Tipping the world on its head

In this article, Kevin Peoples recalls his YCW experience.

My Auntie Poll asked me once what the YCW was. Polly lived with us on and off in the 1950s. She spoke with an Irish brogue, which rubbed off on me. Her question was prompted because I had started my own YCW team. The rag-tag team, made in the image of God, came in the back door at home and sheepishly made their way to the front room, which was only used when we had visitors. Up in the front room I lit a candle, we read the gospel and talked about our lives. Serious talk. Without knowing much what happened behind the door, Polly thought it all looked strange behaviour for young men. It was difficult to know where to start when she asked me the question.

Polly listened with growing scepticism as I explained the YCW. When I told her I was Christ in the world that was too much. She raised her eyes to heaven and whispered, ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’. Looking at me straight in the eye she told me gravely that the YCW was not only dangerous, but a distinct threat to my health and mental state and if I had any brains I would leave all that stuff to the priests. She was of course half right. The YCW was dangerous.

I joined the YCW in my late teens following a visit by the Ballarat Diocesan full-time YCW worker, Jim Ross. This was around the mid-1950s. Jim spoke to a small group of leaders of the then Catholic Young Men’s Club (CYMS) in Terang. I listened intently but I was not convinced we should move from the CYMS to the YCW. That changed when I spoke to Jim on the way out. I asked him where he was sleeping that night. He said ‘I don’t know’. I asked him where he slept the previous night. He said, ‘On the beach at Warrnambool’. I joined the YCW at that moment and it transformed my life.

I joined the YCW because of my heart not my head. My transformation took a little longer. My understanding of being a Catholic changed dramatically. My allegiance to Catholicism came from the set of beliefs I had grown into from my schooling, my parents and the preaching I heard each Sunday at Mass. I had the knowledge but it didn’t eat into me. My purpose in life, in that old, narrow dispensation was to save my soul and spend eternity in Heaven with my God who lived somewhere outside the world. My real world in Terang was a mere backdrop to my eternal salvation; in the same way as an artist paints a backdrop for a stage play. An artefact to brighten the surroundings. In the new dispensation, my religion was horizontal, encompassing all and everything about me. I was in the process of becoming something new.

The YCW tipped the old on its head. I was to become a lay apostle in the world. Christ was present in me and in each young worker – Catholic and non-Catholic. I was called to love all young workers and work for them in practical ways that would gradually bring about the Kingdom that Jesus emphasised in his mission. That Kingdom is in the here and now. Jesus had come to offer a new social order based on love and justice and not just finding a way to Heaven. This Heaven in the sky gradually slipped out of my thinking. However small my efforts might be in Terang, I came to realise that I had a vocation to help create this Kingdom that would be sharply at odds with all earthly Kingdoms and earthly institutions. I started to grow from the inside.

Father John Molony, our Diocesan Chaplain, told us leaders, to my surprise, that we all had a Divine Origin, a Divine Mission and a Divine Destiny. I puzzled over that. We were, he said, all sharers in the Divine life of Christ and in our small world we were irreplaceable. All this was to change my sense of who I was, my very identity. Molony told us that the building of the Kingdom of God in the here was dependant on us. What this meant for me was that the secular world had become sacred. There could be no dualism between this world and the next. In the YCW I had come from being virtually a no one to being someone very special. It did wonders for my self-belief. I came to believe I could do anything.

I learnt that my apostolate was not some narrow thing such as getting young workers back to Mass. Not religious in that sense, in a Church sense, but a total apostolate that included a broad social, economic and political apostolate, but not party political. I belonged to an international movement that was committed to change especially in the workplace. Our broad apostolate was exercised through individual members like me in local groups, but also through our representatives at a national level. Campaigns were planned for local groups on issues critically important for young workers.

Over a nine year cycle in the 1950s three broad themes were identified: family, work and leisure. These themes were repeated every three years. At our local leaders’ group meetings we followed a clear agenda in programs geared to local action. We had our own ‘Items of Interest’ and ‘Facts of Action’. We followed an action/reflection model. We were to learn through acting. We grew through acting. And the driver of our action was the contradiction we saw between what was and what could be. We had a vision. Our Gospel discussions provided the ‘what could be’ and our ‘enquiry method’, (what we observed) provided the ‘what was’ or the hard facts. All of this was experiential learning. If we didn’t personally experience the contradictions between the real and the ideal, between the world and the Kingdom then action was unlikely to occur. The genius who worked out this enquiry method, or See, Judge and Act, was Joseph Cardijn (1882-1967), the Belgian priest who witnessed the suffering of young workers in the industrial areas of his city.


