The YCS in the 1960s and its response to Vatican II

Thanks to Brian Lawrence and ATF Press for permission to post this article by Brian reflecting on his experience as a member of and working with the YCS during the 1960s and early 1970s.

This article also forms a chapter in the latest issue of the Cardijn Studies journal edited by Hilary and published by ATF Press.

It is available for purchase here:

From Catholic School Rooms to a Radicalised Student Movement (ATF Press)

The Young Christian Students movement and its response to Vatican II

Asking someone to write about the events of their youth, as I have been asked to do for this series, is an invitation to the writer to reflect on their “coming of age” years. There is a danger in reflecting on these years of seeing them as pivotal years in the nation’s history, or in Church history, rather than seeing those years as a snapshot of longer-term trends. There is a risk that the reflections may be too subjective. Nevertheless, these coming of age years may coincide with a time of momentous change, such as the changes wrought by the Covid Pandemic. I am inclined to the view that the 1950s to the 1970s should be seen as a continuum, even though there were significant markers within that time, such as the student riots in Europe in 1968 and the emergence and impact of opposition to the Vietnam War. Some of this change was driven by the emergence of youth as a significant social and economic class.

The life of the youth movements of the Catholic Church, and the Young Christian Students (YCS) in particular, cannot be disengaged from these broader social changes. But for the YCS, like for Catholics generally, the 1960s was a period of great change, with a leap greater than any change in society generally. Two aspects stand out: the impact of Pope John XXIII, now sainted, and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) that he initiated. Vatican II was intended to “open the windows and let in some fresh air”. It did.

In setting the scene for the YCS in the late 1960s, a few words on my own experience could illustrate changes in the Church. In 1956 I was a ten-year old altar boy reciting responses in Latin in a church where the priest had his back to the congregation during the most important part of the Mass, when only altar boys could just see what he was doing. For me, there were things to do: lighting and snuffing out candles, mumbling the Latin responses, presenting the cruets of water and wine, remembering to ring the bells at the right time, and holding the communion-plate under the chins of those kneeling at the altar rail to receive communion. But for those on the other side of the altar rail there was little physical engagement. It seemed to have always been so.

Ten years later, with Vatican II finished in December 1965, the documents of the Council had opened the Church to thinking that had been developing within the Church, but which was unexpected by most Catholics. It is sometimes overlooked that Pope John XXIII’s social encyclicals Mater et Magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963) had started to shape the way in which many Catholics viewed their role in secular affairs.

For most Catholics Vatican II manifested itself in the changes to the Mass. Latin was gone and the priest faced the congregation and spoke in English. That was momentous enough, but it also carried opportunities for lay participation and, especially, youth participation. Prayers of the Faithfull and Offertory Processions gave them an opportunity to express their faith. “Youth” and “Folk” masses featuring hymns sung in English, reflecting some contemporary musical styles, were popular. Para-liturgies were also developed by and for students and youth in schools and parishes. These new and challenging activities drew many into an active social circle which was part of the strength of Church youth activities in the 1960s. And this was a time when most young Catholics attended Sunday Mass.
But there was something more profound going on. From the late 1930s there had been increased interest in the lay apostolate and, in particular, the Catholic Action movements in Europe. The Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, was a strong supporter of new lay movements. Consider the following report in The Advocate (published by the Archdiocese of Melbourne) of 7 November 1945 regarding a speech given by the Archbishop to a meeting of some 350 YCS members, under the heading “Laity Should Lead in Catholic Action”. The introduction stated that the Archbishop had delivered an “important pronouncement on the respective roles of clergy and laity in Catholic Action”:

“It was most heartening and inspiring for him to find himself in the midst of young people, said his Grace the Archbishop, addressing the gathering of young students during the afternoon. He felt, at the end of a long life [he was 81 and lived for another 18 years], that he had lived into a new era, because he could well remember the time when anything like that gathering would be quite unthinkable. Catholics in Australia and elsewhere were always good religious people; but sometimes the more religious they were the more they kept to themselves and the less help they were prepared to give to others. Their idea was that they had come into the world to save their own souls and they looked upon that as a full-time employment.

