2. Working with the International YCW

Testimony by RV Mathias on his involvement in the International YCW with Sergio Regazzoni.


The 5th International Council in Linz took place exactly fifty years after the official birth of the YCW. The movement therefore undertook an effort to reformulate its basic orientations. Several national movements had experienced repression as a result of their action commitment, e.g. Vietnam and Brazil. These political events necessitated that the YCW evaluate and re-define its positioning. Tensions were multiplying both inside and outside the movement because of its “worker” character.

The reality of the working class

In September 1976, Indian priest, Fr Mathias Rethinam became the IYCW international chaplain in addition to his existing role as national chaplain of the Indian YCW. During this period, he faced a deep crisis that shook the whole movement.

It was at Linz that I first met Sergio and I learnt what a great leader he was. He had just taken on the role of international treasurer. During the Council he explained to the hundred or so leaders present the way in which the money of the movement needed to be used to increase the number of YCW members in every continent. That first meeting impressed me deeply. Sergio seemed to me both as an extremely serene person but also preoccupied.

The International Council at Linz had adopted a Declaration of Principles that set out the points of reference that the movement required as well as another document entitled The Task of Education, which explained the movement's See Judge Act method. Thus the movement finalised a process of development that had lasted more than ten years in which the IYCW defined its identity, its orientation, its objectives and its action plan1. It established that young workers are the protagonists of their own movement. The International Council was the decision making body which also elected an international team comprising representatives of various continents and which implemented the action plan that was adopted, as well as electing an International Secretariat with the role of implementing the plan.

In the worker movement the YCW has a specific mission defined in its Task of Education. With respect to the Catholic Church, the “C” in YCW comprises one of several characteristics. The Holy See was called to recognised the president chosen by the IYCW and to designate the international chaplain from a list of three names submitted by the movement

The Central Church, i.e. the Holy See was extremely reticent to recognise the conclusions of this International Council, particularly its Declaration of Principles. From the time of the Linz Council, communication with the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Vatican Secretariat started to become very difficult. The latter expressed significant reticence concerning the decisions of the Linz Council and “delayed” the appointment of the international chaplain.

A compromise was finally achieved in September 1976 with the preparation of a document setting out “The Christian and ecclesial specificity of the Young Christian Workers” and the approval of an Additional Protocol regulating the relations with the Holy See as well as the nomination of the international chaplain. It was thus that I first came to work more closely with Sergio.

To my mind, these decisions as well as my nomination signified the acceptance (by the Holy See) of the conclusions of the International Council and thus of the Declaration of Principles.

Crisis within the IYCW

While Mathias was still chaplain to the Indian YCW, the International Secretariat asked him in 1978 to come to Brussels because a crisis was beginning within the International Team.

Following the Linz International Council, great difficulties began to emerge with several European movements2. Long debates took place within the International Team. Members of a Commission nominated by the European Team and the International Secretariat then made a series of visits to the national movements. The Commission concluded that there was no other solution than to “reduce” the two movements to the level of “aspirant” movements, even though the CAJ (Germany) and the VKAJ (Belgian Girls movement) were very strong movements with powerful structures linked to the Church.

This decision caused great concern. The French YCW, which had voted at Linz for the approval of the Declaration of Principles, the Statutes and the Internal Rules, started to raise increasingly urgent questions focusing on two issues. According to the French YCW, the IYCW on one hand needed to be a movement of evangelisation rather than education and, on the other hand, did not need an analysis of its own but should adopt that of the worker movement.

The issues concerning these two affirmations could be summarised in the following questions. With respect to the “C”, is the YCW a movement of “evangelisation” with a strategy for evangelisation defined by the Church (central and local), or is it a movement of education that proposes a Christian vision of life to young workers?

