Building social activism and personal formation

In this article, ACI president, Brian Lawrence, who is also currently chairperson of the Australian YCS National Adult Support Team shares reflections he prepared for the International YCS Online Global Training Session on 24 April 2021.

Jesus, fill us with the spirit of your love.
Help us to see the world as you do,
to judge with your heart,
and to act with the strength and courage you have shown us,
as we work to transform our world.

This is the kind of prayer used by the Young Christian Students in Australia, based on the see, judge, act methodology developed by Cardinal Joseph Cardijn. The prayer recognises that the see, judge, act process is not just a meeting technique, but a way of life, a way of thinking about how we can be more Christ-like in our lives, from the personal everyday circumstances of our lives through to the great social issues of the world today. We must remember that this Review of Life is more than a meeting procedure.

I am participating in this training session in my capacity as the chairperson of the National Adult Support Team of the Australian YCS. I also have an indirect connection with the YCS in my position as President of the Australian Cardijn Institute. The Secretary of the institute, Stefan Gigacz, has made an enormous international contribution to the study and promotion of the works of Joseph Cardijn and the Jocist movements that he has inspired; see

A few words about my introduction to the YCS. I live in Melbourne. I joined the Young Christian Workers in 1960, while I was still at secondary school. Like many, I joined our parish YCW because of its social and sporting activities. During my University years I became a member of our parish YCW Leaders group and helped establish the YCS and a separate Tertiary students’ group in the parish. In 1966, three other YCW activists and I established Jocist groups at the University of Melbourne. As a result of my activities, I was employed full time by the Australian YCS after my graduation. I was National Secretary in 1968 and National President in 1969. I was a Barrister at The Victorian Bar from 1971 to 2008, save for 1987 to 1993 when I was a Deputy President of the Industrial Relations Commission of Victoria. From 2007 to 2015 I was Chairman of Australian Catholic Council for Employment Relations, an agency of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. My experience and formation in the YCW and the YCS have shaped my life’s journey.

In the late 1960s there were over 30,000 members of the Australian YCS, including about 5,000 in Melbourne. At the same time, the Australian YCW, especially the Melbourne YCW, was regarded as one of the most successful YCW movements throughout the world. It was, by far, the largest and most effective youth organisation in Australia. Both organisations were at their zenith in Australia.

From the early 1970s until 2018 I had no connection with the YCW or the YCS, although I retained strong friendships with many friends from my years with the YCW and the YCS. When I joined the National Adult Support Team of the YCS in 2018 the YCW had disappeared in Melbourne and there was serious talk of winding it up as a national organisation. The YCS had only two small parish groups in Melbourne, but they ceased to operate during that year. The YCS had a small presence in only four other dioceses in a country of 27 dioceses. As a result it lost national funding from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, funding which had started in 1942 when the Australian YCS was established, with the strong support of the Australian bishops and with the intention that it would be the leading and preferred student grouping within Catholic secondary schools.
So, I come here very conscious of the limited contribution that the YCS can make to the work of the International YCS. However, a few short reflections from me might be of interest to delegates to this meeting.

The decline of the YCS

There are several major reasons for the decline of the YCS in Australia. Time does not allow a full discussion of them. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, what was then known as the “New Catechetics”, inspired by Vatican II and with an emphasis on real life issues and interactive teaching methods, suggested to some schools that the YCS was no longer needed. In the 1970s the widespread development of “social justice” groups in Catholic schools lessened the perceived need for the YCS.

The factor in the collapse in YCS numbers that I would like to highlight is the decline in adult support for the YCS. This has been particularly important because the Australian YCS is a secondary students movement. Cardijn used to say that the chaplain is everything and nothing in the YCW. The same applied in the YCS where priests and nuns and brothers in Catholic schools put in hours each week to develop among student leaders an understanding of the realities of life, the values that Christians should live by and how the students might transform their lives. It was in this context that see, judge, act became more than a meeting methodology. And it was this experience that led students to start looking at broader social issues and the possibilities for transforming the wider world.

Over the past five decades there has been a collapse in the number of priests and religious in Australia and in the time that they have available to do this time-consuming work. Both the YCS and the YCW have failed to engage lay adults in this process. Furthermore, in my view, the Australian Church has failed to provide sufficient intellectual and financial resources into supporting the development of the lay apostolate. The Catholic Church is the largest non-government employer in Australia with over 220,00 employees in a population of 26 million. Too often the demands of running a large and complex organisation have overshadowed the basic objective of Christian formation which is expressed in the YCS prayer. There are some parts of the YCS in Australia where we have adult assistants who can take on the traditional role of chaplains, but they are too few.

The term Review of Life, which is now a fundamental description of the YCS, and the YCW, was a product of the 1960s. It was a term unknown to the Australian YCW and the Australian YCS in 1965. It emerged in a description of YCW methodology at the International Council of the YCW in Bangkok in November and December 1965. It was a major preoccupation of the Montreal International Council of the YCS in 1967. In substance, it was intended to take the see, judge, act approach beyond a meeting methodology into a way of life, which included a life of prayer. Michel Quoist’s Prayers of Life was part of this change. Quoist, who had been a JOC chaplain in France showed how the see, judge act approach could extend to personal reflections on life and into prayer. And this fitted into the engagement with the world that Vatican II had inspired.