With modern conditions that theory had been exploded, said his Grace. One of the most remarkable things done by any of the Popes—and very remarkable men in recent times they had been—was when Pius XI started this great movement of Catholic Action….

It enabled the modem Catholic world to change its outlook, and to attempt things, and achieve them, that would have been quite impossible before Pius XI touched this spiritual button and set going the new spiritual machinery.

This movement, as an organised movement, was quite a new thing in the Church…. He had a feeling sometimes that in some places there might be difficulty in changing over. The laity might still be inclined to rely too much and too heavily upon the priests; and the priests, too, might be inclined to take a place within the Catholic Action movement that the Pope never intended. But in Catholic Action it was fundamental that the leaders were to be lay people, young and old: the priest had his place not as leader, but rather as a sort of trusted consultor, who would be ready to give his advice when it was needed.

In Australia, he believed they were giving an example of Catholic Action at its best, said the Archbishop. He did not know any place where Catholic Action had made more progress than in Australia, and he hoped that the lay people would continue to take their proper place in the movement, and, if necessary, insist on their right, to leadership and initiative. Nobody could challenge their right. The priests, on their side, would walk warily, and be ready to foresee difficulties and in due time give sound and wise advice whenever it might be needed. It was not the Pope’s intention, nor was it needful, that they should lead the various movements. Their work was to guide gently and cautiously the activities started and. worked out by the laity.” (Subheadings omitted.)

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/172223806

This is a remarkable passage, well in advance of Vatican II’s recognition of the right of the laity to participate in the mission of the Church. In Melbourne, at least, this attitude had permeated the lay movements, though by Vatican II the use of the term Catholic Action had mostly fallen into disuse. The term Catholic Action was emerging in political debate in connection with the campaigns by Catholics to counter the influence of communists in the trade union movement and to strengthen their influence in the Australian Labor Party.
In addressing a YCS rally in May 1950 Archbishop Mannix said:

“I am sorry we ever called this work Catholic Action – the name was being used in other places before the movement reached Australia – a name which is so frequently misunderstood. For many reasons, the title ‘lay apostolate’ would have been much better.”

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/172511173

As best I can recall my time in the Young Christian Workers (YCW) and later working for the YCS, the term Catholic Action had no significant contemporary use in the 1960s. We were involved in the lay apostolate, the youth apostolate, or the student apostolate.
The YCS and the YCW were established by the bishops, but with the stated objective that they would be run by their members, by students and by young workers. No doubt, there were many instances of a failure to observe the demarcations stressed by Archbishop Mannix in 1945, but, overall, the YCS was run by students for students. And the YCW was run by young workers for young workers. Moreover, many of those members understood that they were the Catholic Church in action in their own vocations and spheres of influence. Of course, this was reinforced by commentaries coming out of Vatican II, particularly the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity in December 1965, the last month of the Council.

It is important to appreciate that the YCW and the YCS were established in each diocese by a mandate from the local bishop. In Melbourne the YCW, from 1941, and the YCS, from 1942, were constituted as agencies of the Archdiocese and were part of the structure of the Archdiocese, the organisational link being diocesan chaplains appointed by the Archbishop. In this respect they were like the current day “official” youth ministries of Australian dioceses.

In summary, this was the Church in which the YCS operated in the 1960s.

Before saying more, it is useful to remind ourselves that, at the present time, all Australian Catholics under the age of 25 have grown up in a Church beset by the scandal and devastations of sexual abuse within the Church. By contrast, the 1960s was a period when students and young workers could be enthusiastic about their Church, especially given the kinds of views expressed by Archbishop Mannix and Vatican II. Sure, there was some apathy in the 1960s, but we now have significant antipathy.

