Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert with the collaboration of Roger Aubert, (Preface Dom Held

er Camara) (English Translation Edward Mitchinson) Cardijn, Young Christian Workers, London, 1974, 259p.

Chapter 15 - The last call

Episcopal Ministry.

1966: Gestures for Peace

The last dream

Collaborator of Paul VI

July 1967: The Last Call.

Cardijn carried his eighty-three years happily enough and his new status as cardinal, though he considered the latter as something of a paradox: his whole mission had been bound up with the life of the workers and here he was wearing red and decorated with cross and mitre.

Being Bishop meant more to him than being cardinal—it meant being a pastor and a missionary. When someone remarked that he was a bishop without a diocese, he replied: “My diocese is the working youth of the world.” The church at La Bouverie, a big working-class district of the Bonn age, was too small on June 4th 1966, to hold with any comfort the great crowd of Christians chanting the verses of St. Luke:

'The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me.

He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,

to proclaim liberty to captives

and to the blind new sight,

to set the downtrodden free,

to proclaim the Lords year of favour' ..1 

In a community atmosphere of extraordinary liturgical depth and quality, Mgr Cardijn had for the first time laid his hands on eighty adolescents and confirmed them in the faith. It was an enthusiastic revelation to the old man himself laden as he was with experience and now vested with the fullness of the priesthood: “I want to go and tell the whole world how the liturgy can really be lived in a working class parish!” he cried. For Cardijn it was not just a ceremony but a genuine irruption of God into the life of each one being confirmed. And so he dealt with each one of them and with their families:

“It was a real, sincere, direct, affectionate contact, said the parish priest, describing it all. The eightieth candidate was welcomed with the same kind attention as the first. The way in which the cardinal adapted himself to each varied case that came before him, showed a heart truly human and at the same time inspired by God's love. To Monica, an invalid of eighteen, he said: 'You must pray for me. You are very powerful with God.' The girl had been shy and nervous of the purple and immediately he put her in her right place, the first.”

He finished the day with a conversation with Christians who were indifferent and with others who did not believe at all. Later he remarked: “This is one of the problems that haunts me in my old age: how is it that so many people who seem so good, do not know Christ and do not join his Church?” A few weeks later, at Meeuwen in Limbourg, he conferred priestly ordination to a young man, former YCW and building worker.

“I knew before,” he noted, “that I would be deeply moved but I never realised how much. The whole parish was there in the church, all eyes, all ears.

For me it was like re-living my own ordination, sixty years ago. I trembled with joy and admiration at all the words and actions of the Sacrament. And when I began the homily, I could not control my feelings any more; I wept and the whole Church wept with me. I recalled my father and my mother and all their sacrifices, and the graces received since then. I begged all the parishioners to thank heaven but above all to reflect on their responsibilities: to give priests to the post-conciliar Church, facing the most apostolic and missionary tasks of her whole history.”2 

The increase in the number of priests and their training and preparation for an authentic spiritual fatherhood was still and always had been Cardijn's privileged pre-occupation. His last important manuscript was dedicated to them: “A priest, eighty-four years young and sixty years a priest, to his young brother priests of every age . . .”3 

He wanted all priests to be able to find in their priesthood what he had found in his: the fulfilment of a divine mission, response to the Church's need, personal development in a genuine unity of life, fidelity with the sure promise of eternal youth.

“I often say this to young priests: You are consecrated in your priesthood and as priests you have all the powers. But your promise is above all fidelity.

That promise, consecrated today by God himself, must make you climb higher every day .. . And in fifty years time, you must be priests still younger than today, priests more convinced, more missionary, more full of courage. Because everyday you are going to be faced with fresh problems . . .”4 

War or Peace?

The summer of 1966 saw Cardinal Cardijn publicly engaged in direct action for peace.

