Youth “ministry” or “pastoral practice”?

In Australia and other anglophone countries, the term “youth ministry” has emerged since Vatican II to describe the Church’s work with young people.

Indeed, in Australia over the last 40 years, the Church has channeled increasing resources into this field of youth ministry to the point that there are now over 70 youth ministers employed by dioceses, parishes, religious congregations, schools, etc. That’s not a great number for a country with over five million Catholics.

Still, it contrasts greatly with the sort of financial resources made available to the Young Christian Workers (YCW) and Young Christian Students (YCS), which have essentially been left to wither with only two dioceses in the country offering modest financial support for one or two workers.

What’s interesting though is that this concept of “youth ministry” appears to be limited to the Anglosphere.

In France, for example, the term used is “la pastorale des jeunes.” See for example the Diocese of Toulouse:

And in Spanish, the term used is “pastoral de juventud” as in this instance:

Now, depending on how the term is understood, “pastorale” or “pastoral” in either French or Spanish, understood as “pastoral care” may well be a reasonably close equivalent to “ministry” in English.

Historically, however, the term “pastoral” in both French and Spanish had a different connotation.

Pastoral care or pastoral practice?

Indeed, when Cardijn launched his magazine for JOC chaplains in 1931, it bore the title “Notes de Pastorale Jociste.”

And how did Cardijn understood the term “pastoral”?

He explained this in his classic 1935 article entitled in English “The Three Truths” in which he set out his famous dialectic:

Truth of Faith (Vérite de foi)

Truth of Experience (Vérite d’expérience)

Truth of Pastoral Practice or Method (Vérité de pastorale ou de méthode)

The English translation “pastoral practice” was the expression chosen by the English translator of Cardijn’s article, Fr Eugene Langdale.

How then did Cardijn understand that “pastoral practice”?

He explained it in these terms

The necessity of a Catholic organisation of young workers with a view to the conquest of their eternal and temporal destiny.

Later, he substituted the term “transformation” for the term “conquest.”

And he went on to explain further in terms that are still hard to improve on nearly ninety years later:

Of all eternity, through an infinite gift of His goodness, God has predestined each young worker in particular and all young workers to share in His Nature, His Life, His Love, His Divine Happiness. He has decided to give Himself to communicate Himself to them, to make them live of His Own Life, enlighten them with His Truth, to give them a share of His Kingdom.

Young workers, are not machines, or animals or slaves. They are the sons, the collaborators, the heirs of God. “He gave them power to become the sons of God … partakers of the Divine Nature.” That is their sole true destiny, the reason of their existence, their life, and their work, the source of all their rights and all their duties.

This destiny is not two-fold: on the one hand eternal, and on the other temporal, without any link or influence of one upon the other. There cannot be an eternal destiny by the side, at a distance from earthly life, unrelated to it.          

A destiny cannot be disincarnate, any more than religion can be disincarnate. No, eternal destiny is incarnate in time, begun in time, develops, is achieved, is fulfilled in time, in the whole earthly life, in all its aspects, all its applications, all its achievements; physical, intellectual, moral, sentimental, professional, social, public life. Daily life, concrete and practical. Eternal destiny can no more be separated from temporal destiny than religion is separated from morality. “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.” The eternal destiny of each human being is incarnate, develops, and is achieved in temporal life always and everywhere-on earth as it is in heaven.

It is not a question of continuity, it is one and the same destiny. The destiny of the little servant girl, the young apprentice, in their normal environment, the framework, the atmosphere of their life; in the midst of all their comrades, their closest neighbours, whom they must help conquer their temporal and eternal destiny.

This fundamental truth, which cannot be repeated too often, is the basis of the whole YCW; but one must look at it with a total and absolute faith to see its revolutionary value. “Send forth thy spirit, and thou shalt renew the face of the earth.”

And what did this mean practically?

The life, the actual conditions of existence of the mass of young workers is in terrible contradiction with their eternal and temporal destiny. We must have the courage to face this reality, just as we must always face the reality of their eternal and temporal destiny. We must remain with our eyes fixed to heaven and our feet on the earth, as inexorable for the brutality of the conditions of earthly life as we are inexorable for the demands of eternal destiny. We must realise the age, the conditions of work, the influence of environment, the problems to be solved in isolation, in loneliness, inexperience. Present conditions increase the tragic aspect of the opposition between the two realities; unemployment, crisis, impossibility of founding a home, of bringing up children. And all this in a wave of neo-paganism unexampled in history.

There can be no external or arbitrary solution; the only solution is one of conquest organised by the young workers and taking into account their eternal and temporal destiny.

We must not look for something external to working youth. No solution can be found in the clergy, in the parents, in schoolmasters, in employers, in public authorities. All these may and must help; but they cannot take the place of the young workers. This is their own affair. Nor can we expect a solution from the transformation of professional, economic or political regimes. These may either be an obstacle or a help. But the most ideal regime is not sufficient. We want men, we want human action, human conquest.