I have limited knowledge of the YCS in the early to mid-1960s. My knowledge of the youth apostolate came through the YCW, which I joined in Fawkner in 1960 when I turned 14, the school leaving age at the time. I did not move beyond parish sporting and social activities until my second year at Melbourne University. In the following two years I was very active in the “apostolic” side of the YCW in the parish and at the university. In the parish we established a YCS group for secondary students and another group for tertiary students. The Diocesan Chaplain of the YCW (Fr Paul Willy) put me in touch with three YCW Branch Presidents (Peter Cowan, Bill O’Shea, and Darrel Bowyer) who were also at Melbourne University and the four of us started Jocist groups in the university. (The name being derived from the initials of Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne, the French YCW.) We saw them as extensions of our YCW membership, but they were not YCW groups. These were different times without the pressures that are now on students. As well as being active in my parish, I was, for those two years, the Secretary of the Law Students’ Society and involved in various SRC-related campus activities. When I finished Law School at the end of 1967, I got a job offer from the National Office of the YCS which was then based in Melbourne. I seemed to be a reasonable fit for the YCS’s plans for parishes and tertiary education. I was National Secretary in 1968 and National President in 1969.

In the late 1960s the Melbourne YCW was strong in many parishes, well-organised by full time workers and backed by a large network of priests who were committed to the lay apostolate as expounded by Archbishop Mannix, Cardinal Joseph Cardijn (the founder of the YCW) and Vatican II. The enormous YCW football competition throughout Melbourne enabled YCW branches to stay connected with a wide range of youth in their parishes. In 1969 we had about 40 parish YCS groups and 20 or more parish tertiary student groups in Melbourne. Overall, there were about 5,000 students in the YCS, the vast majority in school groups.

My time with the YCS coincided with the start of a marked change in its “membership”. I use that word loosely because at this time there was no formal membership and YCS numbers were estimated by the number of annual programmes, or handbooks, sold by the National Office. In 1968 more than 30,000 were sold. By the early 1970s the sales had fallen to less than 10,000. This was the start of a long decline in YCS numbers.

Space does not permit a discussion of the reasons for this initial decline, but it was, in my view, mostly caused by the emergence of what we called the “New Catechetics” and the commercial publications that came with this change. The YCS and the YCS publications had become part of the Religious Education curriculum in many schools because of their ability to link faith and the lives and interests of students. That was the substance of the new catechetics and the publications it inspired were more professional in content and presentation than we could produce in the YCS. We consoled ourselves with the thought that it would only impact on “book members”. We were wrong. One Melbourne girls’ school which had YCS groups from the early days replaced the YCS with “Catechetics”. On top of this, by the early 1970s the YCS had to cope with falling numbers of Religious Assistants in schools and priests in parishes.

Despite the threat from these changes, the YCS and the new catechetics shared a common theology and pedagogy. A key figure in post-Vatican II catechetics in Melbourne, and beyond, was Fr Tom Doyle, later Monsignor Tom Doyle AO, Chair of the National Catholic Education Commission. He became the Director of Religious Education in the Archdiocese when I was working for the YCS and was based in the building next to the YCS offices in Cathedral Hall. I had known him very well since my university days. Tom Doyle was the priest who had the greatest influence on me while I was at university and in my YCS years. With the help of Fr Frank Little, later the Archbishop of Melbourne, we were able to have him “appointed” by the Archdiocese as the de facto chaplain to the National YCS workers during the substantial period between the official national appointments of Frs. Paul Kane and Pat Walsh. Tom Doyle and three other priests, Frs. Barry Moran, Eric Hodgens and Bob Maguire, were very well-known for their activities supporting tertiary students from the mid-1960s. The Chaplain’s house at Ozanam House, where Tom and Eric lived, was like a clubhouse for many of us. The four priests, like many other young priests in the Archdiocese, were not only in sync with Vatican II, but were ahead of it in regard to the lay apostolate. For that we need to recognise the leadership of Archbishop Mannix, Archbishop Simonds, the Coadjutor Archbishop of Melbourne from 1942, and Fr Charles (“Charlie”) Mayne SJ, Rector of archdiocesan seminaries from 1947 to 1968.