For many years he had had this growing preoccupation for the total abolition of war. He gave his moral support to the first conscientious objector in Belgium and went to visit Jean Van Lierde during his detention. From 1958 he called for the transformation of compulsory military service. “Let military service be replaced more and more by international civic or cultural service which would enable youth to get to know the history, the riches and the actual needs of other countries; to take part in the exploration of the past and present; to put themselves at the service of the education of their brothers of other lands; to enter into contact by lengthy stays among them; to learn the meaning of service and collaboration; to develop among all young people the sense of international solidarity.”5 Not content with long term changes through education and influence, he wanted an immediate cessation of the wars in progress in various points of the globe. He constantly repeated: “Nothing is more dangerous than the armaments race;” and he called impatiently on those in responsible positions who admitted to a conscience on the matter:

“What are we to conclude? Either all these declarations are hypocritical or the resulting conclusions must be followed: stop spending on arms and instead put the resources to the urgent needs of humanity and particularly those of youth.

All war must be considered an anachronism. Not only military war, but scholastic or religious war, war between states or within states. There will always be divergences, conflicts and opposition. But the question is how to resolve them. Must we continue to look for solutions through violence, material force and domination? Or should we not rather try to bring minds and hearts together, peoples as well as individuals, by the right kind of rivalry and competition, through devotion and generosity?”6 

Cardijn was well aware that behind the official reasons for today's wars there lie all kinds of unspoken motives, whether colonialism, capitalism, anti-communism,, big business and finance. He gladly linked his peace appeals to the world situation: the need of dialogue, the self determination of peoples, development, respect for all races, sense of personal and collective responsibility. All points such as these were, for him, essential conditions of peace.

Furthermore he was convinced that peace between all peoples is the number one objective requiring the collaboration of Christians with all men of good will who do not share their belief. In the summer of 1966 he went on to the platform of the Mouvement du 8 mai at La Louviere by the side of a Czechoslovak delegation and of Belgian MP's of all opinions. Calling for the union of all living forces of society, with his realism and boldness, he captured the attention and sympathy of an audience of more than 8,000 people, the majority of them socialist and communist. His public affirmation on that occasion led to another, in connection with the escalation of the war in Vietnam. In the prevailing atmosphere of anxiety Cardijn allowed his name to go forward as one of the promoters of a Vietnam peace demonstration which was due to take place in Brussels in the following March. As a result he received a number of vehement letters of reproach; but he felt still more the violence of the protests that came back to him from Saigon, worked up by the associations which were pro-war and anti-communist. Telegrams, some insulting, others threatening, called on him to retract.

As it happened he was about to set off for a journey to the far East and the YCW of Vietnam were expecting him. He received a communication from the authorities in Saigon, telling him he was persona non grata. To save embarrassment to the Vietnamese YCW regretfully he cancelled the visit.

This was a good chance for the journalists to get his opinion on the controversy and in spite of so much opposition, Cardijn held to his opinion: 'Where are the most murderous arms being made? he asked. How many workers are engaged in their production? What are the profits being made by the owners of the plants, the management and the share-holders? If all the workers of these factories throughout the whole world, refused together to work in armaments . .. better still, if only all the international workers and employers' organisations would take the initiative and oppose arms' production?

Why should anyone be ashamed of admitting that he loves men more than victory?

It is more important to conquer peace than to conquer the moon! . . .”7 

The last dream.

On February 24th 1967, still smarting from attacks over the Vietnam business, Cardijn set off on his fourth voyage into the North Pacific, bound for Hong Kong, Japan and Formosa.

The stay in Hong Kong impressed him more than any other. He could see the fruits of the rapid growth of the YCW since the birth of the first group in 1957; and now the biggest hall of the free town, City Hall, was too small to hold the YCW and their comrades celebrating the tenth anniversary of their movement. He was full of admiration for the work of a girl extension worker. Daughter of a former leader in the Belgian YCW she had been there for three years, had become thoroughly Chinese, was working in a big textile factory, learning the language from her workmates and sleeping on a mat in a dormitory with sixty other girls.

Just as Tokyo had been, Hong-Kong was for Cardijn a renewed discovery of the crucial needs of the working population in the great urban concentrations and the need of a special ministry of priests. In this town of some four millions, at the very doors of communist China, there was not a single priest freed for the evangelisation of working youth. As he had often done in the course of his work, Cardijn made again the comparison between this lack and the fact that thousands of priests were occupied full time, all over the world, in the education of middle class youth.

