Jozef Cardijn (1882-1967) as an orator | Leuven, KADOC-KU Leuven, KFA4180

Meaning & Religion
1920s –
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Jozef Cardijn’s Youth Movement

Pillarisation and Secularisation

Jozef Cardijn, a priest from Halle, was indignant at the wretched lot of young workers, and so after the First World War he founded the Young Christian Workers. His new youth movement caught on and remains active worldwide.

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As a parish priest in Laken Cardijn was confronted before the First World with the poverty and exploitation of workers. Many boys and girls left school at 14 to go out to work. He was particularly struck by their work situation. In order to improve the life of young people from that deprived milieu, he organised meetings for factory boys. The Young Christian Workers Movement grew out of his initiative in 1924. A little later Cardijn expanded the youth movement with a girls’ section. Members were given religious instruction and learned how to take action for improved living and work conditions. Thanks to Cardijn’s charisma the movement grew fast, including in French-speaking Belgium. After the Second World War Cardijn expanded his youth movement worldwide. As a token of appreciation, the pope appointed him a cardinalafter the pope the highest rank in the Catholic church. in 1965.

KAJ Jubelcongres 1935.

Leuven, KADOC-KU Leuven. Beeldarchief KAJ/VKAJ. 137

Young Christian Workers at the Rejoice! Mass Meeting in Heizel Park, 1935.

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Pillarisation and Secularisation

When Cardijn began with his youth movement the Catholic church still had a firm grip on private and public life. However, it was concerned about the results of modern, industrial society and saw Socialism as a threat.

In order to secure the loyalty of the faithful the church, especially in the first half of the 20th century, supported the foundation of Catholic organisations in all social fields. Besides schools and hospitals, health insurance and trades unions, sports associations, cinemas and even a radio station of their own appeared. All these initiatives were designed to promote the Catholic world view. Young or old, man or woman, educated or not: there was something for everyone. In Socialist and Liberal circles too this strategy of member adhesion was followed. Sociologists would later call the division of society into separate ideological spheres ‘pillarisation’.

When after the Second World War more young people could stay longer at school and increasing prosperity created more free time, the influence of religion began to wane. The church itself also showed more understanding of and openness to modern society. This resulted in accelerated secularisationthe decreasing influence of religion and the increasing importance of worldly matters. . That went hand in hand with a process of depillarisation: instead of orientating themselves according to what was on offer from ‘their’ sector, people started more often making choices for themselves. However, many pillarised organisations continued to exist because they offered important services, such as healthcare or trades union defence of interests.

Focal points


Jan Van Bostraeten

The youth movement Chirojeugd Vlaanderen has some 120,000 members as of 2023.



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Youth Movements Then and Now

The church had traditionally given much attention to upbringing and education. In the wide selection of Catholic organisations that saw the light in the first half of the 20th century, it follows that youth movements occupy a special place. Following Cardijn’s example, the church leadership supported young people’s organisations adapted to any social milieu. Thus students, workers, famers and shopkeepers acquired their own youth movement, often linked to a local parish. The scouts and the Chiro too, who did not target a specific social group, were linked with the Catholic sector. Other ‘sectors’ also set up youth associations in this period. For example, the Socialists founded the Red Falcons in 1929. Young people in uniform, singing and marching through the streets, were a familiar picture in Flanders between the two World Wars.

From the 1960s on the pillarised nature of most youth movements disappeared. The ideological inspiration remained but became secondary. Groups opened their doors to boys and girls. Playing together, looking after each other and annual summer camps were now top priority. With over 275,000 members the youth movements still determine the free time of many young people in Flanders.


Kontich, Lintfabriek, uitgeverij Stockmans Art Books

Youth houses such as Netwerk (Aalst), Democrazy (Ghent) and Het Lintfabriek (The Ribbon Factory, Kontich) became a huge attraction for lovers of the most diverse ‘alternative music’. This is the American band Fishbone performing at The Ribbon Factory on 20 October 2002.

