YCW beginnings in Asia-Pacific




Today, our sources of information concerning the origins of the YCW in the Asia-Pacific region are rather limited. Most of what we know comes from a small pamphlet by Cardijn, La JOC dans le monde (The YCW in the World], published in preparation for the planned Pilgrimage to Rome in September 1939 – a pilgrimage which was cancelled at the last minute owing to the outbreak of World War II.

This little pamphlet informs us that the first contacts with Asia took place in China as early as 1928 or 1929 – only 3-4 years after the official foundation of the YCW in Belgium in 1925. Ten years later, in 1939, YCW contacts and initiatives were under way in 11 countries of Asia and the Pacific – an enormous achievement considering that the YCW had no official international secretariat before 1945.

Eventually, perhaps we will learn much more about this period by locating records in the various countries concerned. In this chapter, however, we will endeavour to piece together what we do know about these early YCW initiatives in Asia and Oceania. Drawing on the pamphlet. The YCW in the World, and on several items of correspondence reports, including that of the First World Congress of the YCW in Brussels in 1935, we will try to learn how these early YCWs functioned, what kind of education and action they developed, who they reached and the impact they had.


China – First Contacts in Asia

Amazing as it may seem, it is just possible that after Europe, Asia was the first continent to host the YCW. Here is Cardijn’s 1939 description of the beginnings of YCW in China:

The Belgian YCW has Seen in contact with China for more than ten years by means of valiant missionaries who have started the movement in several centres The (Sino-Japanese) war failed to interrupt these finis Bishop Yu Pin wanted to come to the Jocist Central to express his gratitude for all the worldwide YCW had done for China.

If as Cardijn says, contacts with China date back ‘for more than ten years’ before 1939, then we are talking of 1929 or even 1928 – only a year after the foundation of the French YCW! The question is how did the YCW manage to arrive in China so soon? Who started the groups? Were they successful? How did they function? At present, we don’t have precise answers to many of these questions.

What we do know is that there were many Christian missionaries at work in China in this period including many Belgians such as Fr Vincent Lebbe. Rejecting the Church’s traditional, methods of evangelisation and her association with the colonising powers, Fr Lebbe campaigned vigorously for a genuinely ‘Chinese’ Church, calling for the appointment of Chinese bishops to replace the missionary bishops. Belgian missionaries therefore enjoyed a relatively progressive reputation and it seems clear from many records in the IYCW that Cardijn worked very hard to convince such missionaries to assist in the task of building the YCW in China and other mission countries.

Contacts with Chinese and Asian Students in Europe

Another way in which the YCW in Belgium made contacts in China and elsewhere was through the many foreign students who came to study at the University of Louvain and in Rome. Thus. Dom Peter Celestine Lou Tseng Tsiang OSB. a Chinese who eventually became a Benedictine monk in Belgium, also became a friend to Cardijn who no doubt advised him on Chinese questions.

It may also have been while he was a student at Propaganda College In Rome that the YCW made contact with the seminarian Paul Yu Pin. Ordained at Rome in 1928, he later became National Director of Catholic Action In China from 1933-36. When he became Bishop and Apostolic Vicar at Nanking in 1936 he evidently knew the YCW very well. Here we have a classic example of the way in which Cardijn and the YCW of the 1930s succeeded in gaining the support of the most dynamic young priests and in mobilising all those interested in Catholic Action. Bishop Yu Pin was eventually expelled from Mainland China in 1949 and lived in Taiwan where he was named Cardinal in 1969.

The Chinese YCW Groups

What we know of the actual Chinese YCW groups of this time also comes from two letters cited in Cardijn’s YCW in the World pamphlet. The first letter was addressed to the Holy Father by the YCW section of Laifing, Hebei on the occasion of the 1939 Pilgrimage:

Loved and Respected Holy Father,
We would have wished to be able to greet the Sovereign Pontiff with the world Young Christian Workers movement in order to phase the heart of our Loved and Honoured Holy Father and to receive his venerable Blessings. This is not possible, however…
Very Honoured and Very Loved Holy Father, our Chinese Jocist section loves, honours and listens to the Very Venerable Sovereign Pontiff. Every first Friday of the month for us is the ‘Day of the Pope’, and we pray specially on that day for the intentions of His Holiness.
For the young workers also, so dear to his Holiness, we devote ourselves with the worldwide Young Christian Workers, we give ourselves body and soul to save and re-conquer the working youth for our Father the Good God; all that in order to the laws of Our Father Be respected on Earth as in Heaven For this reason, among others, we have specially devoted ourselves to a very careful and deep study of the two encyclicals ‘Quadragesimo Anno’ and ‘Rerum Novarum’.
We hope that this letter may console our Very Honoured and Very Loved Venerable Holy Father the Pope We ardently hope so Because we know very well how many people are systematically perverting young people and thus causing the heart of Our Very Honoured and Venerable Holy Father to bleed.
We pray Our Very Honoured and Very Loved Holy Father to Bless us our persons, our families, our section, our class, and our Homeland Long live the Sovereign Pontiff.
Given at the Jocist section of Laifing, Hebei, China. The year of the Lord 1939.