Review of Life focus

In Australia, at least, the YCS’s focus moved to the Review of Life. The 1968 National Conference marked a definite turning point. Almost overnight the YCS took up the “Review of Life” as the central part of YCS meetings. The old Personal Enquiry became the Review of Life and the other standard components of the meeting, the Gospel discussion and the Social Enquiry became less important. A few years ago I found some draft notes that I made in about 1972, in which I argued that:

“… a mistake was made, by myself included, in confusing the aims of the YCS to develop a Review of Life approach, with the method of achieving it. Suddenly groups threw away the old method of Gospel, Personal Enquiry and Social Enquiry and replaced them by a non-directive fluid review. The theory was good-“don’t tell them what to do, let them discover it”. When starting a group we said “sit down, start talking- we will take it from there”. In fact you might be able to take it [reflection and action] from a general conversation, but practically speaking the YCS movement is not able to cope with this at all levels. An experienced Religious Assistant or Chaplain or an exceptional student could make a fist of it, but otherwise negative.”

My notes record that there had been a swing back from that position, but that I was still concerned about the confusion of objective of the “whole of life” Review of Life and, on the other hand, the way in which YCS meetings were structured and how students could become introduced to the YCS. I suggested, in the absence of situations where there was an experienced adult (religious or lay), that the starting point for student engagement should be social issues for which the students would use the see, judge, act methodology, with a developmental process to take students back to a more personal, and prayerful, Review of Life. I think my suggestion would have been made by many others at the time.


The risk for the YCS, and for the YCW and other Jocist organisations, in starting from social issues is that they, or parts of them, may not move beyond social issues; and that social action may be seen to be the sole purpose of the YCS. The development in the body of Catholic Social Teaching since the early 1960s can inform and deepen social action, but there is a risk of secularisation, by which I mean engaging in social action that is unaccompanied by any spiritual purpose or dimension. The YCS’s (and Cardijn’s) vision and understanding of the lay apostolate can be lost.

Pope Francis has stated that the Church must be a “field hospital”. The Church, which includes Catholic bodies like the YCS and the YCW, must provide field hospitals, alongside the other field hospitals of civil society, and provide support and services to those in need, including those of different faiths or no faith. In this role the field hospitals must maintain their essential character. As the Pope has also stressed, the Church is not another NGO. Similarly, the YCS, and the YCW, are not just socially active youth organisations.

It is the work of a Catholic field hospital that will be the initial point of engagement for many young Catholics and, in practice, for many non-Catholics. The interests and work of a field hospital is varied. Here are some issues that concern Australian students: Homelessness; Asylum seekers/refugees; Indigenous rights; Environment; Consumerism; Mental health/Body image; Family relationships; Multicultural relationships; Education and the Future of Work; Social media; Rights at work; Bullying and harassment; Modern slavery/Human trafficking; Animal cruelty. Some of these are connected to the Sustainable Development Goals that this training session of the IYCS is discussing. Some of these topics manifest themselves close to home, but others are removed from the everyday lives of the students.

In days gone by our YCS and YCW groups usually worked out from the personal to the social, whereas now we are more likely to start from the social issues of the day. In my view, if the Australian YCS is to re-establish itself as a major movement in the Catholic Church in Australia it must engage in the social issues that concern students. The challenge is to find ways to work back to the personal transformation that the Review of Life promises. Sadly, in some places the Review of Life is secularised and treated only as a method for decision-making on social issues.

The YCS mission

The introduction to one of our Australian YCS programmes includes the following:

“A major part of the mission of the YCS is to work for a fairer and more just society consistent with the teachings and values of Jesus Christ and the principles and objectives of Catholic Social Teaching. ….

But the YCS is more than that. There is something closer to home. The YCS also challenges students to focus on the reality of their own lives and the lives of those around them; for example, the needs of other students within their schools and local communities.

But the YCS is even more than that. Engaging with the world, from the local to the global, and working to improve the lives of our nearest neighbours through to those we will never meet will transform the YCS member. Leadership skills, self-confidence and social friendships will grow, not because they are pursued for personal improvement, but because they are the result of a commitment to something above and beyond self-interest.

Formation through action

So the YCS is a “formation through action” movement. Formation means different things to different people. When we talk of formation in the YCS we talk about Christian formation: where engagement in the world and serving the needs of others is seen as inextricably linked to a commitment to Jesus Christ. At the heart of the YCS is what is called the Review of Life or the “See, Judge, Act” methodology. It is used by YCS groups as a method or process for discovering, evaluating and acting on a wide range of topics.

But the Review of Life is more than a methodology for dealing with social issues. It is also personal. It is a way of thinking and working our way through a wide range of issues that come into our personal lives, where the judging or evaluating part of the process helps us to better understand ourselves and our relationships with others.

And there is another dimension to the Review of Life that moves us beyond the purely human. The Review of Life is also a process in which our personal and silent reflections on the realities of a commitment to Jesus Christ can become our prayers of life.

In the following pages we will continue the introduction to the YCS’s way of thinking and how it operates. We hope it will take you on a journey of social engagement and spiritual discovery.”

The engagement in social issues is a necessary part of the reestablishment of the YCS in Australia, but it cannot be sufficient. The challenge for the Australian YCS is to find the ways in which we can take students on a journey of social engagement and spiritual discovery.

Brian Lawrence

G'day 👋
Great to meet you.

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