What follows is an outline of how the YCW influenced me in two major events of my early adult life. The first was my time as an organiser for B.A. Santamaria’s ‘National Catholic Rural Movement’ (1959-1961). As a young leader in the small town of Terang I was groomed by a couple, Pat and Maureen Bourke, who were executive members of the National Catholic Rural Movement (NCRM) and local leaders of Santamaria’s anti-Communist Movement, eventually named the National Civic Council (NCC). The YCW had made me restless for something more in life. I left my clerical work and began working on the Bourke farm – no pay but free board and lodging – for three months while Pat campaigned for the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). At the end of that time, through the influence of Pat and Maureen, Santamaria agreed to employ me for a three month’s trial without a salary but all expenses paid. I was to collect money from the farming members of the NCRM. Santamaria was cautious. I had a YCW background and relationships between Santamaria and the YCW in Melbourne were icy cold.

With my 203 Peugeot and my inner voice telling me I could walk on water, I became an outstanding salesmen for Santamaria’s NCRM. I quickly resurrected the financial fortunes of the NCRM and became full time with a new powder-blue Holden. Unbelievably, I was appointed the National Organising Secretary of a Catholic Action Movement with a national mandate from the bishops. It was all nonsense, mere window dressing and I learnt quickly that the NCRM was virtually dead and useful only as a front for anti-communism in rural areas. Naturally, I wanted to change it into an adult YCW. I knew what a Catholic Action movement should look like and I found a small minority of members in the North-East of Victoria who also wanted to change the NCRM into a genuine Catholic Action Movement. That meant breaking its links with Santamaria and his anti-communist actions within the Labor Movement.

Some history is required here. In 1954, when Dr H.V. Evatt, leader of the Australian Labor Party, revealed to surprised Australians the existence of a secret movement led by a Mr B.A. Santamaria working within the Labor Movement, funded and supported by the Catholic bishops and owing allegiance to the Church, all hell broke loose. The Labor Pary split and the Conservatives ruled for the next 22 years with the support of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) preferences or Catholic preferences. Cardinal Norman Gilroy, (Sydney) requested Rome to make a ruling on the existence of such a secret organisation working with a political party. In 1957 Rome ruled against Santamaria. In 1960 in Warrnambool, I listened as Santamaria belatedly resigned as National Secretary of the NCRM and Bishop Francis Henschke announced his replacement, Mr. W.E. (Bill) Crowe, who had worked for Santamaria and the secret movement since the mid-1940s. Nothing had changed.

But I saw an opportunity. The appointment of Crowe caused deep divisions within sections of the NCRM. The Executive had not been consulted. I built on the divisions which had been there long before I arrived. I convinced Maureen Bourke that the NCRM should adopt the Cardijn method and become a genuine Catholic Action Movement. I spoke with some chaplains and other members about the possibility of a new sort of NCRM. I convinced Bill Crowe that he was the National Secretary of an organisation that was virtually dead. Bill knew it and I think his pride led him to approach Santamaria. The proposed National Conference for 1961 was cancelled and the Executive agreed to a three day meeting to discuss the future of the NCRM. Santamaria agreed but for all the wrong reasons. He would learn who was with him and who was against. I suggested to Crowe that we invite Father John Molony from Ballarat as the keynote speaker on the nature of Catholic Action. Santamaria cultivated Molony from his days as a student and then as a priest in Rome and the United States. Santamaria knew that Molony supported his anti-communist activities and agreed that he could speak. On behalf of Crowe, I spoke with Molony and he too agreed but only after he met my friends, Pat and Maureen Bourke, who convinced him change within the NCRM was possible.

I was a dreamer, a naïve optimist. I didn’t know with whom I was dealing. Santamaria was devious. And he didn’t believe in Molony’s Catholic Action. He thought it ineffective. He was never going to hand over the NCRM to those who wanted to split it from him. It was his baby which he created aged 22 in 1939. I thought I was dealing with people who wanted the best for the NCRM. But there was another agonising irony. John Molony didn’t believe in the NCRM either. Neither did his close friend, Jim Ross, who had brought me into the YCW. Molony and Ross were starting their own YCW Adult Movement in the Ballarat Diocese and their bishop, James O’Collins, had given them a mandate, but, importantly, limited to the diocese. They saw an opportunity to capture then terminate the NCRM and gain its national mandate. They didn’t tell me.

Weeks later, Molony asked me to drive him to Melbourne. He wanted to meet with Santamaria before giving his keynote address. Molony was an honest man Deceiving Santamaria was not in his nature. The poor man told Santamaria of his plans to terminate the NCRM. Santamaria had already heard whispers from his spies in Ballarat about Molony’s plan. Molony sought Santamaria’s better angels — support the development of a genuine adult Catholic Action Movement. It was foolhardy. Promises were made and not kept. Molony left his meeting believing Santamaria would remain neutral at the conference. It was agreed Santamaria would speak first and introduce Molony as a friend. Molony could then put his proposition to the members at an appropriate time. The members would decide their future. Stay with Santamaria or join with Ballarat in the formation of a new Adult Movement based on the principles of Catholic Action. Rural Movement groups in the Ballarat Diocese would be serviced by Ballarat. Nothing like that happened. Molony found himself at the last minute speaking first. He spoke on the nature of Catholic Action. He made no mention of the NCRM. His speech was left hanging out to dry. Irrelevant to the main game. The atmosphere was cool, then cold, then over the three days hostile to Ballarat. Santamaria had planned it so. He fought to keep control of the NCRM emphasising the ineffectiveness of Catholic Action. The YCW, he argued, had no social apostolate. He wished Ballarat well in its ‘experiment’ and hypocritically invited Molony to return to the next conference and report to members.