I should also make a necessarily brief reference to the political context in which the YCS worked. In the 1960s the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) continued to bleed votes away from the Australian Labour Party (ALP), as it had done since the mid-1950s when the DLP emerged from the ALP. The DLP was a predominantly Catholic party with its origins in differences over the role of Catholic Action movements, differing views on the threat that communists posed to Australian society and disputes about whether and how Catholics should organise in the ALP and trade unions. “The Split” kept the ALP out of office federally and in those States, such as Victoria, where the DLP was strong. Many Catholic families, including my extended family, were split by the issue. Support for the DLP among Parish Priests and Religious was especially strong, but among curates the proportion was more even. Perhaps most YCS members came from DLP-supporting families, but there would not have been much in it.

The great achievement of the YCW in Melbourne (and in other places) was keeping party politics out of the YCW. There was a still plenty of scope for social action without exposing the issues that separated the ALP and the DLP. We had to be careful in Melbourne in presenting various issues within the YCS. Not so in Sydney where the DLP was weak and there were strong connections between Catholic groups and the ALP. As I Victorian, I was amazed to find that the Diocesan Chaplain of the YCS in Sydney, a Parish Priest, appeared to be the de facto chaplain to the local ALP branch.

By the end of the 1960s, Vietnam became the predominant political issue. Differences over conscription, which took effect in 1966, were significant. Many were opposed to sending conscripts to fight but were still supportive of intervention. However, more Australian took the view that the war was unwinnable and/or unjust. When Gough Whitlam announced in his policy speech for the October 1969 that an ALP Government would withdraw Australian troops from Vietnam, differences over the issue within the YCW could not be avoided. Nor could they be contained in the YCS. The implications for the YCW were more serious because it could only work in parishes where the parish priests gave permission for it to operate. The DLP was a strong supporter of military support for South Vietnam. I believe that the YCW’s increasing support for the withdrawal of troops was a significant reason for the collapse of the YCW in the 1970s, at least in Melbourne.

1969 was also a year when Senator Frank McManus of the DLP was up for re-election in Victoria. He campaigned on a “Social Justice” policy, which was a fundamental orientation of the DLP, reflecting its Catholic Action and Catholic Social Justice connections. Although the YCS was established in 1942 as a social justice movement by bishops who issued annual Social Justice Statements, and the enquiries and other activities of the YCS in the 1960s covered social justice issues, the term “social justice” was not part of the YCS lexicon in the late 1960s.

In reading about 80 pages of the YCS 1968 National Conference Report I could not find even one use of the term social justice. My best guess is that the term was not used because it had become politicised by its association with the DLP. When the term re-emerged in the following decades, often used in conjunction with “peace”, it was seen by many to be a “left-of-centre” term and rallying point. The YCS’s 1992 National Conference Report also avoids the term even though there were many issues covered that we would now regard as social justice issues. Having read some historical documents in recent years, I suspect that the YCS was too late in returning to the term social justice as a description of itself. We still hear of comments from the schools to the effect that they do not need the YCS because they have a social justice group. On Facebook the YCS is described as “a social justice movement run for, by, and with high school students”. That is a good description, but there is a lot more to the YCS, as we saw in the 1960s.

I now turn to a closer look at the way Vatican II impacted the YCS in the 1960s.

The YCS entered the 1960s with a similar structure to that of the 1940s. When it was inaugurated in 1942 it was anticipated that the YCS would establish and run a wide range of activities within Catholic schools, much like a student council with a wide brief. The YCS therefore ran activity groups such as drama, handcraft, music, debating, literature, missions, and Red Cross. It included some activities that would now be part of the school curriculum. Above this structure was the Leaders’ Group which was both formation-oriented and the body responsible for the activity groups. General meetings of all members would be held from time to time.

By the mid-1960s activity groups had fallen away, replaced by groups working through the meetings set out in the widely distributed YCS programmes. Members of the Leaders Group would have responsibility for the other YCS groups.