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Youth Houses

In 1952 the first youth house opened its doors in the Paleisstraat in Antwerp. Comparable initiatives followed. Youth houses were a way of reaching young people who did not belong to a youth movement. They also owed their success to the ‘Dance Act’ of 1960: it denied minors entry to dancehalls, but not to parties in youth houses. Socialists, Liberals and Catholics all had their own youth house federation.

Because more young people went to school for longer and more and more frequently found a place in the universities and colleges, the youth phase lasted longer. In the 1960s teenagers and twenty-somethings formed separate age-groups between childhood and adulthood, associated with bolshiness and experimentation. Outwards signs of that rebelliousness were, for example, clothing and hairdos, with which people rebelled against the bourgeois codes of the time: neatness, discipline, self-restraint, a strict distinction between boys and girls…

From the 1970s many youth houses followed the depillarisation trend and went their own way. They became more professional and more independent. Young people spent their own free time there as they wanted to, with parties and performances, films and discussion evenings with friends. The 534 recognised youth houses that exist in Flanders today, have become centres of independent youth culture.

Leuven, KADOC-KU Leuven. Affichecollectie. KCA522

The Catholic church tried to shield the faithful from the ‘bad press’, undated.

Schoone menschen.
Leuven, KADOC-KU Leuven. kca000522

Young Christian Workers, youth movement and social movement.

Een vakantiekamp van de Preventieve Luchtkuren van de Christelijke Mutualiteit – het latere Kazou – in het Zwitserse Melchtal.
Leuven, KADOC-KU Leuven. kfa004760

A holiday camp run by the Christian Health Insurance Fund in Melchtal in Switzerland.

Leuven, KADOC-KU Leuven. KFA001454

The inauguration of the Cardijnlaan in Hansbeke near Deinze, in 1972. In Flanders no less than 107 streets and squares were named after Cardijn.

Ghent, Amsab-ISG

Not all youth movements originated in Catholic initiatives. The Youth Association for Nature Study and Environmental Protection began in 1983.

Jente Van Pelt

The various scouting groups, including Scouts and Guides Flanders (originally Christian-inspired) and FOS Open Scouting (actively pluralist and free-thinking), are strongly represented in Flanders.

Discover more on this topic

Histories – Jozef Cardijn

Bron: VRT archief, AMSAB, KADOC, Rijksarchief in België – 11 mei 1999


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Ludion, 1994. 

Cardijn. Een mens, een beweging

KADOC Jaarboek, 1982. 

Alaerts Leen
Door eigen werk sterk. Geschiedenis van de kajotters en de kajotsters in Vlaanderen, 1924-1967

KADOC, 2004. 

Billiet Jaak (red.)
Tussen bescherming en verovering. Sociologen en historici over zuilvorming

UPL, 1988.

Gerard Emmanuel (red.)
De christelijke arbeidersbeweging in België

2 dln., UPL, 1991. 

Huyse Luc
De verzuiling voorbij

Kritak, 1987. 

Knuts Stijn, De Ceuninck Koenraad & Reynaert Herwig
Het volk in beweging. Beweging voor het volk: 125 jaar ACW Gent-Eeklo

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Het Vlaamse platteland in de fifties

Davidsfonds Uitgeverij, 2012. 

Van Haver Jozef
Voor u, beminde gelovigen: het Rijke Roomse leven in Vlaanderen 1920-1950

Lannoo, 1993. 

Van Leeuw Claire
Cardijn en de KAJ een wereld in beweging

Uitgeverij Averbode, 2017. 

Van Molle Leen
Ieder voor allen. De Belgische Boerenbond 1890-1990

LUP, 1990. 


Durnez Gaston
Een mens is maar een wandelaar

Davidsfonds Uitgeverij, 2018. 

Durnez Gaston
De bolhoed van mijn vader: herinneringen uit de kersentijd

Polis, 2015. 

Nu kijken

Bekijk een interview met Jozef Cardijn door Joos Florquin


Bekijk een kort portret van Jozef Cardijn
Histories – Jozef Cardijn, 1882 – 1967, Kardinaal Van De Arbeiders

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