Hong-Kong was above all the vital link between the three Chinas: that of the Diaspora, counting millions of its sons in all the big cities of every continent; that of the islands, holding a sizable minority hoping for a return to the land of their ancestors and then, continental China, the China of Mao, dynamic and impenetrable. Before he left for Europe, friends took Cardijn to the frontier and there, up on a hill with binoculars, like Moses looking at the promised land, he could see something of the vast plain that lay south of Canton.

During the twenty-four hour non-stop flight back as far as Zurich, he was quite unable to keep his reflections to himself. He knew something, right enough, of the United States, Africa, India and Australia; but what was the real life of people in those two great human reservoirs, the Soviet Union and the People's China? He had to recognise that this was a big gap in his experience. It was not, of course, the first time he had such thoughts. He had been building up this last dream over the past year or so: to make a journey of study through two great lands which claimed to be the champions of proletarian liberation and which put such an emphasis, too, on youth. He was convinced there was something to be learned there and he had spoken about it to Paul VI.

A former YCW working with the United Nations and with some experience of the USSR was ready to help arrange a visit for the spring of 1968. But the Cardinal was not satisfied; afraid that his age might raise further obstacles later, he wanted to get ready at the same time for a journey to China.

“Once in Moscow, one is halfway to Peking”, he said, “I don't see why we can't go right through.” “But, Monsignor, the moment is not opportune ... they are in the middle of a full cultural revolution! Don't you read the papers?”

Just as obstinate as he had been at thirty, he said nothing but thought all the more. Then, one day, without saying anything, off he went to a former cabinet minister who knew something of the matter and asked for his intervention in the business of getting into “the real China” as he called it. It was wasted effort; he met with the same arguments and obstacle. He still was not convinced. He started preparing as if he was soon to leave, looked for other contacts, plunged into reading Dans trente ans, la Chine, of Robert Guillain, Mao's little red book and others, making a study of this type of communism implanted in a country of more than seven hundred million. Later on, in the summer of 1967, among the last pages of rough draft there was a letter to the minister of State, the socialist Kamiel Huysmans: “ You are perhaps the only one, he insisted, who can open up for me the way into China.”

Will and determination like that is remarkable in a man of that age, who had every reason and excuse to rest after a lifetime's mission carried out untiringly. But his energy took still other forms, as we shall see.

Responsible for the whole Church.

Entry into the college of Cardinals brought, of course, a change in relationship with Paul VI. He was no longer the chaplain of the international YCW coming to report or to ask for a message on the occasion of a world congress. He was still ready to make such requests but now he was a close collaborator of the Pope, responsible with Peter for the whole church.

Since the time when John XXIII had asked for his views on the question of work and Paul VI similarly on the matter of communications, he had felt encouraged to speak his mind openly and frankly to the Pope, often on very delicate matters.

During the Autumn of 1966, Catholic Action in Spain was in a state of acute crisis and the YCW there, too, was actively involved. Cardijn could not let down the lay leaders and chaplains who had come to ask for his help and with the same sort of courage he had shown in the struggles of 1924, he declared to Paul VI that he stood witness and guarantor of the evangelical character of the responsible leaders, as against, unhappily the opinion of some of their bishops.

He considered the Laity Commission, as it was set up in Rome at the beginning of 1967 very clerical in its leadership and not democratic enough in its structure. Vatican II had wanted such commissions set up but if the episcopate in various countries decided to model their post-conciliar commissions on this, would there be any real share by the laity in the major orientations of the Church?

It took a lot out of Cardijn having to make his interventions on such matters. He was afraid of doing more harm than good and the deep affection and gratitude he felt towards the Pope for help over the past thirty years made it difficult for him to touch on the sadder aspects of the life of the Church. But did not charity itself call for complete communication in truth and sincerity? Right up to the moment of arrival at the cortile of S. Damaso for his audience, Cardijn would be worried and hesitant. Would he dare to say this and that? How would it go? And he would reappear, three quarters of an hour later, thoroughly happy, his Cardinal's red a bit in disarray, eyes shining, heart full of joy: “I said everything”, he would say smiling and as if rid of a great load, “and the Pope asked me to go back and always tell him what I think.”