YCS meetings, like YCW meetings, had three parts: a Gospel enquiry, a personal enquiry, and a social enquiry. The programmes contained Gospel texts with commentaries and questions for discussion. Social enquiries on cultural issues and social needs were in the “see, judge, act” format with helpful questions, commentaries, and suggestions for using that process. The personal enquiries had two sub-headings: Items of interest and Facts of action. This format was similar to the YCW Leaders’ programme. My YCW Leaders’ programme from 1966, which I still have, bears out the similarity between the YCS and the YCW at this time, though, of course, the topics for the social enquiries largely reflected the different environments of students and workers.

It is important to stress that this meeting structure had been carefully developed and promoted over the years. This is evident in John N Molony’s Towards an Apostolic Laity, which was published by the Australian YCW in 1960. At the time John Molony was a Diocesan Chaplain of the YCW. He left the priesthood in 1964 and later became the Manning Clark Professor of Australian History at the Australian National University. The relevant chapter of the book, is at

http://history.australiancardijninstitute.org/p/catholic-action-technique.html

The chapter makes the point that the “Enquiry technique or method” is relevant to each part of the meeting:

“Therefore, the Enquiry is the means used by the Y.C.W. which leads the human person to do three things

1) To SEE himself in the whole of his life, in his relations with God, with others, with his surroundings in his home, his work and his leisure.

2) To JUDGE what he has seen, to judge it with the mind of Christ.

3) To take ACTION, either personally or in conjunction with others; action which is formative, educative, of service to others, representative on behalf of those for whom he knows he has responsibility.”

The purpose of the process was to transform the worlds (or milieus) in which the participants lived and, in the process, develop a deeper faith. When I first started to become involved in the apostolic side of the YCW it was the term “formation through action” that was used to describe what the YCW was on about, and limited reference was made to the “see, judge, act” methodology. The YCW was a Christian formation movement based on action.

The personal enquiry, with its simple headings of items of interest and facts of action, was the critical area for faith formation. In the YCW the priest played a key role. The 1960s was a time when many priests could devote, say, an hour and a half on a Tuesday night for a meeting in the presbytery with the YCW Leaders’ group. The resulting personal relationship was very important in the development of Leaders. In schools, there were many Religious Assistants who could provide the same kind of support.

There was, however, a critical difference between the personal enquiries in the YCW and the YCS. In the YCW the personal enquiry discussion often concerned the experiences of the Leaders in their various work situations. By contrast, YCS members met in a closed environment and the discussions of experiences were necessarily limited. More concerning was the possibility that other students might think that the Leaders’ discussion of items of interest and facts of action was about monitoring school behaviour and that the Leaders were operating as “secret police” within the school. A change was made. By the mid-1960s the Personal Enquiry in the YCS had become the Review of the Week and the terms items of interest and facts of action had disappeared. The same kind of concerns lead to the change in the terminology in relation to social enquiries, which were sometimes school focussed: “see, judge act” was replaced by “see, reflect, act”. But what was the purpose and scope of the Review of the Week?

When I started with the YCS in 1968 change was already under way regarding the Review of the Week. It came with the Review of Life. That term is now dominant in the descriptions of Jocist movements, and it is generally assumed that the Review of Life was developed by Cardijn a century ago. However, the term was not used in the YCW or the YCS in Australia before the mid-1960s. It is not found in, for example, my YCW Leaders’ programme for 1966 or the YCS’s National Conference report of the same year.

A sign of things to come was found in the Australian YCW’s publication In This World of March 1967. It reproduced a paper from the December 1965 YCW International Council in Bangkok on the Enquiry Method, which was promoted as a method for meetings and personal life. It was Cardijn’s last International Council. The paper included:

“So, at the base of the Y.C.W. pedagogy, there are three fundamental attitudes which have prompted the “see-judge-act” technique and which express the orientation of the Y.C.W. method. These fundamental attitudes are:

1. Spirit of enquiry (to be in search of life).

2. Spirit of discovery and welcoming God acting in men and in the world

3. Spirit of committing oneself in charity to respond to the call of God.”

The document explained the see, judge, act method in some detail and concluded:

“This application of the method is called the “review of life”. This is not a discussion of ideas, or an examination of conscience: it is a period of deep reflection based on the reality of life, so as to discover the presence and call of God and to decide together on the personal and collective commitment needed…. This review leads not only to action, but also to prayer in order to return to God all that has been seen and done.”

