". It must seek to multiply opportunities to collaborate, to act in common with other parishioners. But in order for such fraternity to be possible, it is necessary that varied organisations exist; and expand in a fruitful manner so that the parish is a solid corps of vigorous members and not a dusty, amorphous unity without pride, responsibility of respective organisations. 

Often one believes that class consciousness ... the spirit of class is an anti-Christian feeling, anti-parish. 

That might be true if it were to be understood in the materialist and socialist meaning of the word. But it was the very Christian spirit of mutual aid and development ... the indispensable organisations of different social conditions ... which made the glory of the parishes and the church of the Middle Ages. If we could only manage again to seize it! 

As I said in the beginning, the YCW is only one of the numerous organisations which must help us to reconquer the masses of the working class! Oh, who will give back to the workers the spirit of the parish? 

Who will refer to the parish church the true House of the People? Who will refer to the parish priest as the father of the workers? Let us not be skeptical. We must bring the working class back to the church! It is not I who tells you this; it is the Pope who gave this order! Not only a worker elite, but the worker masses. Never will I forget the phrase of Pius XI, which continually comes as a refrain on the lips of the Holy Father! Yes, the working class. May our parishes, their ceremonies, masses, processions again become the touching manifestations of the soul of that mass of workers! O how much the working class has need of this! And as for us, whom God has placed as shepherds of his flock... we need to keep intact in our hearts this holy ambition to reconquer the mass of the people to the doctrine - and to the nourishment of the divine Master! Give to each of our parishioners according to his needs, his condition, his lifestyle - the education and organisation which is fitting. One does not feed a child in the same way as an adult, nor form the rich as one does the poor. One adapts the necessary nourishment, formation and organisation to each. All the organisations can become centres of life, education and parish development. The masses will again become conscious of the living reality of the parish, because the parish will penetrate the most humble as well as the most well off parishioners. 

And then, the parish church will again become the true House of the People. At the communion rail, that table of the parish family, we will again see the great masses of working people who starve for divine nourishment. "Edent pauperes et saturabuntur et laudabunt Dominum ..." Yes, they will eat until satisfied ... to enrich and fortify their family, working, social, economic and even political life … and it will be a wonderful reality that all will sing in the offices and processions: "Manducat Dominum ... pauper, servus et humilis". Yes, the poor, the workers, the most humble social conditions will be nourished by their Savior. It is to this great task that the YCW is committed. Pray for it, support it, help it to spread as far as the most humble parish in order that it may form the Tarcisius who will die in order to bring Christ to his brothers and sisters at work. 

Joseph Cardijn, 1925 

[Translated from the French by Flo Triendl, Version 1.0, September 1997.]