Congar and Cardijn

Extracts from the Council Journal of Yves Congar O.P.

French theologian Father Yves Congar wrote a diary of his experiences at Vatican II. In this diary Congar referred several times to the role of Cardinal Joseph Cardijn. Congar's comments on Cardijn are reproduced below. Translated by Stefan Gigacz

Friday 5 February 19651

It seems that Cardijn has requested a worker parish in Rome as his “titular” parish. This means that the issue of simplifying the vestments of a cardinal is now on the table. For sure, silk will be abandoned. Phew!

Monday 22 February 19652

I have just experienced one of the worst half-days of my life. Thank God I did some work beforehand.

We went with Willebrands and Hamer to the presentation of the biglietto to the new cardinals. There were three groups, namely the Italian speakers at Domus Mariae, the French speakers at Propaganda, and English, German and Swiss at the American College.

Arrived at Propaganda at 9.30. The tickets only arrived at 10.40. Reading of the double announcement to Archbishop Cooray, Martin, Villot, Zoungrana, Duval, Cardijn. I came mostly for Cardijn, Journet and Duval. Journet was not there.

Each double announcement was read six times, followed by Cooray's speech, then Martin's (three times longer than it should be; a few nice aspects; the spirit of a good seminarian).

I greeted the cardinals but Cardijn most of all. He embraced everyone and tapped them on the back, a bit like Father Chenu. He is the most authentic (with Seper) of all the ones I saw.

He said: “They have given me the opportunity to speak. I hope to use it as well as possible!” His ordination yesterday was magnificent, it seems, with 800 jocists from Belgium singing and praying.

He said to me: “Help me! Keep helping me! I will need it. We must continue to move forward!”


We returned at 1.20pm. Five hours wasted. And not just for us but for the hundreds of people who mobilised themselves for this quadruple ceremony. I came out morally crushed.

It was just emptiness, nothingness. While the world worked, and whereas an hour of work costs so much, we simply experienced total emptiness, nothing more than a representation, an ecclesiastical ballet, “bella figura”.

Happily, there were some genuine men there: Cardijn, Maximos, Seper, Journet. I was also happy to witness the friendship or even veneration of Duval and Beran.

But what a lot of dead wood in the ecclesiology of those who found the whole thing marvellous and who considered it as one of the Church's greatest moments !!!

Saturday 27 February 19653

Yesterday's l'Osservatore Romano listed the affectation of each new cardinal to the various Congregations. A good number and good ones (Cardijn) were nominated for the Congregation of Studies and Seminaries.

Could that be an indication that we are moving away from the regime of Pizzardo and other cretins?

1 August 19654

The great moment from the point of view of the work for the Council was the arrival of Cardinal Cardijn. He had already written insistently that he wanted to see me.

On 1st August, I telephoned him in Brussels. He arrived at Geneva airport at 12.40p.m. on 4th August. We began to talk immediately as well continuing in the car.

For us, it was an extraordinary feast of Saint Dominic, two and half days of grace. I think it was not in vain that THIS OPPORTUNITY was granted to me.

Concerning Rome, the projects of the pope, the reform of the Curia, the progress of the Council etc., Cardijn had nothing to say and I believe in fact that he knew nearly nothing about these things. He told me that since being appointed a cardinal he had not received a single paper instructing him on what was expected of him.

Belonging to the Congregation on Studies and Seminaries, he went to see Pizzardo. He returned highly alarmed. Pizzardo is useless, he said.

He told us about his cardinalate and how the nuncio had informed him, how the Pope had said to him, “Continue to be Cardijn!”. He also told us how since becoming a cardinal, everyone in Rome smiled at him, bowing to him. (“It’s disgusting,” he said, “it’s undignified. I could never have believed it.”).

In fact, Cardijn is very free; he has indeed continued to be himself. But what a passion, what enthusiasm; what remarkable health for an eighty-three year old man!

