1951: The world today and the apostolate of the laity

Keynote Address to the World Congress for the Lay Apostolate


October, 1951

The world of today! Everyone — men of science, business men, statesmen, churchmen, the Pope himself — agree to call it a new world, a world which is at a decisive turning point in its history; all declare that we are present at the birth of a new world.

This new world needs a new apostolate, new, not in its source and in the contents of its message, but an incarnate apostolate, adapted to the needs and the problems of this new world.

This talk can only give a fragmentary, panoramic view of the problems of the apostolate in the world of today. At the same time, it is a cry of alarm, an S.O.S., a cry of faith and hope. Above all, it will be an appeal to everyone, priests and laity, that the most missionary hour in the history of the Church, the hour in which the missionary field is most extensive and most profound, may also be the hour wherein the missionaries – and most particularly the lay missionaries – gain in numbers, in capabilities, generosity and holiness: ‘Messis quidem multa, operarii autem pauci. Rogate ergo Dominum messis ut mittat operarios in messam suam.’

To go back to the newness of the world in which we live, and in order to discover the apostolic and missionary importance of the historic hour in which all humanity finds itself, here are several figures which are signposts to the demographic situation of this world:

Increase in population: the population of the world was estimated:

in 1700 at 623,000,000

in 1800 at 906,000,000

in 1900 at 1,608,000,000

and today at 2400,000,000.

Increase in longevity: Several centuries ago the average longevity of the world’s population was established at between 20 and 30 years, because of the stillbirths and infant mortality, epidemics and periodic famines which decimated the population.

The struggle against these various scourges has already raised this average, in some countries, to 60 years and more (in France, 63 years; in Norway and the United States, 67 years). If the struggle for better hygiene, better housing and better nourishment is projected as planned, this average may be extended to all the present populations of the world, and the human beings on the whole of the globe will be multiplied, not merely by four, but by ten!

These facts on the total population of the world as regards its longevity, and the means suggested to raise or control it, bring with them a series of problems of primary importance for humanity, for Christians and for the Church: the problem of the control and limitation of birth, problems of distribution of populations, problems of national and collective hygiene, the problem of the distribution of food commodities, etc.

Decrease in illiteracy: There were centuries when illiteracy was almost general. In certain continents, and among certain races, there are still more than 80 per cent of the men and 90 per cent of the women who are illiterate. In other countries, there are no more than one in ten thousand illiterate. In several years, the struggle against illiteracy which is on the agenda of the great international organisations may transform the cultural aspect of the population of the globe. What will be the consequences for the Church, for Christianity?

Distribution among the religions: The principal religions which divide the population of the world. today are:

400 million Catholics, among whom 67 million are under the Communist regime.

1,600 million non-Christians, of whom:

900 million are pagans of Asia

350 million are Moslems and Israelites

100 million are fetishists

50 million are without religion.

All these figures could be broken down, re-distributed in races, colours, languages and continents, in order to show more clearly the traits of the earth’s demographic visage in 1951.

To understand the apostolic and missionary import, we must reflect for an instant what these figures represent in immortal souls; each one with an eternal destiny, each one redeemed by the Blood of Christ, each one the image and likeness of God, inviolable and sacred, called to a Divine Sonship, a Divine collaboration, a divine, personal, unique, irreplaceable and irrevocable heritage. Besides this, even though we live in the most missionary hour of the Church and the hour of the greatest missionary progress for the Church, this progress is largely surpassed by the continual increase of the population of the pagan world. During the last 25 years, while the population of the world increased by 700 million, the number of Catholics did not increase by more than 13 million; from this one might say. that for one pagan who is converted each year, there are more than 50 new ones who are born into paganism.

But in order to understand the life and the movement of this demographic visage of the present world, the scientific, technical, economic, political, and, above all, the ideological factors which change it at every instant must be taken into account.