We don’t know who wrote this letter but it does appear that the ‘Jocist section’ in Hebei was well established – meeting regularly for careful study of the Church’s social encyclicals and for their monthly First Friday Prayers.

The second letter is from Archbishop Haouisee, Apostolic Vicar in Shanghai, who wrote personally to Cardijn on 27 June 1939:

… We have some young workers and aBove all several young women workers who would have Been able to profitably assist at the great Catholic demonstration, make contact with the YCW and thus in future M Become precious auxiliaries in view of organising similar works in Shanghai.
Thus, I immediately looked into the possibilities of forming a delegation worthy of the name I even offered myself to lead it, which would have Been a great honour for me and a great consolation, since 1 was also pastor in a worker parish for six years Unfortunately, political strikes have caused the disruption of our great Catholic workers centre and of the Home near the Factory directed By the Daughters of Charity.
Moreover, the support of Chinese refugees, and now – increasingly Jewish refugees, has exhausted the charity of our best Catholic families to the point that a new appeal to support the costs of such a delegation would be too great at this time Believe me, it is to my very great regret that I find myself in the impossibility of accepting your invitation. In order to show how much we have appreciated your invitation, we can at (east promise you to compensate with our prayers and to offer many sacrifices for the success of this Congress to which we unite ourselves from afar.

This letter gives us some idea of the turmoil in China with the ‘political strikes’ affecting the efforts of the workers centre, etc. It is interesting to note also the important role played by these Chinese people in welcoming European and especially Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany. Clearly the YCW initiatives in Shanghai are much less developed than in Hebei. Nevertheless, we can discern the plan to develop the movement using the Workers Centre as a base.

Chinese Presence at the First International Congress and Study Week of the YCW, 1935

It was probably also through the University of Louvain that the YCW came in contact with a Chinese Franciscan priest Fr Michael Kong, O.F.M. who was the only Asian present at the First International Congress and Study Week of the YCW in Brussels in August 1935. During this historic Study Week, Fr Kong presented a report on The Situation of Workers in China in which he states that ‘my young brother and my sisters belong to Young Workers Catholic Action’. His report, however, focuses mainly on the general situation of workers. As for the young workers, ‘their lifestyle differs greatly from that of European young workers’, Fr Kong says. First of all. they marry at the age of sixteen. Secondly, they remain dependent on their parents for much longer. The families of many young workers, however, are too poor to allow them to go to school, which means that their education system requires great improvement.

It is clear from Fr Kong’s report that he himself did not represent any YCW movement in China. His presence at the Congress was more an indication of the desire of Cardijn and of the embryonic ‘international office’ of the YCW to have a Chinese and an Asian presence at the Study Week.

We also know that there was an Asian presence in the delegation to the International Labour Organisation in Geneva in June 1935. Whether this representation was from China or elsewhere, it also indicates the desire of Cardijn and the YCW to build a truly representative movement of young workers.

Sadly, our knowledge of this embryonic Chinese YCW ends here. Internal turmoil in China, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the outbreak of World War II all combined to put an end to these ear|y YCW initiatives in the “Middle Kingdom”.

Other Early YCW Initiatives in Asia

There were also a number of other YCW initiatives in Asia in the 1930s. Let us refer again to Cardjjn’s 1939 notes:

The YCW also has sections in Korea and in the Philippines. Before the Eucharistic Congress of Manila, people attracted our attention on the need to organise young workers in those places We all know how Pius XI emphasised this point in his recent letter to the Bishops of the Philippines The YCW has many correspondents in India, in Japan – the Salesian Fathers have informed us of the beginnings of the YCW in their professional schools since 1936.

All of these early initiatives appear to have died out probably also because of the war. We therefore know very little of their achievements of their difficulties.