A second fundamental debate concerned the place of the YCW within the worker movement. Everyone agreed on the “task of education” as the specific task of the YCW, I believe. However, the disagreements concerned the fact that the IYCW wanted to carry out its own analysis of the reality of working youth and did not simply want to adopt the analysis of the worker movement. As for the French YCW, it did not want the YCW to develop its own analysis but rather to adopt the analyses “of the worker organisations that form a part of the working class”. Evidently these currents could differ depending on the currents within the worker movement3. 

In 1977 and based on the new statutes, a third of the International Team was renewed following an election by post. The French YCW had presented a candidate who only received a few votes and was not elected. To replace Sergio as international treasurer, Marie-Therese Pouget from the French Girls YCW was elected4. Meanwhile, relations with the German YCW were clarified.

Up to September 1976, the International Team was very absorbed with the negotiations with the Vatican on one hand – negotiations in which Sergio played a very significant role – and on the other hand with the discussions with the national movements5.

In effect, shortly after the Linz Council, the Vatican criticised the movement for having given priority to the letter “W” in YCW. And it asked YCW leaders to explain their conception of the “C”. The movement had placed the accent on the commitment and transformation of young workers. The Vatican II documents said nothing different. “The joys and sadnesses of people are the joys and sadnesses of the Church.”

Within the International Team significant debates continued concerning the analysis and its starting point as well as the relationship with the Church. To that point, I considered all these debates as quite normal for an international youth movement confronted with significant changes at social, political and economical level taking place in the world6.

Progressively, however, the content of the debate changed no doubt for several reasons. The debates began to become more personal in nature and this led to a deteriorating climate. One section of the International Team (the members from Asia, Africa and Latin America with the assistance of the French YCW) met secretly arguing that it was a conflict between the Third World and Europe7.

However, among those who presented themselves as being “from the Third World”, there was also a European, while the International Secretariat itself comprised an Indian as secretary-general, namely Sylvester Thomas, the president Jose Luis Velez from Porto Rico. As for myself, I was also Indian. This situation led to a very serious internal crisis and caused me great suffering.

To deal with these issues, the president José Luis Velez (known as Chegui) launched a process of consultation and dialogue. Unfortunately his efforts failed to clarify the situation. In 1979, he decided to dissolve the International Team,which had become ungovernable, and to launch a process to prepare an Extraordinary International Council which was to take place in Malines (Mechelen), Belgium in April-May 1981 and in which only a small number of movements would participate. France, Italy, Portugal, several countries in Asia responded to Chegui's appeal. Latin America boycotted the meeting. In total, around sixty people responded positively.

After the dissolution of the International Team, various members left gradually. Later, after the International Council of Malines, each continent elected a representative for an Interim International Secretariat, which comprised Mila Bras from Portugal, Ezequiel Avila from Mexico coordination and to prepare the International Council planned for 1983 in Madrid. I continued, Richard Menya from Kenya and Evelyn Victorino from the Philippines. Its task was to ensure a minimum of my work as chaplain until that International Council.

Thus, following the departure of Chegui, I found myself in Brussels, alone, with Mila Bras from Portugal who had been nominated for the transition period.

The injunctions of the Holy See

During the same period, the Spanish YCW had also experienced a deep internal crisis and had split, with repercussions also affecting the International YCW.

The Holy See then informed us that the International Council should in no circumstances take place in Madrid, Spain. If the International YCW insisted on it in spite of everything, the Council would not be recognised. The Interim Team did not accept this decision of the Holy See based on the fact that the “protocol of agreement” did not authorise the Holy See to decide the location of the Council. Against my personal advice, the decision was made to hold the Council in Madrid in spite of the difficulties. In consequence, the Pontifical Council for the Laity refused to send an “observer”, did not recognise the election of the president and the International Team, and did not name an international chaplain.

All these years were extremely difficult to live. Personally, from time to time I had the opportunity to exchange, particularly on a human level, with one or two former leaders of the IYCW including Sergio and Lidia who encouraged me. Sergio was a person who always made an effort to keep in touch with former YCWs and to find out what was happening to them. It was thus that after my departure from the IYCW and given my state of fatigue that he suggested that I take a sabbatical year at the Centre Lebret in Paris. At that time, he was working for CCFD. It was a period allowed me to decompress, to take a distance and to reflect. We shared much as old comrades during that time.

