Fears for the ICO Conference… in 1967!

To understand the development of an organisation, it’s often useful to look at its origins. Thus, looking at the problems that developed between the Pontifical Council for the Laity (PCL) and the ICO Conference, it’s useful to look back at the origin of the former body.

Fortunately, the memoirs of Marguerite Fiévez, one of the original members of the Pontifical Council of the Laity (as it was first known), are particularly helpful here.

Marguerite herself was a pioneer of the Belgian Girls YCW (JOCF) during the 1930s, the first secretary of the International YCW from 1945-57 as well as Cardijn’s executive secretary during the last ten years of his life from 1957-67.

She recorded her views in a series of unpublished personal notes and also in a series of interviews with Luc Roussel and Lamya Ben Djaffar, published in 2002 under the title, “Marguerite Fiévez, Y croire dur comme fer (Rough translation: Stay hard as steel in sticking to your beliefs)

The World Congresses on Lay Apostolate 1951 and 1957

Marguerite, who died in 2000, traced the problems that she herself experienced with the PCL back to its precursor organisation, the COPECIAL, namely the Permanent Committee for the International Congresses of the Lay Apostolate, which was established following the First World Congress on Lay Apostolate in Rome in 1951, where Cardijn delivered his famous keynote speech, The world today and the lay apostolate:


The 1951 World Congress, which was followed by a second congress in 1957, was the brainchild of Vittorino Veronese, a close friend of Mgr Giovanni Battista Montini, a member of the Pax Romana ICMICA movement of Catholic intellectuals, future director-general of UNESCO, as well as a former president of Italian Catholic Action.

Veronese himself had been ousted from the presidency of Italian Catholic Action by his conservative nemesis, Dr Luigi Gedda, a difficult experience that gradually drew him closer to Cardijn.

As Fiévez later told Roussel and Ben Djaffar:

Albeit sidelined, Veronese continued his evolution and came increasingly close to Cardijn’s thinking. He readily empathised with the latter and admired him greatly. They both found themselves involved in the promotion of an authentic laity, as expressed in the work of Cardijn’s Lay people into action.


In the wake of his sacking from Italian Catholic Action and perhaps as a sop, Pius XII appointed Veronese as president of the newly created COPECIAL in 1952. In 1957, Fiévez was also appointed to its governing committee. By this time, however, Veronese was about to leave to take up his appointment with UNESCO.

Fiévez thus described her experience with COPECIAL as follows:

(It was) an initiative that is difficult to qualify: it was a universal place of contact to promote the apostolate of the laity but not yet a structured organism. It took the name of COPECIAL and it had a Roman president, Vittorino Veronese, plus a few collaborators, who were more like secretaries.

Among the latter, there was one who bore the real responsibility, eclipsing even Veronese, namely Rosemary Goldie, a very “Vaticanised” Australian intellectual. Nothing held up before her – not structures, or review of action, nothing!

She was the consummate model of the gray eminence who could not stand Catholic Action, and therefore the JOC even less, and who, while using beautiful but fake words – viewed matters through a very traditional spiritual and ecclesial lens. So, despite the support of Veronese and my other companions, I constantly came up against Rosemary’s orientation. My presence in the COPECIAL team was of  no use.

With Veronese now in the background, Goldie’s orientation appears to have prevailed, an orientation that she implies continued into the Pontifical Council of the Laity that was created in 1967. Thus, according to Fiévez, “when the COPECIAL received de facto recognition (from the Vatican), it sowed the seeds of the future Council of the Laity.”

The Pontifical Council of the Laity

Paul VI established the Pontifical Council of the Laity by virtue of his 1967 Motu Proprio Catholicam Christi Ecclesiam:


Its aim and purposes were “to work for the service and promotion of the lay apostolate”. In particular, it was to seek:

1) To promote the apostolate of the laity on an international level or achieve its coordination and ever greater inclusion in the general apostolate of the Church; maintain contacts with the apostolate on a national level; act in such a way as to be a place of meeting and dialogue within the Church between the Hierarchy and the laity, and between the different forms of activity of the laity, according to the spirit of the last pages of the Encyclical Ecclesiam suam ; promote international congresses for the lay apostolate; ensure (preoccuparsi) the faithful observance of ecclesiastical laws,

2) To assist the Hierarchy and the laity with his advice in the apostolic works (Cf CONC. VAT. II, Decr. on the apostolate of the laity Apostolicam actuositatem , n. 26);

3) To promote studies, to contribute to the doctrinal in-depth study of issues that concern lay people, studying above all the problems of the apostolate with particular regard to the association of lay people in overall pastoral care. These studies may be published;

4) To establish a documentation center to receive and give information about the problems of the lay apostolate with the aim of providing guidelines for the formation of lay people, and of providing valid help to the Church.

