A message from Father Nick 81
Many centuries lie between us and St Paul’s bringing of the Good News to Corinth. Yet Paul’s letters are alive for us still. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds them of “the tradition I received from the Lord and also handed on to you.” TRADITION will always be essential to our life in Christ. It means a “handing on”.
But we encounter another force too. Speaking of his missionary confidence, Paul adds in a second letter, “We bring every thought into captivity and obedience to Christ.” – As well as what is being handed on to us, we must also encounter new circumstances and new needs. For this we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
It is this creative tension which makes Church history such a fascinating study. We believe that the Spirit is always at work: through those appointed to lead us, through the whole community of faith, through our own Confirmation gifts and through prophetic individuals. One such individual was Joseph Cardijn (1882-1967).
Born in Brussels, he grew up amid the relentless, dehumanising poverty of its industrial slums. Like many others, he saw his own father die from overwork. At the age of fifteen, he experienced a vocation to the priesthood, and both his parents made enormous sacrifices to support him. He entered a protected place of study, but he never forgot his background.
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII had published a historic encyclical, Rerum Novarum, on capital and labour. (“At this moment,” the pope said, “the condition of the working population is the question of the hour”.) Joseph Cardijn, at the age of nine, had been asked to read it for his illiterate father, and he would never lose his care for the disadvantaged of an industrialised world. Secure in his own vocation, he came to know and admire people like Ben Tillet, the leader of the British Dockers’ Union.
He was blessed with practical intelligence. As a curate, he formed study circles, beginning with women and young girls. The circles were also to be action groups, and they were meant to make a difference in peoples’ lives. (This was the starting point of the worldwide YCW: Young Christian Workers movement.)
Cardijn’s first norm for action was, “You don’t find leaders ready made; you start with those you have and you form them.” He would receive the blessing and approval of Pope Pius XI and his three successors. (Cardijn himself would be made a cardinal. Renowned for his powerful faith, he suffered imprisonment in both world wars.)
Most of all, he understood that spirituality is not a matter of seclusion, but of Christ’s engagement with the world: a question of identifying where real needs lie. Cardijn’s three-point method of analysis for his Young Christian Workers is famous. You must (1) SEE: i.e., begin by examining the situation in which you find yourself; (2) JUDGE: i.e., analyse its causes and consequences in the light of the Gospel; and (3) ACT: i.e., take steps to address the situation, again in the light of the Gospel.
This method would prove to be influential at the Second Vatican Council (especially in the documents on The Laity and The Church in the World Today). It would also bear fruit in Latin America, where it became a principle of “Liberation Theology”. Balanced with Tradition, it can help us too, but of course it is in no way the last word. The spirit still has many things to teach us…