So, the Review of Life was being seen as a way of looking, thinking, doing and praying. It was not only a meeting methodology or technique. In mid-1967 I prepared a programme for the Jocist groups at Melbourne University which included a two-page explanation of the Review of Life. I still have it. I cannot recall how I got it, but it was almost certainly from Fr Paul Willy (see above) or Fr Kevin Smith, the National Chaplain of the YCW. The Review of Life expressed the YCW spirituality at the time.

The Review of Life approach also came to the YCS in Australia following the conference of the International YCS in Montreal in 1967, to which Australia sent two full-timers from the National Office. The report of the YCS National Conference of May 1968 records the interest in this new development. The main topic of the conference was “Study”, but there were other sessions dealing with a range of matters, including the Review of the Week and the Review of Life.

A paper was prepared by the Melbourne delegation on the Review of Life and a workshop was held on it (see pages 65-70 of Conference Report). The paper commenced:

“There are two foundations upon which Review of Life is based. We believe that God is present and is working and is calling to us through the Human events of our life and secondly, that, when a community comes together the Holy Spirit works among them so that they may discover what God is saying. Review of Life is not a new thing, nor merely a technique, but simply reflection on the basis of the beliefs stated above.”

Extracts from the National Report of the YCS National Conference are at the Attachment hereto. You will see from the photo that the conference didn’t lack from a shortage of adult participation. The large number of nuns, priests and brothers added a considerable amount of intellectual input.

All of this sat very well with the emergence during Vatican II of the need to read the “signs of the times”. Basic reading in the YCS in my time was the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), which commenced with

“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.” (N.1)

It was shortly followed by:

“To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics.” (N. 4)

The YCS senior programme of 1969 had a feature on “Looking into Life”, which drew on, and referred to, the YCW’s publication noted above. After stressing the importance of an interest in people and awareness of situations, it explained the purposes of the Enquiry (previously called the Social Enquiry) and the Review. The Enquiry was firmly based on the see, reflect, act process. The Review was introduced by a passage drawing on the 1968 Conference report:

“There are two ideas behind the Review. We believe that

(i) God is present in life, is acting through the events of human life and calls us through these events.

(ii) The Holy Spirit is working among the members of the group, helping them to discover what God is saying.”

The group review was explained:

“The first step in making the review is that each member contributes a fact – an event that has happened, something said, some reaction to an event. The group reflects on each in turn, attempting to discovering the events of life what God is saying and what response ought to be made on our part.”

The programme provided a guide to the group review:

“The Review is flexible, but the following is a possible method of procedure:

  • What is each one’s reaction to the fact? Have we any comment to make?
  • What do we think God is saying through this fact?
  • Where does this situation fit in with God’s plan?
  • Is God asking anything of us as a group?
  • If we have already acted or made a response in our own particular situation, is any further action possible?
  • If we are to make some personal response, what is it to be? Can we strengthen the good we have seen? How can we make our part of the world – where we are – more open to God?”


Following the National Conference of 1966, the YCS changed the name of the Personal Enquiry, with its “Items of interest” and “Facts of action”, to the Review of the Week. At about the same time the Review of Life approach was emerging internationally in both the YCS and the YCW. In Australia, interest in the Review of Life was prompted, in part, by an article in the National YCW periodical “In This World”.

Note that not all of these may apply in every case.”

The personal review was described:

“We need the personal review of our day if we are to understand our life, and if our group review is to succeed.

Thus, we ought to reflect on the events of the day – on the situations that occurred, on the way we responded to them, and the people we met. “How was God calling me today?”

There is a close connection between Review and Prayer. The Review trains us to pray about the events of life, teaches us to reflect with God on the real issues of our life. Through it, we begin to integrate our life into the Mass, and we begin to see our need for close contact with Christ through the Sacraments.”

These passages were repeated with some small modifications in the 1970 programme. They were very close to the description of the Review of Life I was given in mid-1967.

