1986: Denis Hurley: A discovery of genius

In this extract, South African Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban recalls Cardijn and the importance of his method.

Then another very informed man came into the limelight at this time, in the 1920s, and that was the Belgian priest who founded the Young Christian Workers, Joseph Cardijn, perhaps the greatest Christian educator of the 20th century. In a way he has revolutionised all our catechetics and most of our theology: Joseph Cardijn, a Belgian priest.

When he came back as a young ordained priest from the seminary he was shocked to find that all his young companions, the companions who had been boys at school with him, had given up the faith. They were factory hands – he belonged to a working class family – and all his old school friends were factory hands and hardly one was practising the faith any more.

And this broke the heart of Joseph Cardijn and he began to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to the apostolate of young workers and in the end he built up an organisation known as the Young Christian Workers (YCW) on a magnificent educational method summed up in three words: see, judge, act.

He didn’t come teaching theory as I’m teaching it now, he didn’t come teaching theory to the boys and girls who were working in the factories. He gathered them in small groups around him and said now: “Tell me, what do you see going on around you in the factory? What do you see in regard to wages, working hours, health of the workers, family life of the workers, practice of the faith by the workers? what do you see? Tell me what you see. Now, you’ve seen that and you’ve described what you have seen. How do you judge that in the light of your Christian gospel, in the light of the values of the Kingdom? How do you judge it? Is it right or wrong? If it’s right, get behind it and promote it. If it’s wrong, can we change it? And if it has to be changed how can we act to change it?”

See, judge and act. That simple formula was a discovery of genius, one of the greatest geniuses who ever pushed along Christian education: Joseph Cardijn.

Archbishop Denis Hurley, The greatest Christian educator of the 20th century (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)