Never in history has this visage known conflicting currents which are so rapid, so extensive, so profound. The mechanisation, transformation and technique of work is felt today not only in the production, transportation and distribution of material wealth; it is felt also in scientific and technological research, in the diffusion and application of science, culture, ideology, and this not only for a minority, but for the whole of humanity. One speaks of the technology of civilisation, of standardisation, of humanism…

Industrialisation, mechanisation of agriculture, the augmentation of production and exchange bring about geographic, economic, social and cultural transformations of countries, and of entire continents; with scarcely any period of transition, whole continents are transplanted from their most primitive customs and habits to a highly advanced economic, financial and political regime. While the central hydraulic powers capture and spread the almost unlimited forces of energy, immense irrigation schemes transform desert regions into agricultural and pasture land; mining prospectives, gigantic enterprises, movements of populations, communication lines by earth and air, the cities and their tentacular agglomerations are in the process of changing not only the face of the earth, but the face of life for the greater part of humanity.

Entertainments, customs and public opinion are influenced more and more, if not quite monopolised, by powerful mechanised means-aeroplane, car, bus, radio, cinema, television, the press, publicity; these exercise an almost tyrannical hold on. the ideas, habits, tastes, on the aspirations of the masses abandoned to their slogans and their suggestions. These broadcasters, these loudspeakers of modern civilisation penetrate everywhere, into family, school, work, transport systems, into private and public life.

Institutions of hygiene, of preventative and curative medicine, of social security, of culture, spread and popularise conceptions and modes of living, of morality and well-being (transmission, limitation and suppression of life). They ignore and defy all authority, and every spiritual finality which claims to surpass and regulate earthly forces and existence.

All these scientific, technical, economic and cultural transformations are already confusing by the rapidity, but even more so by the inequality, of their distribution and effects. Because of this, certain countries and certain peoples are particularly favoured by a constant improvement in their standard of living, while others continue to vegetate in a state which justly deserves the title ‘under-developed.’ On the other hand, in one single nation and among the same people, these subtle transformations have created or accentuated the impassable distances between the classes of a population itself, between the small minority of the privileged, and the immense mass of the extremely poor who continue to live in sub-human conditions. The comfort, the luxury of the easy-living, which parade themselves in the face of unheard of misery, is so blatant and so revolting that it heaps up opposition, hatred and resentment.

These transformations, this multiplication of new products, their distribution and use, pose problems of responsibility, of equity, of social justice, and, above all, problems of education and formation which must be great enough to meet the transformations themselves.

Mistrust, nationalistic, racial and colonial exclusiveness, desire for revenge and restitution have been still further accentuated by the ruins of two wars, with their material as well as human losses, horrible practices of the extermination of races, and displacements of populations, without precedent in history.

The distinctive character of the time in which we live will have the greatest humane, apostolic and missionary repercussions. All this is not only universal but unifying. It not only reaches and transforms all men, and the whole earth, but it increasingly unites and binds together all humanity, and the whole of creation. All the progress in production, transportation, in the transmission of knowledge and action not only abolishes distances, separation, barriers and ignorance between peoples, but precludes the possibility of one producing and living without the others. The moment a group of men or a people wish to develop themselves without taking others into account, they tend logically to work against these others. Progress has made men, their actions, their existence and their institutions so interdependent that the unhappiness or the ill will of one is necessarily a menace for all, the progress and aspirations of one a stimulant for all. A war, a strike, an epidemic, a catastrophe, almost necessarily pose problems for all humanity. Such was the case in the petroleum conflict in Iran, the advent of Communism in China, the exploitation of uranium mines in the Belgian Congo.

The unification of the world and of humanity is not only a fact, it is consciously realised. All nations, and above all their representatives, know it, feel it, and take it into account. It manifests itself in the endeavour for unity of Europe, of Africa, of Asia, of the world. Hence these institutions, these meetings, conventions and international unions, not only in the public and political, military, economic and financial fields, but in all fields of thought, of action and of human life . . . and this for all peoples, for all conditions and for all ages. This is the whole significance of the Charter of the Rights of Man, the programmes of basic education of U.N.E.S.C.O., the Atlantic Pact, etc. It suffices to peruse the agendas of U.N.O., of U.N.E.S.C.O., of the I.L.O., E.C.A., the European Movement, and all the international organisations, economic and cultural, to be informed on the problem, no longer of a single country, continent, race or religion, sex or class, but the problem of all humanity, and of the world of today.

