ONE of the most important institutions in the history of the Catholic Church's ministry to youth is the Young Christian Workers (YCW).
It was founded after the First World War by Father, later Cardinal, Cardijn in Belgium. Cardijn had been concerned by two, presumably related, problems: the injustice of contemporary capitalistic practices and the rate of lapsing among young Catholic workers. These were being, he felt "coarsened" as well as disillusioned with the Church.
The movement was successful for a number of reasons. Its method of see-judge-act, with the starting point in the experience of everyday life proved particularly influential. So too, the emphasis on "the worth and dignity of each and all young workers."
While being independent of trades unions, it did encourage and train Catholics for involvement with them.
Meanwhile in other countries, people who shared Cardijn's concerns looked to, and soon followed his example. The first British YCW group was set up in Wigan in 1937 by Fr Gerry Rimmer and Patrick Keegan. The alert will realise that that makes 1987 Golden jubilee year. Of this, more later...
It is probably fair to say that the glory days of the YCW in this country were in the 1940s and 50s. In 1957 for example, 1500 went on pilgrimage to Rome. The years since Vatican II have been more difficult and there is a body of opinion which believes that the YCW is finished — a movement, valuable once, but whose time has gone.
Reasons for the decline are not hard to find. The theology of Vatican II would tend to encourage Catholics to get involved directly in unions or other movements without necessarily bothering with a Catholic organisation as a bridge or support.
Also, many single issue groups overlap with the YCW which tries to cover the whole life of the young worker. The raising of the school leaving age and the growth of the Catholic Youth Service have probably been other factors.
There have been problems with the international movement too, in fact, in recent years, a major split, involving the English and Welsh YCWs, has occurred.
From the British perspective International YCW was failing to respect the independence of its constituent members and imposing its own analysis on all. Moreover, this analysis is, for British tastes, simple Marxism and undiluted by the gospel.
Mark Forrester, until recently, the co-ordinator of the British movement, is searing in his criticism: "common action against International Capitalism has become the only objective. The system of analysis, oppressor versus oppressed, is too simple. It finds easy acceptance because it is simplistic... Today the International YCW barely mentions christianity at all, either at conference or in documentation when it talks about education or action there is not the least explicit reference to Christ."
So, a break-off group has been formed with the support of the Vatican. It consists of the YCWs of England and Wales, France, Italy and Malta.
It is against the background of all of this, that the YCW in this country has undertaken a major review for the jubilee year. Believing the reports of its death to be exaggerated, it wants to explore how it can carry out its mission in the 1980s and beyond, in the context of mass unemployment, the YTS scheme and other recent, and gloomy developments.
Its answer to those who, believe it has outlived its usefulness is simply that it fulfills a need still not being fulfilled by anybody else. It may well be right.
There is an oftheard lament that the Church too easily "looses" its youth when they leave fultime education. The structures for catechesis for such people are haphazard, indeed largely absent.
Perhaps a reviewed, renewed YCW would be the organisation for this tricky but much-needed job.
The plan is for a massive survey of young Catholic workers, and potential workers — the unemployed will be involved. The results of this will be collated, published and then pondered upon. The conclusions of the pondering will be reflected in future YCW structures and deeds.
Its leaders are disposed to optimism, which is just as well. A successful jubilee year, and review for the YCW, would indeed, be good news for the Church in this country.