The sabbatical year also allowed me to sum up my experience with the IYCW, which I will do as follows. I had accepted with joy the mandate that had been given to me in 1976 because I saw it as expressing confidence both on the part of the Holy See and on the part of the International Team as well as a recognition of my work experience with young workers in India. I had deeply believed that I was able to do the work of forming young workers and building the Church in the world on the basis of that confidence that had been shown in me. Although I knew a little of the problems of the IYCW and its difficult relations with the Holy See, I was ignorant of the historical details.

In the course of those first meetings of the International Team, I became aware of the difficulties and tensions with the Holy See. Fundamentally, the problems began from different conceptions of a movement of young workers and concretely, based on these conceptions, its role in the world, the kind of formation, etc. I could see that this tension was historical: the YCW was born in a given period with tensions inside the movement and in its relations with the Church and the worker movement of that time. And that continued in various forms and at various levels. This situation, which I considered as a sign of growth, motivated me to accept my role in the International Team and to reflect deeply with its members in order to grow and advance towards a better understanding of the YCW, its role, and its task among young workers and the quality of their formation.

I am convinced that young workers, young unemployed people, the under-employed have a greater need than ever of a movement like the YCW in order to organise, struggle for the defence of their rights and dignity and above all of their actions on site that help them to reflect on things in depth and to form themselves in every aspect of life, including that of faith.

In spite of enormous difficulties – owing to repression, domination and marginalisation by various sectors of society – it had struggled to remain as faithful as possible, with its strengths and weaknesses, to the fundamental insights of its founder, Joseph Cardijn. Cardijn transcended the material dimension with his motto: “Every young worker is worth more than all the gold in the world” or based on his talks where he says in substance: “Every child, every young worker, every man or woman, is a person. The person is a whole, an absolute, an end in him or herself. He or she had never been a means, an instrument: he or she is always the final goal. It is the dignity and destiny of the human person that are the basis of law and morality, of social, professional, economic, national and international order”8.

An organisation of education

The celebration of the centenary of the birth of Cardijn was a significant moment that helped illustrate his insight. The person of the young worker and the aspect of transcendence were major preoccupations in the process of the movement.

For my part, I continue to consider that political education is part of the mission of the movement in order to enable young people to take up their role in society. The YCW is essentially an organisation of education within the world of work. In this sense, its objective is to assist young people to understand social realities, to acquire criteria of judgement and to understand evangelical principles.

The YCW also works with young workers who belong to other religions. The starting point of the movement since its origin has been the reality in which young workers live and not a particular faith. However, as part of their commitment within the reality of life and the dynamic of the movement, young workers have always discovered a living faith in Jesus Christ, a motivating faith, an incarnate Gospel, a Gospel that announces and realises the Paschal mystery of death and resurrection in their life and in their daily involvement. I witnessed this faith lived by young workers formed by the YCW in various countries. Young workers from other religions, e.g. Muslims, discovered the value of the movement in their own lives. Thanks to the YCW, they were able to discover the deep meaning of the Muslim faith which up to that point had only been a ritual in their lives.

In India, young Hindus and Muslims found a place within the YCW and felt at ease there. It is important not to forget that Christians represent only 2% of the population (1.5% Catholic). In Asia, the issue of belonging to a religion was not addressed in team discussions, however, the “Christian” character of the YCW was nevertheless not denied. The great challenge that faced us was how to include and above all not to exclude young workers who did not consider themselves as Christians?