It is in the world of work and of the workers, as in the focal point of a lens, as in a nuclear cell, that this transformation and this unification of the world, with its extreme repercussions in the field of thought and life, seems to have concentrated its tendencies and its more consequent effects : solidarity and interdependence in the very fact of the means, conditions and regime of work and of production . . . but even more, in the consciousness of, and will for, solidarity and interdependence in the world of workers themselves who become more numerous every day.

The birth and development of the mechanical regime of work has created a world class of wage earners, and a world-wide consciousness of the proletariat.

Because of the prevailing liberalism and materialism, this birth and development have been accompanied by misery, injustice and oppression, not only at the dawn of this new regime, but until the present day, in its developments among the underdeveloped peoples and countries. This is why the world problem of work and the worker today appears to be central and vital. This is why its human, worthy, equitable and universal solution appears as the essential and central condition of a peaceful and harmonious human order. Simply humanise the world of work to humanise the world.

This problem of the world of work is not solely, nor even primarily, a problem of material demands or structural reforms. It is — as a condition of all other demands-a problem of total humanisation; a problem of education, formation, of human organisation, permitting and assuring the dignity, the respect, the development of each person, of each family, and of the immense majority of human beings . . . and this, not only during working hours, in the execution and in the place of work, but in the whole of life. Man does not live to work, he works to live.

Worker problem, world problem, human problem, apostolic and missionary problem !

All these scientific, technical, economic and cultural problems gradually surpass the strength of individuals and even of restricted communities. Hence the planned projects, which not only involve the investment of enormous capital, the dealing out of material and contracts, but also the direction and utilisation of scientific research, and even the extension of education and hygiene among the people.

Already the discovery and extension of powerful means of spreading information . . . the radio, the cinema, television, the Press — have generalised the danger of depersonalisation, automatism, conformism, neutralism, and robotism. The urgent and immediate measures taken to solve such problems favour the development of bureaucracy, anonymity, totalitarianism and state control. Only the defence of a doctrine and a social organisation respecting the person and the human family, conscience and human responsibility can maintain and develop in the world a personalism which guarantees dignity and liberty.

Finally, we arrive at the heart of the most profound drama of the present-day world : this world which unifies itself, its all-powerful means of thought and action tending towards and strengthening unity. Its means oppose each other, and are locked in a conflict more and more intransigent. This struggle, this opposition, this dualism today menace the very existence of man.

The ever imminent spectre of aggression drives nations to astronomic expenditure and to prolonged military services ; the manufacture of quantities of weapons, and the accumulation of the means of destruction, daily more deadly, are announced to the public by sensational declarations. If one calculated what the fear of aggression alone is costing the world today, and the efforts which the nations have deployed to prevent this eventual aggression, one would be frightened … If the same expenditure and the same efforts might be applied to alleviate misery, housing and food shortages, and the problem of hygiene, most of the causes of class and race struggle would also disappear. On the contrary, all these spectacular measures employed to avert the eventuality of a war, are transforming the world and the continents into immense concentration camps … like an infernal cycle, they are producing the gigantic whirlpool which must engulf the world in a final catastrophe. Fear and panic overrun the world.

The struggle no longer seems to be limited to objectives which can be foreseen and controlled. It has become messianic … seeing the salvation of the world in the victory of force and violence. More than ever, humanity asks itself the fundamental questions : Who am I ? Why do I exist ? Has life any sense ? Do men have any purpose ? Is there a God who created and redeemed ? Is there a life after death, which is at the same time a light and a law before death?

To these fundamental questions, there are those who claim to give the answer, not by reason of faith, or by the recognition of a spiritual force which regulates the material force. They claim that there is only one solution : force, violence, domination, which alone can bring the triumph of justice and peace and ensure the salvation of humanity. Others fear the time of the Apocalypse, and advocate the politics of the ostrich, in flight and despair.