There were obviously happier subjects he had to discuss with the Pope and among these, the big pastoral question had pride of place. Soon after his last talk with Paul VI on April 24th 1967, Cardijn was full of joy over the publications of 'Populorum Progressio.' As usual his realism led him to see beyond the actual text and he sent the Pope a short document:

“Once the teaching of the encyclical is known an important question arises, which comes to mind continually. And there are two aspects of this question closely connected with each other:

I, How are the workers and particularly the young workers to be enlightened, formed and made enthusiastic for this mission of development which is theirs. How to work out and resolve the problem of the development of all men, of all peoples, of all humanity in solidarity?

a. Who are to play their part in this work of preparation and formation for commitment to integral development, if not the clergy? And how are the clergy in their turn to be prepared, so that they can effectively help the workers, as the encyclical says, to assume the main responsibility for development?”8 

The YCW founder developed once again the need of an apostolate deeply anchored in the realities of life and expressed the hope that a more inductive theology, strengthened by contact with the values of daily life, might spread throughout the Church. He went into detail and even gave the Pope his ideas on a review article dealing with the matter,9 and Paul VI with trust and simplicity assured Cardijn that he would follow the matter up that same evening.

Death is to live on.

For Cardijn, to welcome 'Populorum Progressio' meant having an optimistic belief in youth; as much in countries of an old civilisation as in those in the stage of development. To love youth and to train them for tomorrow, this was everything! On two occasions, towards the end of his life, he asked Rome for an encyclical on youth; then a permanent pontifical commission which would deal with youth problems; and in his last public talk10 he ... solemnly adjured the adults there to look on youth with new eyes and with greater confidence.

At the end of a long interview, a journalist of Radio Luxembourg curious about the final attitudes of this happy and lively old man, asked him point blank:

“Monsieur le Cardinal, do you often think about death? What is death for you?” “It is to carry on living! it is a passover, a transition ..” “And .. . what will you do in Heaven?” “Well, the same thing: I will deal with youth!” And so, right to the end, it was youth that filled his days and his nights his reflection, his prayer, his hopes and his journeys to the four corners of the earth. For him, youth had the last word. Youth was the expression of the eternity of God.

One day in May, at the end of a full morning's study and contemplation on his eternal subject, the problem of working youth, he jotted down, with his big blue pencil, the verse of St. John: “I have written to you, young men, because you are strong and God's word has made its home in you, and you have overcome the Evil One.”11 

The Final Call

In 1962, YCW chaplains at a meeting in Montreal were discussing, among other things, the question of fatigue in their lives. Cardijn was there listening and he cut in with realism and humour:

“I often get tired, too; don't you think I feel it? But if you stop because of that, then you are finished. The day you hear Mgr Cardijn has taken to his bed, you can say: 'Requiescat in pace'”.

That day came. From June 19th he was sick. Those near him had not seen him like this since his operation in 1952. For a whole week he fought with his illness, with himself, and with those around him. He got up and stayed up with a high fever and because he insisted on going down to the ground floor for breakfast, he fell several times on the stairs.

The acute pain he felt would have to go. The doctor had only to find the proper remedy, because he had a very full programme that week. He had, in particular, promised to baptise a little girl of eight and then to ordain to the priesthood a young White Father student of Dison and that ceremony was to be followed by a meeting with the local authorities who were socialists. These were engagements he just had to keep.

At first the diagnosis was not clear. His temperature went up and those around him were worried. He was forced to stay in bed and the only thing on his mind was that he had to keep those engagements; people were counting on him and he must not let them down. After five days he had to give in: “You must ask the Bishop of Liege to do that ordination,” he told his secretary “But if he cannot, well, I'll go in an ambulance!”