Perhaps our most frequently quoted book at this time was Michel Quoist’s Prayers of Life, which illustrated the kind of prayer life the Review of Life worked towards. It contained the following passage in its introduction (which we put on the back cover of the 1970 programme):

“If we knew how to look at life through God’s eyes we should see it as innumerable tokens of the love of the Creator seeking the love of his children. The father has put us into the world, not to walk through it with lowered eyes, but to search for Him through things, events, people.”

This was the Jocist spirituality of the YCS. It was, in my view, the major change within the YCS in the 1960s.

We can see that here was no reference to the see, reflect, act methodology in the Review, although they are implicitly included within the list of questions. On the other hand, the Enquiry (formerly the Social Enquiry) in both the 1969 and 1970 YCS programmes was explicitly based on the see, reflect, act structure. In both programmes it is stated, consistent with the YCW document of 1965, that the there are two steps in the reflection, the Human and the Christian. In that document the Human reflection is seen as an introduction to the Christian judgment, which is a “reflection with Christ”, with reference to the Gospels. Today we would add references to Catholic social teaching which has expanded greatly since the 1960s.

The 1969 programme recognised the difficulty of fitting the three parts of the YCS meeting into the available time within schools. It was getting harder to find time within the school curriculum or outside class hours. Meetings A and B were on alternate weeks. Meeting A was Review of the Week (20 minutes) and Gospel (15 minutes). Meeting B was Review of the Week (10 minutes) and Enquiry (20 minutes). The same format and times appear in the 1970 senior programme. This was not ideal, to say the least.

This group Review was a big task for a session that is allocated 20 minutes or 10 minutes, depending on whether the meeting was Meeting A or Meeting B. How could it be done in any meaningful way? In practice the Review expanded to fill the available time, to the detriment of the Gospel discussions and the Enquiry.

There were some important questions. Did the focus on the Review of Life present some problems for the movement? Can a mass movement, as the YCS was then, be driven by a focus on the searching questions of the Review of Life? Was the Review of Life a good starting point for student involvement? I should note that my last project with the YCS was to write, along with others, the 1970 programme. I cannot recall how much I thought about these questions at the time of writing, but I did a little later.

A few years ago, I was rummaging through my old YCS documents when I found a handwritten draft of an article that I would have prepared in about 1972, a couple of years after I had left the YCS, but during which I had maintained a close involvement with the Fawkner parish YCS and YCS workers. The article was never completed. After referring to the move away from activity groups and the adoption of the Review of Life following the 1968 National Conference, I scribbled.

“… 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.

Since then a more realistic approach (the Gospel, Review and Enquiry meeting) has been developed. However, this does still not meet the practical demands of the YCS.

I am suggesting that as a general policy the YCS develop something that harkens back to the activity group era. Basically, YCS groups should be formed for some specific purpose and should be known by that purpose. The purpose should not be a gimmick, but should be [about] a real need in the life of the students and one which the students are able to do something about; and, in doing so, they will achieve a sense of achievement, group spirit, confidence and leadership. In fact YCS groups should not be formed unless there is something which they can do.

The basic thrust of the group must come from the purpose of the group. The group is different from the old activity groups because the group action is not just a label, but something which is worked at, ongoing, reflective, etc. It amounts to a continuing enquiry It is different to groups now doing inquiries because it is more sustained, more satisfying and more work. Having exhausted the action the group might dissolve or, hopefully, seize on something else to do. The first is not a cause for distress.

In a parish or school context, the YCS might have the following groups:”

The draft stops at this point. What I was getting at, I am sure, included something like the sustained campaigns on social issues that the YCW undertook in the 1960s. A campaign was an enquiry extended over a number of weeks. In Melbourne the most notable of these was the road safety campaign, in particular the public advocacy and lobbying for compulsory seat belts. However, my suggestion was to run a number of these campaigns at the one time. This was different to the enquiries produced in the YCS programmes where, usually, there was one meeting on each topic and enquiries were unconnected, although in 1969 there were five enquiries around the topic of Study. I was arguing for a social enquiry-driven YCS on social concerns and issues.