As the Holy Father has stated in a monumental phrase: ‘Almost all-present day humanity is divided into two opposing camps, for Christ, or against Him. They court the greatest dangers : The result will be in the salvation of Christ or in appalling ruin.’ There is the fundamental problem : can man, can humanity, live without God ? For God, or against God ?

For us Christians, this historic moment will decide the future of humanity and of the world, it is a providential moment when, as in the whole order of creation and redemption, Divine Providence’s plan of love enters into a decisive stage.

Thanks to scientific progress, the unification of humanity is, in effect, a response to the Creator’s plan of love. God has made humanity one, to His image and in His likeness. He has confided to man the ruling of the earth and the exploitation of all its forces, all its energies, all its wealth, so that man may proclaim His glory, and that these may serve all humanity in its participation in the Life of God and the reign of God on earth as well as in Heaven, in time as well as in eternity, more and more fully. The progress of science and of technology, far from opposing this reign of love and glory, makes possible the bringing of God’s message and the assurance of its realisation to all peoples and the extremities of the earth. They are, and must be, the powerful means of the missionary apostolate, the messengers and the executives of God’s plan.

The oppositions which develop in the world are, alas, the increasingly tragic consequences and the repercussions of humanity’s sin in refusing to accept God’s plan of love. In a confusion of reactions, becoming more and more inextricable, all miseries, sufferings and misunderstandings are only the outcome of the errors, passions and abuses which threaten to swallow the world and humanity in a new deluge of fire and blood. Perhaps for the first time in history, all humanity, and within it the foremost scholars, the men of great vision, can see in fear and trembling the terrifying power of death and destruction to which the abuse of science and omnipotent technology may give birth, if humanity loses the sense of God, of Faith, of eternity.

It is in this double perspective (on the one hand the Creator’s plan of love, on the other the frightening consequences of sin), that the message of salvation brought by the Divine Redeemer is thrust upon us. It resounds with the prophetic voice of old Simeon : ‘ For my own eyes have seen that saving power of Thine, which Thou hast prepared in the sight of all nations. This is the light which shall give a revelation to the Gentiles, this is the glory of Thy people Israel.’

Christ is the Divine Apostle, the Divine Messenger, the Divine Missionary, the Divine Teacher, sent by the Father, not only to recall the plan of God’s love in creation for all humanity, but by His Incarnation, His life, His death, resurrection, ascension, His survival in the Church, to associate all humanity in its own redemption. Christ is God, really present in and through His Son. He is the way, but also the truth and the life. He is God for us.

The Church is the mystery of the Communication of God, the community and the Communion in God. Founded, mandated, led by Christ, the leaven, and the ferment of a new humanity, She must incarnate His person, His grace, His doctrine, and His Salvation in time and in eternity.

The Hierarchy is the trustee of all power and of all the authority of Christ, in order to guarantee His Presence and His action in the Church. It is the head of the Church. Without the Hierarchy, there is no Church, no Christ, neither the power nor the action of Christ in the Church and in the world.

But it is the whole Church, the whole Mystical Body, the continuation of Christ, God-Man, at the same time visible and invisible, who must accomplish His mission. Through the progress of science and technology, the hour of the unification of humanity and of the world is the hour of the extension and intensification of the mission of Christ and the Church to the full measure of this unification. Progress should not only be utilised for this, but inspired, purified and supernaturalised. The hour of the unification of the world is above all the hour of the extension and intensification of the apostolate of the laity, to the full scale of this new world.

The increase in populations, and above all in pagan populations, the striking developments of science, technology and culture ; the acquisition by the masses of new forms of production, culture and well-being ; the brusque and rapid transition to vastly different forms of civilisation ; all the phenomena, of mass-production, of depersonalisation, and automatism : this unification of the world, with its antagonisms, its interior and totalitarian dualism, all this evolution, transformation, upheaval, takes place on the level of the layman’s life, within the life, the environment, the institutions of the lay world. The great powers and possibilities that these transformations conceal and bring with them are for laymen to develop, as it is for laymen to surmount the dangers which they bring. They have made the laity ‘come of age.’ The layman is the first and immediately responsible person in his personal life, in his family, professional, social, cultural and civic life, on the national and international planes. For a Christian these responsibilities are apostolic and missionary responsibilities-they are his own, and he is irreplaceable.

