1965: The laity and the Council

Marcel Uylenbroeck, Cardijn’s successor as chaplain of the International YCW, later the secretary of the Pontifical Council of the Laity, explains the teaching of Vatican II on the laity and lay apostolate, noting Cardijn’s influence.

It is still too soon to present to our readers what the Council will decree on the “Apostolate of the laity in the Church,” since the schema will only be presented for a final vote of the Fathers during the Fourth Session, which began in September 1965..

Nevertheless, the Council has already voted and the Holy Father, united with the Council Fathers, has promulgated the Dogmatic Constitution “Lumen Gentium” on the Church, and a special chapter in this Constitution deals with “Laity in the Church”.

The doctrinal richness of the Constitution is immense and, as a movement of the apostolate of the laity, we must rejoice deeply that the Supreme Authority of the Church has defined in such an official act the place and the mission of lay people in the Church. At the same time, it is a call to all YCW leaders and chaplains whose mission is to animate and train lay leaders, to believe ever more deeply in their vocation and to commit generously to the apostolate among the working youth of the world.

I will take the liberty of underlining a few essential affirmations of the Constitution.

Let us note first of all how much it insists on the dignity of the laity as members of the People of God and how they are called to participate in the mission of the Church.

“The lay apostolate, however, is a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself.” (§33).

But it is undoubtedly the first time that the Church has emphasised the specific character of the lay apostolate in such an official document. We know how much Cardinal Cardijn has always been an ardent defender of what he called “the lay apostolate proper to lay people.” If the Council has now emphasised this so clearly, is not it because the “Message of Cardijn” has gradually made its way in the universal Church? On several occasions, the Constitution mentions this: “But there are certain things which pertain in a special way to the laity, both men and women, by reason of their condition and mission. (§30).

“(The sacred pastors) understand that it is their noble duty… to recognise their ministries and charisms, so that all according to their proper roles may cooperate in this common undertaking with one mind.” (§30).

“These faithful… are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ; and they carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world.” (§31).

What then does this character “proper to the lay apostolate” consist of? The Council’s response is clear:

“What specifically characterises the laity is their secular nature… They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity… ”(§31).

Applying this to young workers, we can say that they are therefore called to make Christ known to others but that this will be done through the witness of their lives, that is to say by being present in life and amid problems of life in their surroundings, by acting as a leaven in the dough, by mobilising other young workers and doing all this with Christ and like Christ. Re-reading the document on the apostolic character of the movement that the International Council of the YCW adopted at Rio in 1961, we find the same fundamental doctrine there.

“This evangelisation, that is, this announcing of Christ by a living testimony as well as by the spoken word, takes on a specific quality and a special force in that it is carried out in the ordinary surroundings of the world.” (§35).

Here, I would particularly like to emphasise another truth that the Constitution highlights and that the YCW, particularly through the action of its founder, has emphasised from its beginnings, i.e. the collaboration, which is essential for the mission of the Church, between the laity and the pastors of the Church (Hierarchy and clergy). This is a fraternal collaboration that needs to be based on respect for the mission specific to each of the two categories, which is how the Constitution expresses it:

“For the distinction which the Lord made between sacred ministers and the rest of the People of God bears within it a certain union, since pastors and the other faithful are bound to each other by a mutual need. Pastors of the Church, following the example of the Lord, should minister to one another and to the other faithful. These in their turn should enthusiastically lend their joint assistance to their pastors and teachers.

Thus in their diversity all bear witness to the wonderful unity in the Body of Christ. This very diversity of graces, ministries and works gathers the children of God into one, because “all these things are the work of one and the same Spirit”

For the very difference which the Lord has made between the sacred ministers and the rest of the people of God is in itself union, since the pastors and the other faithful will find themselves bound to one another. through a community of relationships: the pastors of the Church who follow the example of the Lord are at the service of one another and at the service of other faithful ; these on their side bring to the pastors and to the doctors the joyful co-operation of their assistance.

“… Therefore, from divine choice the laity have Christ for their brothers who though He is the Lord of all, came not to be served but to serve… ” (§32).

“The laity have the right, as do all Christians, to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church… They should openly reveal to them their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for children of God and brothers in Christ… Let the spiritual shepherds recognize and promote the dignity as well as the responsibility of the laity in the Church.” (§37) .

Isn’t it interesting to note that the Constitution twice uses the word “brothers” and that we do not find the traditional “father-son” image here, which, without lacking a certain value, has gave rise in the past to so much paternalism.


May all YCW leaders understand deeply the wealth contained in the Constitution “Lumen Gentium” so that they may better live it out and work for it to increasingly inspire and animate the whole pastoral care of the Church.

There are many other points to emphasise in this document, but the limited scope of these pages does not allow me to do so. I therefore propose to devote a few more pages of this bulletin to this same subject following the final session of the Council. The decisions taken there will be of great importance to us.

Chaplain General.


Marcel Uylenbroeck, The Laity and the Council, in Action 103, 1965 (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)