I did not seek to minimise the importance of Review of Life. Stapled to the draft is a page headed “Review of Life”, which includes the following jottings: “R of L is basic to the apostolic formation of lay people”; “R of L must be seen as an aim and not as a method”; “We must seek out the most effective methods of developing a R of L approach – problem of methodology”; “The methodology we use must be of value in itself”; and “The methodology will be pragmatic, rather than preconceived”.

The point I was making in these drafts was that the YCS should operate with a progression towards a Review of Life approach in meetings and, beyond that, to a member’s approach to life generally. The Review of Life, fully understood and not reduced to a methodology for meetings, is the goal, rather than a starting point of the student apostolate, one that seeks to integrate faith and the worlds in which students live.

The following extract is from the current “NUTS” Introductory Program of the Australian Young Christian Students. (“NUTS” is the acronym for “Never Underestimate The Students”). It reflects the fact that social issues generally present the usual starting point for the YCS. It sets out a path or journey from social engagement to deep faith formation.

“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.

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. Itis 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.

The NUTS program will introduce you 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. 

In my view, this is consistent with the theology, spirituality and pedagogy that Jocists drew in from Vatican II during the 1960s. The Review of Life in its 1960s form should be understood as a goal in faith formation rather than a starting point. Too often these days the Review of Life and the see, judge, act methodology are secularised, with only a passing nod the Gospels and Catholic social teaching.

In a social justice movement like the YCS, the see, judge, act structure is a useful starting point, but something more is needed if the YCS is to be a formation through action movement. The YCS should not be defined by its starting point or its meeting methodology.

The passage from the AYCS’s NUTS publication suggests that faith formation is a journey. We could think of the YCS as a train on a journey, a journey that will have frequent stops on the way to the end of the line. Some of those who board at the outset (for example, to only work on a good cause, but no more) might get off at an early stop, appreciative of the good work they have done. But the train must go on; and the job of the YCS is to offer to its passengers inspiration and reasons to stay on the journey.

Despite strength of the theology, spirituality and pedagogy, the fact of the matter is that the YCS and the YCW have lost the institutional support that they once had. By institutional support, I especially mean the support of the bishops. I expect that while the bishops appreciate the social justice work of the movements, their focus in the allocation of scarce resources will be on activities that promote faith formation. Faith formation is intrinsically important, but it is also important because faith formation can also be a means of social engagement and transformation, and leadership development. I believe the funding and other supportive outcomes for the Jocist movements would improve if the Review of Life of the immediate post-Vatican II years were better understood by the movements, bishops and schools.

I had no significant contact with YCS workers and YCS groups between about 1974 and when I was asked in 2018 to join the National Adult Support Team. While I was ignorant of what was happening in the YCS I was very familiar with the content and the application of Catholic social teaching. Leaving aside, as I must, the huge social changes of the last 50 years, which will shape the way in which the YCS now organises, it is important to note the huge expansion in Catholic social teaching and its potential to be a means of changing the worlds in which students live and to deepen their faith.

I am still convinced that the strength of the Jocist movements is in their capacity to achieve three interconnected goals: faith formation, social engagement and transformation, and leadership development. It distinguishes the movements from other youth ministries that are currently better supported than the Jocist movements. If the YCS is to find sufficient student and institutional support, it needs to be a committed social justice movement based on the beliefs, values and principles of the Gospels and Catholic social teaching. I believe this will, be greatly assisted by a closer look at how the YCS responded to Vatican II in the 1960s.

Brian Lawrence

March 2023

ATTACHMENT

The Review of Life

Extracts from the 1968 National Conference Report of the Australian YCS

Armidale, NSW, May 1968

Workshop 4

Following the National Conference of 1966, the YCS changed the name of the Personal Enquiry, with its “Items of interest” and “Facts of action”, to the Review of the Week. At about the same time the Review of Life approach was emerging internationally in both the YCS and the YCW. In Australia, interest in the Review of Life was prompted, in part, by an article in the National YCW periodical “In This World”.


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