We spoke about the texts on Religious Freedom, Schema XIII, the Apostolate of the Laity, the Missions, the Priests. Cardijn had prepared his thoughts on all these texts. He relied on me, on us, to go over them and to put them in the form of conciliar interventions.

In the end, Cardijn has only one idea but it is co-substantial with him and he is as absolutely faithful to it as he is to himself. This idea clarifies everything.

His great idea is to start with the real, with the concrete. You must take people as they are. He criticised the new schema on the apostolate of the laity for beginning with different kinds of apostolate, and for proposing a “lay spirituality”.

“If I had started out like that”, he said, “I would never have done anything. I have never met anyone to whom these schemas apply.

“It is always necessary to begin by taking people as they are, without trying to impose on them our own frameworks, our ideas, our demands. It needs to come from them, it has to be authentic for them.

“When you start with a system, it is easy to come to the conclusion that with such and such a person nothing is possible. And so nothing is done.”

Cardijn was teaching in a seminary or in a school when Cardinal Mercier named him vicar at Laeken. He was poorly welcomed by his parish priest, the dean, who had already labelled him: poor health, doesn’t speak Flemish, fresh from the seminary and knows nothing!

Yet there was a whole neighbourhood of poor people where neither the dean nor any other priest had ever visited. “Nothing can be done there”. And so when Cardijn spoke of his intention to go there, it was said “they will not accept you”.

So Cardijn started going out the next day and they opened up to him, he drank coffee and a year later he had a group of one thousand women from that neighbourhood!

He made similar criticisms concerning Schema XIII, and on the schema on the Missions. Little by little, we worked out a number of interventions that he would give, starting from his notes and from our conversation.

Following the departure of the Cardinal, whom we took back to catch his plane at 1.40pm on the 5th, Fr Féret and I divided up the work. On the 10th, I sent him a draft of an intervention on Religious Freedom.

Tuesday 14 September 19655

Féret told me that Cardijn had asked to have lunch with us after the morning ceremony. But I have no details. I don't know where or at what place to meet Féret and Cardijn.

I am looking. I exit through the square following the trampling rhythm of the huge crowd, engaging in a few snatches of conversation with various people.

I see all the buses, all the cars leave one after the other as the square empties. I hobble across and wait under the hot sun.

Thank God Archbishop McGrath was one of the last to leave and he took me up to the Via Ulisse Seni.

Cardijn doesn't wait for anyone. He told Fr P. Féret not to come until 4p.m. But in the end we called him. He arrived 65 minutes later. We were lucky to make it until the end of lunch and the tired cardinal went to take a siesta.

When he returned, we worked a little while having coffee in the garden. He knows nothing, sees no-one and is not involved in anything. But his interventions are ready and he will deliver a few good blows.

Thursday 16 September 19656

I don't know why but Cardijn did not speak.

Monday 20 September 19657

Cardinal Cardijn followed Cardinal Browne. Not the same thing at all. They stopped him in the 12th minute.

Thursday 23 September 19658

Passingly interesting morning. End of the GENERAL discussion on Schema XIII. Beginning of the discussion on the preliminary expose. This threatens to be very boring. The whole session punctuated by voting on the De apostolatu laicorum (after the Relatio).

Cardinal Cardijn spoke, a bit like a tribune. People were sympathetic but it did not work. It had no impact and people were gently critical on his style.

Tuesday 5 October 19659

Totally boring discussion on Schema XIII. Cardijn also spoke, less like a tribune than last time. Contrary to what I expected, people give him little credit.


Yves Congar (Annotated and presented by Eric Mahieu), Mon Journal du Concile, 1964-1966, Cerf, Paris, 2002, 2 volumes at p. 316.

1Yves Congar (Annotated and presented by Eric Mahieu), Mon Journal du Concile, 1964-1966, Cerf, Paris, 2002, 2 volumes at p. 316.

2Ibid, at p. 334.

3Ibid at p. 340.

4Ibid at p. 382-384.

5Ibid at p. 389.

6Ibid a p. 393.

7Ibid at p. 399.

8Ibid at p. 404.

9Ibid at p. 421.