Historical Overview

The first efforts to launch jocist groups and teams in Australia date from the late 1930s based on the work of Kevin T. Kelly, Paul McGuire, Fr John F. Kelly, Fr Frank Lombard and others. In 1943 the YCW in Australia was launched as a national movement with approval from the Australian bishops under the chairmanship of Archbishop Justin D. Simonds. Similar efforts to launch jocist groups for girls led to the formation of the National Catholic Girls Movement, which later changed its name to Girls YCW.

The Young Christian Students (YCS), Australia's other major specialised Catholic movement, was also launched during this period.

From the early 1940s, the YCW existed in tension with some other Catholic Action initiatives, notably BA Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement whose method was very different from that of the YCW. From the 1940s through to the early 1970s the YCW had a great impact on generations of young working people across the nation through the Leaders Groups that met weekly in every parish and through the general meetings and services organised by the YCW.

Sporting competitions were a major element of these services in many dioceses. So too were social activities including parish dances while the Pre-Cana courses and conferences initiated by the YCW contributed greatly to the development of marriage education. In Victoria the YCW was a pioneer of credit co-operative legislation. YCW-initiated parish co-ops flourished, and members played a leading role in the establishment of industry credit co-operatives, some of which are today Australia’s largest credit unions. It also initiated housing and retail co-ops. Some notable YCW advocacy campaigns on issues affecting young workers included apprenticeship issues, road safety (including, it is believed, seat belt legislation) and, eventually participation in the Vietnam war.

Fr (later Cardinal) Joseph Cardijn, the Belgian founder of the movement, visited Australia in 1958 and 1966. Many young priests and future bishops met Cardijn and learned his methods during their studies overseas at Louvain and in Rome.

Australian YCW leaders took part in international training sessions of the YCW from 1947, with 300 (?) taking part in the Rome pilgrimage of 1957. From the mid 1950s, a series of Australian YCW leaders left for other countries as ‘extension workers’. In 1965 Bathurst’s Helen Jagoe was elected as general-secretary of the International YCW; she was followed by other Australian office bearers on the international committee.

From the early 1970s the YCW experienced a dramatic nationwide decline in numbers. This corresponded with a period of turmoil in the Church following Vatican II, as well as with a period of major social and political change. It also corresponded with the rise of alternative forms of parish based youth and young adult ministry. However, a modest revival from the late 1970s saw the movement once again gain a presence in all mainland states that has continued until the present day. The YCS experienced a similar evolution.

Telling the History

This is an important history. Following its recognition in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, Cardijn’s jocist movement became a model for 'specialised Catholic Action' movements around the world. On a population basis, the Australian YCW (including the NCGM) was among the largest in the world. Similarly, the Australian YCS (school and tertiary movements) also formed many Catholic leaders. Other significant Cardijn groups have included the Christian Family/Life Movement and the Sydney-based Paulian Association (of which Palms Australia is an offshoot) as well as the Christian Workers Movement; there are likely others.

Jocism has had a defining role in the spiritual, personal and professional lives of thousands of young Catholics, and played a pioneering role in the emerging history of the laity in the church. It provides a notable model of lay engagement and evangelisation, which might be of particular interest to today’s church historians, ecclesiologists and theologians.

The previously cited examples of its contributions to Australian civil society are far from exhaustive. Others keep coming to light, for example the leading role YCW members played in establishing the Fitzroy Legal Service (Australia’s pioneering community legal centre). In many fields, including industrial relations, politics, social work, the public service, law and governance, individual veterans have subsequently applied the methods of their YCW or YCS training.

As yet surprisingly few stories of the Australian Cardijn movements have been told. A consolidated history is overdue. But it is a story that also has impacted in the sociological, educational, catechetical, theological and other fields. It ranges across the nation and over generations; a vast task that will require collaboration. An immediate problem is that the only records of the small parish groups that were the movement’s fundamental building blocks are likely to be oral rather than documentary, and the pioneers and veterans of the movement are now elderly. Of course many key figures have already died. The recording of oral histories, in all states (preferably on video to contribute to a future educational documentary), is urgent.

Cardijn Community Australia Inc is one group with an interest in developing studies of this important theme in Australia’s history. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the YCW as a national movement, and an appropriate milestone to consider our responsibility to explore this story.

Yarra Theological Union, which is also marking its 40th anniversary, has kindly agreed to host a study day on this topic.


The main aims of this seminar will be:
  • To document the existing state of research into the history of the YCW and other Cardijn movements in Australia;
  • To identify key early actors and witnesses whose contribution needs to be recorded;
  • To encourage and promote efforts to gather and preserve the archival records of the Cardijn movements in Australia before they are lost;
  • To identify aspects of the Cardijn movements in Australia for further research and documentation and to encourage potential researchers, students and others;
  • To launch a study group interested to work together on historical, sociological, theological, educational and other research on the Cardijn movements in Australia.

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