Ballarat was lost, the NCRM was lost and so was I. In a sense I had innocently brought this mayhem about. Because I believed in Cardijn. Because I was YCW. Because I knew what Catholic Action was. But I discovered I was playing with fire. Before the end of the conference I was asked to speak. I had nothing to say so I resigned. Santamaria accepted and said I would be happier with Molony in Ballarat. When Molony went to say good bye to Santamaria he told the priest to ‘go to buggery’. When Maureen Bourke went to say good bye, he told her to ‘go to hell’.

Molony invited me to Ballarat to join his Diocesan adult movement. I became a window cleaner. At my first meeting, a dejected Molony quietly announced that the bishop had withdrawn his mandate. Santamaria was never going to accept an Adult Movement competing with the NCC and the NCRM. The adult movement was dead. Molony never really recovered. He left the priesthood a year and a half later. (These events are told in detail in my book ‘Santamaria’s Salesman’, (2012) Garratt Publishing, Mulgrave. They still have a small number of copies left).


The second major event in my young life where the YCW determined my actions was the decision to leave my studies for the priesthood. After two years back at Chevalier Secondary College in Bowral, New South Wales, I entered St Columba’s Seminary in the Blue Mountains in 1964. I left towards the end of 1966 following nearly three years of philosophy.

In the seminary I met an alien god. My seminary god was gender specific. A male chauvinistic and judgmental god, he was at once cold, distant and aloof. This god lived somewhere above the clouds and his truths were handed down to my superiors. This god enveloped me not in his love but in his rules and I demonstrated my love for him when I obeyed his rules. This patriarchal and misogninistic god looked down from Heaven and found women lacking. We were not permitted to speak to the nine women who cooked and cleaned for us. Celibacy was never mentioned.

I learn that I had not chosen to be here but this seminary god had chosen me and I was thus deemed ‘special’. I was trapped. How could I leave when I had been chosen? This god was the opposite of my YCW God. The clerical mission worried me greatly. The Church taught that God directly created souls and souls were the business of the church and its priests. And the salvation of souls was intimately connected to notions of sin, forgiveness and our true happiness in Heaven. The clerical caste worked as shepherds. Thy guided and protected their flocks from the evils and errors of the world and forgave their sins when they faulted. I was a restless shepherd. Rather than protecting people from the world I wanted to save the world. I wanted to help bring about the Kingdom that was central to the teaching of Jesus. Ths Kingdom was the reign of God here on Earth. In the YCW we saw it the transformation of earthly life and a continuation of the work begun by Jesus. Its constitutive elements were built on love and justice. At heart, I was a layman, not a saver of disembodied souls seeking happiness in Heaven.

I came to the conclusion that the seminary existed to weed people out. The only change permitted was in the number of students. This seminary system was four hundred years old. The favoured philosopher of the Vatican died in 1274. I could not walk alone with a friend. I was not permitted to enter another student’s room. I could smell the fear of gay sex. When I sang in concerts I was forced to change the lyrics if authorities thought them ‘inappropriate’. I was in danger of becoming something I wasn’t. The seminary drew me into myself and made me smaller. The YCW drew me out of myself and made me bigger.

God cannot be gender specific. But I learnt in the seminary that my God was more female than male. That I was a mix of male and female. My female God was sweet and warm and she loved the world that she had begun and all the people who were created in her image. When I hung white, feminine curtains in my small room I was asked to take them down. Real men play rugby. They don’t fly white curtains in the wind. My God lived in the real world where the secular and the sacred were one. When I left my family and relatives in Terang to return on the morning train to the seminary, I saw my God. She was real and I could see her. She stood in vegetable gardens and waved me good bye. She stood in the middle of the road with tears in her eyes because I was leaving her. She was my mother. Sometimes my God stood in the middle of the road wearing a pink dressing gown, and made me hot curries when I came home for Christmas. She was my Auntie. My God was calm and gentle. She had gnarled hands from working in the factory. She dressed in blue overalls and when she dressed up she wore a tie and put on a green cardigan. She rubbed the noses of untamed horses and whispered in their ears to calm them. She was my father and she voted for the Labor Party and joined a union.

And so I left the seminary.

Kevin Peoples