As §1 makes clear, in addition to promoting the lay apostolate, one of its key tasks was to ensure the observance of ecclesiastical laws. It was thus not just a facilitating body but an agency with a juridical, regulatory function.

According to Fiévez, in its establishment, “the members of COPECIAL were more or less taken over by the Council of the Laity” albeit “with a semblance of a democratic structure.”

“Fortunately,” according to Fiévez, its president was Canadian Cardinal Maurice Roy, a former JOC chaplain, who was also appointed as president of the new Pontifical Commission for the Study of Justice and Peace, while its secretary was Mgr Achille Glorieux, also a former JOC chaplain from France who had been the secretary of Vatican II commissions that drafted Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on Lay Apostolate, and Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Today.

In addition, Pope Paul appointed Goldie as under-secretary of the new body alongside another layperson, Mieczyslaw de Habicht, a Polish-born Swiss Pax Romana leader.

However, Fiévez, who was appointed as one of the original lay members of the PCL, quickly found herself facing the same problems she had previously experienced with COPECIAL. As she told Roussel and Ben Djaffar:

(The PCL) had ten or twelve full members including Ric Vendrik from Holland, Brança Alves from Brazil and me who were the opposition. In addition, there were twelve consultants, all bishops or archbishops, including Wojtyla, who remained as silent as a carp. This Council, whose orientation went bad (French: s’est pourrie”) did not at all coincide with what the World Congresses and Veronese had desired. A fortiori Cardijn!

Little by little it culminated in what it has become today: the Pontifical Council for the Laity, that is to say a Roman dicastery, supreme authority of the laity!

She expanded on this critique in a 1967 letter she wrote to Vendrik:

“(…) People from the Curia (or ‘curia-minded’) are very proud of their decisions and are very surprised to hear our reactions, even timidly expressed, about the structure, the people and of the process by which everything is done. Really, except for the foreigners residing in Rome, the Vatican people have absolutely not yet realised what the laity is, the lay condition, the reactions of the laity. But I think there are good opportunities to make them understand (well, perhaps a little …….)

They think we should be in seventh heaven, since we are now people assimilated to the highest figures of the Curia (Mgr. Luoni) and we even have the power of jurisdiction! This last point worries me, because it means that we will have to decide and orient the apostolate, which does not seem good to me. It is necessary to re-read the text of the Motu Proprio closely.

(…) I had the opportunity to make a number of contacts in Rome, in a variety of different circles. Everyone says that we must give things a try, that, from the beginning, the council is adopting a “new style” in all areas, that we need to abandon the old traditions of Vatican diplomacy; that we must dare to use our own working methods as we do in our lay organisations, in order to play the game frankly and democratically.

In congratulating Habicht, I said to him: “My dear, now be less diplomatic, adopt a position and stick to it, if necessary defend it. Let us also return to the words of the Gospel: yes means yes, no means no.”

It seems to me that we can act this way with Cardinal Roy. And I hope that he will try to understand all the members personally, listen to them, get to know their lives, previous responsibilities as well as their reactions to decisions. It seems that he played a very fine role in the Preparatory Commission.

With her negative experience with COPECIAL no doubt already in mind, Fiévez clearly saw the dangers that the “power of jurisdiction” entailed.

Moreover, and very significantly in the light of the eventual fate of the ICO Conference, Fiévez was already expressing concerns based on the comments of Secretary of State official, Monsignor Silvo Luoni:

Everywhere too, I felt that the future of the ICOs posed a serious question – or rather, the future of the Conference. I had already heard it from several people in Amersfoort.

Monsignor Luoni said quite simply: “It is quite natural. Henceforth they will no longer depend on the Secretariat of State, but on the Council of the Laity”. What does it mean to “depend”?

Personally, I am very attached to the autonomy and freedom of the ICOs, because I think that each of them and as a Conference has a history of very concrete achievements, but also because they have a weight which is the only one powerful enough to change things in high places in the face of structures that could stifle the laity.

If they no longer have the possibility of coming together as a Conference, what will become of real public opinion at this level? These are things that we will have to think about before even the first meeting.”

Once again, there are too many things here to unpack in a single post. But, as we have seen in previous posts, over the next 40 years, all of the fears expressed by Fiévez would be realised.

Stefan Gigacz


Archives M. FIÉVEZ, n°183, Letter from M. Fiévez to Ric Vendrik dated 03-02-1967.

Luc Roussel & Lamya Ben Djaffar, Marguerite Fiévez, Y croire dur comme fer (CARHOP-JOCF)’2002)

Marguerite Fiévez (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)