Missionary Contacts in the Indochinese Colonies

However, there was one movement in Asia which did manage to develop. The YCW today has sections in Annam. in Cochin-China and in Tonkin,’ wrote Cardijn in 1939. And thus, it seems that even if the first Asian YCW groups were probably Chinese, it was in Vietnam that the first organised Asian YCW movement emerged. In this case, it was mainly via the French connection that initial contacts were made with the three colonies of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China, which would later become Vietnam.

A French Redemptorist missionary, Fr Patrice Gagné, C.Ss.R. made at least one effort to build the YCW in the city of Hue in 1935, using the publication, L’Action Catholique Spécialisée (Specialised Catholic Action) published by Professor Pierre Bayart in 1934. Fr Gagné also poses what will become the central question of creating the YCW in Asia:

We are working here in a country with a pagan majority: 1 in 20 roughly. The YCW is essentially Catholic. How could we make use of YCW methods, publications, and documentation in order to Bring these young pagans under our wings?

Cardijn gave a response to these concerns in the YCW in the World.

In a moving letter written to the French YCW, the jocists of Nam Dinh in Indochina described how the film of the Paris Congress (1937) was shown to an audience of 600 Buddhists. It was an occasion to explain to them the Jocist program and methods And the letter remarks that since then they attach more importance to the religious, moral and physical fife of young workers.

As we see, Cardijn clearly favours the outreach to young Buddhist workers. He places the emphasis on improving the ‘religious, moral and physical life of young workers’ rather than on ‘bringing young pagans under our wings’.

The Working Class

Fr Gagne also raises a second important question in his letter:

Another difficulty here is that the situation is not so clear-cut as in France or in Canada. The working class hardly exists. Instead, we have mostly poor peasants cultivating their rice paddies in the traditional way.’

This will also become a classic question for the YCWs in the region. Once again, Cardjjn gives an indirect answer, citing the example of the YCW setting a priority to reach young workers in Nam Dinh, a major textile city near Hanoi. As his note illustrates, the Second International Congress in Paris in 1937 also had a major impact in helping to spread the YCW and its ideals to this region.

The Role of a Lay Man: Nguyen Manh Ha

The key person in the development of the Vietnam YCW, however, was a young layman, Nguyen Manh Ha. who had studied law and social sciences in Paris in the early 1930s, and had evidently seen the French YCW in action. Working with a Spanish Dominican priest Manh Ha began the movement in the industrial port city of Haiphong. From 1936, YCW groups began to be established in Hanoi and Tourane as well as Haiphong, all in the Tonkin region in the north of today’s Vietnam.

Manh Ha’s efforts in the Haiphong – Hanoi region of northern Vietnam met with considerable success. At one point, the YCW newspaper for the masses. Hy Vong Lao Dong – The Hope of the Worker World – reached a circulation of up to 4,000 copies. There was also a leaders’ bulletin Chien Si – The Militant. The movement operated a number of services including an employment bureau, a service for the sick and a soup kitchen, which served 2,500,000 meals during the famine of 1944-45.

These developments were not interrupted by Japan’s invasion of Vietnam In 1940-41. Just as the Vichy government in France collaborated with the German occupying forces, so too in Vietnam the colonial government collaborated with the Japanese forces. Thus, the YCW movement was able to continue to function strongly until the second Japanese invasion of Vietnam in March 1945 when the resulting chaos and destruction caused the dispersal of YCW leaders.

Despite the success of the YCW during the war, Manh Ha and the key YCW leaders appear to have succeeded in keeping their distance from the colonial government. When Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary movement Viet Nam Tach Mang Dong Minh – the Viet Minh – took power briefly at the end of the war. Ho made Manh Ha a minister in his short-lived provisional independent government of 1945-46.

However, the French with American support succeeded in restoring their colonial regime in 1946. Manh Ha and the YCW leaders now found themselves tainted in the eyes of many conservative Catholics by their association with the independence movement and with Ho’s Viet Minh. Thus, the Vietnamese YCW found itself in difficulty with the Church precisely because of its identification with the independence struggle. Another YCW leader, Mai Van Uc, wrote in 1946:

The sun of independence is rising over Viet Nam. We welcome this with gladness and we YCWs of Vietnam hasten to firing in the dawn of the Gospel in our country and especially in our factories and workshops You might think that we are against foreigners and that we think that we are sufficient unto ourselves But do not think so Because we are the first to acknowledge that we cannot accomplish this task without your help and the help of YCWs all over the world.

