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Cardijn meets British unionist Ben Tillett

posted 8 Aug 2011, 20:51 by Stefan Gigacz   [ updated 9 Aug 2011, 19:24 ]
Ben Tillett
One hundred years ago this month in August 1911, young Father Joseph Cardijn, still teaching Latin at a minor seminary in rural Belgium and not yet thirty years of age, made one of the most formative trips of his life visiting the United Kingdom.

There he met Scout founder Lord Baden Powell who was so impressed that he asked Cardijn to become commissioner for scouting in Belgium, an offer that Cardijn promptly declined.

The man who did have an impact on Cardijn was the British trade union leader, Christian socialist and parliamentarian, Ben Tillett (photo).

Cardijn spent several hours in dialogue with Tillett who was equally impressed with the young Belgian priest.

Much later he would write:

I shall never forget my first journey to England. I have often said it was the best retreat I made at the beginning of my priesthood.

I stayed at St. Bede's College, near the house of the bishop of Salford, which is the Catholic diocese covering Manchester. I ate there with the professors and with the Bishop himself.

From morning till evening I spent my time in the wholesale ware-houses and co-operative depots into which tea and other produce from abroad is stored. I had discussions, too, with the management who invited me to eat with them. They were all Protestants, some of them very devout.

I met people, too from the various English religious denominations, high and low Church Anglicans, Methodists, Quakers, Salvation Army, as well as Jews. I visited all kinds of institutions, 'work-houses,' technical schools, YMCA and so on.

At table the priests would ask me where I had been. None of the priests had ever had contact with such places or people. They were rather stunned by my cheek and imprudence, particularly as I looked so young!

I went also to Liverpool and Birmingham to find out about various institutions and local industries.

I behaved even worse in London. There I spent literally fifteen days with the trades-union leaders, Ben Tillett and others. It was just after the big strike. I took part in their meetings and at religious conferences given to workers in Hyde Park and elsewhere. A number of these trades-union organisers were fervent apostles who thought that without religion, the raising up of the working class was impossible.

Unlike Belgium where trade unions were dominated by anti-clerical socialists, Cardijn found that the English trades unions had been largely organised by Christian socialists, including Tillett.

Upon his return to Belgium, Cardijn wrote a long detailed report of his trip to the UK that he published in two parts in the Revue sociale catholique in November and December of that year.

The example of the British unions had become a model that the young Cardijn wanted to emulate.

The original French language report can be read here on our www.josephcardijn.fr site.

And we also have an English translation available on this site here.