Here is the urgent need of a presence, of a Christian action, which must inspire this evolution of the temporal. The present evolution needs –

· Christians who intensively live their Christianity, their belonging to Jesus Christ ; who consciously live His message, His Gospel, in all their personal life, in all its worldly demands . . .

· Christians who are conscious of an explicit mission, who know that they are called to work for the extension of the reign of God . . .

· Christians who penetrate all the sectors, all the aspects, all the institutions of the modem world, as witnesses of Christ, carrying the doctrine of the Church with them . . .

· Christians who understand the whole importance of forming apostolic communities, of having an organised apostolate …

It will be a clear enough answer to the reproach of obscurantism sometimes addressed to the Church, to show that all the Popes since Leo XIII – and one might trace back to Pius IX and Gregory XVI – have insisted on the birth of the machine age, of technology, of science. They have not ceased to proclaim how the Church would and could aid in the development of this new world, and protect it from the cataclysms which the errors and abuses of these things necessarily caused. If these same Popes have denounced the errors and abuses, it is not to condemn science and progress, but to preserve and assure them, and to permit their ultimate achievement for the total good of man.

One of their most insistent and moving appeals during the last 150 years was that addressed to Christians themselves, to all the faithful, in all environments and of all ages, so that they might understand and realise their own concrete and practical mission, within the Church and within the world, so that they might collaborate with all progress in the natural as well as the supernatural order, for the extension of the Kingdom of God. This was the call to the apostolate. This appeal to the lay apostolate, to the individual and to the organised apostolate, in all fields and on all planes, is not an opportunist solution, not a manifestation of clericalism, of fear and panic. It is none other than a call to the essential and total mission of the Church ; a call which the historic and providential circumstances render so urgent and sacred. It is the whole idea of the Church which is involved in this call, the whole idea of man and of the Christian.

Each Christian, each Catholic, by his Baptism, must be an apostle and a missionary-he has an apostolic and missionary vocation. Each one is called by God to Existence, to life, and to a collaboration in His creative and redemptive work. The earthly vocation is an apostolic and missionary vocation. The problems raised by science, technology, culture in all ages, as in all spheres, are not simply problems of chemistry, physics, biology, or technology. They are human problems, problems of human life, of human destiny. They confront the conscience, intelligence, initiative, courage and clear-sightedness of every human being. It is in the solution of these problems that missionary and apostolic effort is required. It is to prevent men from becoming robots and automatons, from being treated as such, as slaves and victims of exploitation, that the conscience and the human, apostolic and missionary responsibility of Christians must be awakened and formed to the problems of today.

The sacramental, doctrinal and living bonds which unite men to the Church, to all the members of the Mystical Body of Christ, to all the Hierarchy, to Christ and to God, through all the sources of light, grace and divine life are the surest moving forces of humanism, fraternity and human progress. The lay apostolate does not create a new Church, it does not introduce new structures into the Church, it does not confide a new mission to the Church in the world. The Church and the lay apostolate are not two separate things. The apostolate of the laity is the vocation both Christian and human of the laity in the Church and in the world.

It is only too clear that in the transformation of the world as it is today, all humanity is called to assume responsibilities that it has never known in the past. It is not less clear that many of its members have been carried away by a false ideal of human redemption, and claim that the only solution to the agonising problems of the world are to be found in the erroneous theories of atheistic materialism. One cannot hope to solve these problems of the world by a negative attitude, or by a simple warning against false idols. “What is needed is the active presence of pioneers who are fully conscious of their double vocation, as Christian, and as human beings, and who are bent on assuming their responsibilities to the full, knowing neither peace nor rest until they have transformed the environment of their lives to the demands of the Gospel. The Church, by this positive, constructive work, will be able to extend her life-giving action to the millions of souls for whom she has a maternal and ardent solicitude.

“It is in this sublime task that Christian leaders trained in the apostolate are called to share.”

Joseph Cardijn, October 1951


Joseph Cardijn, The world today and the apostolate of the laity (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)