A Personal Reflection: Reviewing, renewing the call to Catholic Action
By Father Bruce Nieli, CSP
I pray for a return to Catholic Action.
I was introduced to the term when I met Eduardo Bonnín, founder of the Cursillo Movement and a believer in Catholic Action. As a young man in 1940s Spain, Bonnín and a group of other young men, disturbed by the absence of young adults in church participation, made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James of Compostela, and after a profound conversion experience developed the Cursillo method of transforming society through small communities of committed Christians.
As a movement, Catholic Action had its beginnings in the latter part of the 19th century, when laity proactively took measures to counteract the anticlericalism in countries like France, Italy, Spain and Belgium. As the church entered the 20th century, Catholic Action became a more organized movement in which laity, collaborating with the hierarchy, worked to bring Christ and Catholic social teachings into the greater society. The godfather of the movement, honored by both Pope Pius XI and Pope Paul VI, was Father Joseph Leo Cardijn of Belgium, founder of the Young Trade Unionists, which became the Young Christian Workers, the quintessential model for Catholic Action.
Father Cardijn also designed what would become the predominant methodology of Catholic Action, summarized by three actions see (observe), judge and act. To put it simply, we see the reality around us with its problems and challenges, with the eyes of Christ. We discern a response to these problems and challenges with the mind of Christ, using Scripture and the teachings of the church. And we implement action responses as the body of Christ.
Peter Maurin, co-founder (with Dorothy Day) of the Catholic Worker movement, articulated the philosophy of Catholic Action in an essay entitled “Blowing the Dynamite of the Church” where he wrote “Rome will have to do more than to play a waiting game; she will have to use some of the dynamite inherent in her message … If the Catholic Church is not today the dominant social dynamic force, it is because Catholic scholars have failed to blow the dynamite of the Church.”
Father Cardijn referred to Maurin’s thought as “the purist spirit of the Gospel.”
It would be this “blowing the dynamite” approach to proactive Catholicism that would characterize the highly diverse groups coming under the umbrella of Catholic Action. These included the Young Christian Workers, the Young Christian Students; the Cursillo Movement; the Legion of Mary; Sodalities; the Christian Family Movement and the various community organizing groups as well as the magazine “Commonweal.”
The move to bring Catholic social teaching into the public square motivated Catholics like Msgr. John A. Ryan of Catholic University, whom many have called the prophet of the New Deal, and Paulist John J. Burke, founder of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, precursor to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The current Catholic Campaign for Human Development also began with the guiding principles of Catholic Action.
A contemporary example of such a priest directly formed by Catholic Action whose influence permeates current Catholicism is the Spirit-filled Msgr. Thomas Kleissler of Newark. In his recent autobiography “Beyond My Wildest Dreams,” Kleissler describes a boyhood experience of picking up on a rainy day in the school library a pamphlet about Father Cardijn and the Young Christian Workers. The pastoral approach of “observe, judge, act” that the future priest learned from that pamphlet, along with a life-long passion for justice and service to the poor, dominated his subsequent pastoral activities, from leadership in the Christian Family Movement, to active participation in the civil rights movement, to the co-founding of RENEW, a process has helped us connect faith to everyday life.
Catholic Action helped lay the foundations for the emphasis on lay involvement in church life so prominent in the Second Vatican Council, but there has been a subsequent lull. It is once again “time to blow the lid off so the Catholic Church may again become the dominant social dynamic force,” as Maurin once wrote. Now is the time for a revival and renewal.
The New Evangelization promulgated by St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis, can spark such a revival and renewal. Certainly the caring witness of Pope Francis, and his magnificent apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” provide reasons for hope.
Catholic Action, both as a movement and a mentality, offers opportunities to unite pro-life and pro-poor in our polarized nation. Recently I participated in a unified effort to serve the immigrant children and families coming across the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America in a desperate flight from poverty and threats from ruthless gangs and drug traffickers.
There near the Rio Grande, at Sacred Heart Parish in McAllen, we were volunteers from all walks of life and ideologies, from faith communities, medical professions, various levels of government, the legal profession, the local food bank, and even the bus station, all working together to meet the basic humanitarian needs of God’s precious children and all coordinated by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Brownsville.
There, in a border town filled with a cross section of the human race, I rejoiced to see a return to Catholic Action.