However, it would take a number of years to rebuild the Vietnamese YCW after the war.


Meanwhile, the Japanese advance was stopped in East Timor, New Guinea | and Guadalcanal, meaning that most of the Oceania region managed to stay outside of the war zone. Cardijn described the YCW picture in Oceania in 1939 as follows:

The Belgian YCW in Australia has many faithful friends The jocist idea continues to make progress Many articles have appeared in Catholic publications. Mr McGuire, the well-known Australian journalist, has published a book dealing with jocist methods, ‘Restoring all things’, which has had a big impact in the Anglo-Saxon world and he has multiplied the conferences on the YCW in the United States In Victoria, in Melbourne and in Adelaide, various persevering efforts to adapt jocist methods an continuing.

In New Zealand, thanks to the action of Fr Bennett together with Mr McGuire and several of his colleagues, are studying with great interest the achievements of the YCW in enabling religious life to Setter penetrate secular lift We have recently heard of the foundation of a jocist section in Dunedin.

New Zealand

It would thus seem that New Zealand takes the honour of hosting the first YCW, or jocist movement in the Oceania region. As Cardijn’s text indicates, in Dunedin, on the South Island, of New Zealand, Fr Frank Bennett was Instrumental in creating a youth movement on YCW lines under the name Catholic League of Young Men/Women. This movement had its own fulltime worker and premises and adopted the name JOC M/F in 1939.

Fr Bennett together with another priest. Fr Findlay, had heard of the YCW – possibly through Paul McGuire’s publications. They subsequently translated and adapted YCW publications from French into English. However, development of a sustained jocist movement would have to await the end of the war.

As Cardjjn also mentions, Paul McGuire, who was a noted writer from. Adelaide and later a diplomat, did much to promote the YCW in Australia. His publications contributed to the spread of the YCW in much of the English-speaking world, including the United States as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Independently of McGuire’s efforts, however, another young lay person Kevin T. Kelly, a government worker from Melbourne, had also heard of the YCW through some publications received from France. Included in these publications was a copy of the French YCW edition of the Manual of the YCW. Inspired by what he learnt from this publication. Kevin Kelly made a number of attempts between 1936 and 1939 to create YCW groups. Making contact with the Brussels YCW secretariat Kelly began to correspond with Fr Robert Kothen. assistant chaplain to Cardijn, and became recognised as the official correspondent for YCW in Australia. Then, teaming up with Paul McGuire in 1939, Kelly published a small booklet The YCW that sold 15,000 copies and created the climate in which the YCW would be born.

The Birth of the YCW in Australia

The pioneering publicity efforts of Paul McGuire and Kevin Kelly bore much fruit. Although the early history of the Australian YCW is not well known, it is clear that boys and girls movements began from a number of more or less independent initiatives in different cities and states (Melbourne. Victoria; Adelaide. South Australia; Brisbane. Queensland).

However, the most significant step forward came in 1939 when Fr Frank Lombard and a number of young Melbourne priests came together with the objective of building the YCW. By 1941, their experimental efforts succeeded in convincing Archbishop Daniel Mannix of the value of the YCW. Mannix, who had been born in Ireland in 1864, was much influenced by the Catholic democrats and lay leaders of the mid-19th century such as Daniel O’Connell. He was therefore open to the kind of formation offered by the YCW. Thus, in 1941. Archbishop Mannix decreed that the pre-existing Catholic Boys Legion should be transformed into the YCW. The date of 8 September – celebrated in the Church as the birthday of Mary. Jesus’ mother – was chosen as a symbolic foundation date.

Over the next 4-5 years, other similar initiatives took off elsewhere in Australia for both boys and girls. In 1943. the first YCW National Council for the Boys YCW was held and headquarters established in Melbourne. A girls’ movement, under the name of the National Catholic Girls Movement (NCGM). was organised on a national level in 1941 ; it would eventually take the name of YCW Girls in 1958. Seychelles: Oceania?

Finally, let us note that in his 1939 booklet Cardijn also bundles Seychelles into the Oceania region along with Australia and New Zealand.

For a number of years, the Seychelles Islands have possessed a jocist organisation., thanks to the Swiss missionaries who are in constant contact with the General Secretariat in Brussels.

Once again, we observe that it was the missionaries who were the principal point of contact for the movement.

Stefan Gigacz


Stefan Gigacz, The IYCW in Asia Pacific, 1929-2000, Unite Young Workers of the World, International Cardijn Foundation, Brussels, 2000.