In the international movement, we tried to live all that in a difficult and conflicted context. Yes, a difficult and conflictual moment in an effort to seek:

  • balance between local and international
  • balance between a globalising international orientation and the demands of holistic formation of young workers at local level, in their time and in their spaces, without interrupting the various stages of their formation and the process of progressive transformation of society
  • a balance between a global analysis of reality, which risks classifying all young workers and the various situations in the world in the same folder, and the multiple details of the lives and actions of young workers in their various contexts and cultures (revision of life and action)
  • a balance between the various characters of the movement and their vital interdependency in the life of the movement in order to safeguard its fundamental identity
  • a balance between an affirmation of autonomy as an international organisation and the rise in awareness of autonomy which is in relation with other organisations motivated by a need for vital and enriching interdependency
  • a balance between a movement of “militants” which risks to develop by a process of elimination and exclusion and a “mass” movement that also risks simply bringing together a crowd of young people with no direction or identity.

We sought, with great difficulty, to understanding the meaning of our conflictual situation starting from the practices and the reflection of the various international meetings. We tried to find our own balance. Personally, as a priest with a responsibility for actively accompanying a movement of young workers, my task in such a situation was neither simple nor easy. In the midst of the crisis of their movement, young people turned to me as an adult who was close to them. But how to win the confidence of all the leaders of the movements and of the International Team through such a process? It was not easy.

We made many efforts to achieve a certain unity of orientation in the movement during our final International Meeting in Madrid, in spite of the limitations arising from the historical tensions on one hand and a certain loss of memory as a result of the changes in the team of international leaders over a period of eight years. All this in a state of crisis that prevented us from finding the causes of our difficulties in a calm and dispassionate manner. I would not say that we could not resolve our problems, far from it. Cardijn said: “We always need to begin again!” In that sense, the International Council of Linz was a stage of re-beginning.

Unfortunately, following the difficulties with the Holy See owing to the maintenance of the International Council in Madrid, the French YCW changed direction. After its candidate failed to be elected to the International Team, it subsequently sought to launch movements in various countries and in 1986 it promoted the birth of the ICYCW (International Coordination of the YCW) recognised by the Holy See as an International Catholic Organisation (ICO) to the detriment of the IYCW that the Vatican no longer wished to recognise.

Sergio was filled with the YCW spirit.

With Sergio and Lidia, who was responsible for the European YCW until August 1980, we shared many things after the end of my mandate during my sabbatical year in Paris and following my return to India.

Sergio and I also collaborated throughout the time that he was in charge of the Centre Lebret and right up to the end. This is why I truly consider Sergio as a brother. Each time I went to Europe, I went to see him at his place. He was a leader truly filled with the spirit of the YCW.

He also knew how to enter the hearts of Asians in an almost natural manner. He reached men and women in the depths of their humanity. He could cry with the people who lived in a situation of misery whether it was Vietnam, Cambodia, Timor or elsewhere. His only concern was to contribute to their liberation and development.


1Cf. The Declaration of Principles, The Task of Education, The Review of Life and Worker Action as well as the modifications of the Statutes and Internal Rules.

2 The German YCW (CAJ) and the Belgian Girls YCW (VKAJ) which did not recognise the Declaration of Principles.

3 These big debates between the International YCW and the French YCW also existed between the two French movements, namely the male and female YCWs.

4 In that election Juanjo Pellicer (a Spaniard living in Germany) from the Immigrant YCW and Andres Aganzo from the Spanish YCW were elected from Europe, the latter as a replacement for Fabrice Epis from the Walloon YCW. At the request of the International Team, Andres left for Latin America to reinforce the Latin American team.

5Specially with Germany and the Flemish VKAJ.

6 This was the post-Vatican II period, with the theology of liberation, national liberation movements, the oil crisis of 1973, the New International Economic Order and the deterioration of the terms of trade between developed and developing nations, the follow up of May 1968, the beginnings of an economic crisis in the developed countries.

7 The International Secretariat learned of the holding of this meeting from a member of the International Team in Africa who had taken part and who felt uneasy about it.

8Cardijn, Joseph: « Les jeunes travailleurs face aux temps nouveaux », pages 8 and 9.