In other words, in Cardijn’s conception, young workers were not to be the objects of pastoral care or ministry. They were to be active agents of transformation of their own lives and environments, which in turn required that those young workers organise themselves in a movement of their own, run by themselves – with the support of the Church:

Neither can we have an arbitrary solution for the young workers some organisation with a fancy training, outside life, masses. An organisation of this kind may have some success and attract for a time, but it cannot solve the problem because it is outside it. Only an organisation of young workers with a view to the conquest of their eternal and temporal destiny can solve the essential and vital problem, which faces each and all young workers. An organisation for young workers, by young workers, between young workers.

An organisation for the conquest of their life, their environment, a conquest of the masses with a view to their eternal and temporal destiny-with a view to their destiny which is at once double and unique.

And for this, an organisation which is adapted and specialised to the age, conditions of life, the future, the eternal and temporal destiny of the young workers.

And this organisation was not be to be limited to the parish, diocese or even nation. Rather it was to be an organisation that would educate, serve and represent young workers at every level:

An organisation which is local, regional and national, united, disciplined, autonomous, living, conquering, capable of influencing and leading the masses of the young workers in their daily life and their normal environment.

An organisation which is at once and inseparably a school, a service, a representative body.

A school of conquest of their lay life, of the whole of their personal, family, social, moral, religious life, with a programme of life, in a state of life, for a condition of life.

Not a school in a laboratory, a kind of seminary, a classroom but in and for real and daily life, with its real problems and its real difficulties.

A school of conquest of their environment, of their lay environment, in the absence of, and apart from, the priest in the real environment which is the framework, the atmosphere, the support of their life; not only physical environment but also human or inhuman environment ; not an artificial environment made for or by the organisation, but an environment made by life and for life.

A school of conquest for the mass of the young workers. Not for a minority, for the privileged few, deserters from the masses; but for the true, local, regional and national mass.

Not for a vague and anonymous mass, but for the definite mass profession lodging, age, name, Christian name, whose address, difficulties, life, are known.

Not only a school, but also and at the same time a service.

The organisation not only aims at training and educating. It sustains, it helps, it renders service. It trains and educates by rendering service, by teaching to render service; it is a school and a service of mutual aid and support, of protection, of assistance, of fraternal defence. Isolated, dispersed, individual conquest is impossible or ineffective under the actual conditions of modern life. And for this reason, too, we need an organisation which is a representative body, capable of acting and having influence over public and private authorities, and on public opinion; possessing powerful means of action, through the Press, rallies, congresses, petitions; but also being in itself a testimony and having representative value through the transformation it effects in the life and conduct of its leaders, its members, their families, and working youth.

A body representative of the conquest it is achieving within itself; a body representative of the demands of eternal and temporal destiny; which is a revolution in travail through the irresistible force it bears within itself.

It is often asked whether this organisation is the organisation of an elite or an organisation of the masses. This question seems meaningless to me. The distinction can only exist in the minds of those who do not live the movement. An organisation for the conquest of life and environment is necessarily and essentially both an organisation for the elite and an organisation of the masses. Both are necessary to one another. A real organisation of the masses is impossible without a powerful organisation and training of the elite. No organisation has more need of an elite, well trained, influential and active, than an organisation of the masses, but it should be an elite taken from the masses and acting in the masses, not a distant separate elite. We must have leaders who are with, near, and for, their men in the trenches, at the front, in battle.

Here let’s also note the theological basis of Cardijn’s educate-serve-represent trilogy in the Biblical tria munera of Christ as prophet, priest and king in which we share by baptism.

And that organisation would have an active method, the famous see-judge-act, that would enable young workers to develop as leaders not just of their parish group but in the whole of their life:

It should be an organisation using active methods, which move to action the elite and the masses. Not passive, sheep-like masses, watching or listening to speakers or so-called leaders. But masses sharing in a team spirit and in teamwork in all the life, all the training, all the campaigns, all the achievements, all the services, all the conquests of the movement.

Leaders and members learning to see, judge, and act; to see the problem of their temporal and eternal destiny to judge the present situation, the problems, the contradiction, the demands of an eternal and temporal destiny; to act with a view to the conquest of their temporal and eternal destiny. To act individually and collectively, in a team, in a local section, in a regional federation, in a national movement, in meetings, in achievement, in life and in their environment, forming a single front, going forward to the conquest of the masses of their fellow-workers.

Cardijn’s conception of “pastoral practice” with young people thus stretches far beyond even the broadest conception of “youth ministry.” Indeed, a better translation of the French term “pastorale” might well be “pastoral praxis” with “praxis” understood in the Paulo Freire sense as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.”

In this context, it’s perhaps also significant to note that there was an Argentinian edition of the “Notes de Pastorale Jociste” known as “Notas de Pastoral Jocista.” Key collaborators of this journal included the pioneer of the theology of the people, Lucio Gera, a major influence on Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, as well as Blessed Eduardo Pironio.

The question is – and it’s an important one in the lead up to the Second Assembly of the Synod – why has the Church in so many parts of the world, and particularly in the Anglosphere, turned its back on Cardijn’s conception of pastoral practice/praxis, as exemplified in the Young Christian Workers and Young Christian Students movements?

Stefan Gigacz


Stefan Gigacz, Yves Congar and the priesthood of the faithful: Educating, serving and representing (Cardijn Research)

Stefan Gigacz, Lucio Gera, theologian of the people – and Pope Francis (Cardijn Research)

Stefan Gigacz, Paulo Freire and the Jocist movements (Cardijn Research)