He got much worse and had to be taken to hospital at Louvain, where examination showed a grave renal infection. He still wanted to recite his breviary, get the latest news and follow the preparations of the French JOC Congress, Paris 67.

There had been a radical change after he left his room in the rue des Palais. The old fighter had been felled like an oak. With strong faith and a clear look in his eye, Cardijn consciously and without saying anything, now accepted his sick condition. Once he had had the evidence of this new and final calling it was as sacred to him as all the others had been and he became, not only humble and tractable in his sickness, but still more the simple Christian who knew the end was near and rooted as ever in God he gave himself to the purifying period of waiting for the final summons.

Greater Love

The last letter, which he dictated, June 25th 1967 and which he was still able to sign with his own hand, gives us some idea of what was going on in his mind and heart, as he entered into the mystery of his final sharing in the cross of Jesus Christ. It was to Paul VI and as if to excuse himself he begged to inform the Holy Father that he was unable to go to the Paris Congress, while he underlined once again its capital importance. Already at the end of his strength with this effort, he struggled to sit up in bed and continued: “May the Holy Father be pleased to receive, at the same time, the loyal pledge of this son, to whom, for so many years now, he has given so many signs of affection. I want to continue to my last breath to work for the salvation of the young workers and of the working class of the whole world.”

The news of his illness soon spread and through his room passed one by one brothers and nephews, the Belgian Bishops, the Apostolic Nuncio, National and International Leaders of the YCW and other friends.

He was obviously in great pain; the infection persisted in spite of antibiotics and it was decided to operate. Cardijn asked for the anointing of the sick and Archbishop Suenens was to come and administer the Sacrament.

Ten minutes before he was due, eluding the vigilance of the sister who was getting things ready for the ceremony, Cardijn made a decided effort to get up, as he said to receive the Cardinal at the lift; and all through the visit he kept repeating: “I offer all my suffering for the working class of the world.”

The effects of the surgery were immediate and he began to pick up quickly. Shown the offensive little stone that had been causing the trouble, he shrugged his shoulders: “How annoying! all the fuss for that!” Two days later he was able to take a little coffee or beer. Suddenly on July 14th there was a further crisis, a coma and cardiac weakening. King Baudouin paid a long and moving visit, but Cardijn did not know him . .. During the night, agitated and confused, he took the sister looking after him for a woman of the red guard there to stop him leaving for Peking. He was delirious during the day and broke out into fragments of a sermon on 'Populorum Progressio'. But one fine morning at six o' clock Mgr Cardijn came to himself. He was very weak but his eyes were open and calmly he asked for Holy Communion; then he was away for a half hour of recollected prayer, making a sign to the nurses to leave him for the time being. Later he was full of thoughts of his mission among working youth and to those who came near him, he said quite simply:

“We are at the beginning. We are always at the beginning.

All my life God has been so good to me. It is beautiful, it is wonderful...

And what shall we do after all this .. .?”

Four more days went by between hope and anxiety. Those who watched by him suffered with him as at the bedside of a father. A little before midnight on the 24th July, the night sister felt his pulse, found him quite peaceful and asked him:

“Mgr Cardijn, do you feel cold? Let me cover you up ... Is there anything you want?”

“Thank you thank you. No, Sister, there is nothing I want. Everything is just right as it is.”

She had hardly got to the next room when the bell called her back. Cardijn had gone.

In his own simple way, he had echoed the Consummatum est of his Master:



1 Luke IV 18,19. It was from this text that Cardijn took his episcopal motto: "Evangelisare pauperibus".

2 Unpublished notes

3 The same, September 1966.

4 Homily, April 16th 1966.

5 La Cite, March 14th 1938

6 La Cite, April 26th 1956.

7Interview, Vie Feminine, April 1967

8 Unpublished note: Follow up to the encyclical “Populorum Progressio”

9 Bernard Lambert: Les deux démarches de la theologie in Nouvelle Revue Theologique, March 1967, pp. 857-280.

10 To the Albertus Magnus Society, Brussels, January 18th 1967.

11 John 1 v. 2-14.