The first YCS Leaders’ Rally was held in Melbourne on 14 October 1942 when nearly 200 leaders from Melbourne’s Catholic colleges met to discuss the work of the newly established Young Catholic Students movement. It was a major event, attracting the attendance of three archbishops and a bishop.
This was a time when northern Australia was being bombed and threatened with invasion, and many of these students were facing military service after they left school. Yet these students, like many others in the emerging YCS groups around Australia, were planning for a better post-war Australia.
A Report of the event in The Advocate newspaper read:
It is only during the last school year that the Y.C.S. has been placed on an official basis, and that all of the Melbourne schools have agreed to cooperate and to work on the one set of programmes specially prepared by the Secretariat of Catholic Action. The results have been most satisfactory. The students have proved that they are capable not only of understanding clearly the purpose of Catholic Action, but of organising and controlling their own movement and of setting in motion a plan of varied and useful activities.
The term Catholic Action was used at the time to cover Catholic social action organisations established under mandates from the local bishops to advance social justice and promote faith formation among lay Catholics. Within a decade the term Lay Apostolate came to be used, foreshadowing the adoption of that term in the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The Young Catholic Students was re-named the Young Christian Students in 1967.
The framework for the work of the YCS’s was established by the Australian Bishops’ annual Social Justice Statement which started in 1941. To emphasise their importance and their role within Church structures, each of these Catholic Action movements had an appointed Episcopal Chairman. Archbishop Beovich, the Archbishop of Adelaide, was appointed the Episcopal Chairman of the YCS.
The YCS was established as the first national Catholic student social justice movement.
The YCS has always relied on the support of adults for making it possible for students to meet and work towards their goals. But it has been made clear from the start that the students must run their own movement.
In a remarkable speech by Archbishop Mannix to a YCS rally in November 1945 we see that Catholic Action/Lay Apostolate in Australia anticipated, in theory and practice, the change in thinking about the role of lay people in the Church that came with the Second Vatican Council.
In addressing some 350 YCS members, Archbishop Mannix referred to the ground-breaking change in thinking introduced by Pope Pius XI during the previous decade. The report in The Advocate of his speech explained the change:
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. ....
[In earlier times] practically all leadership came from the clergy. The laity, the best of them, waited upon the word of the priest: they looked for his leadership, and where he led they were ready to follow. The result of that was that practically all initiative rested with the clergy. ….
He [Archbishop Mannix] 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 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 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 rights and duties of the Catholic laity, including the students of the YCS, underpinned the claim, made over the past 80 years, that the YCS is, and must be, a student-run movement.
The importance that the bishops attached to the YCS is seen in another passage in The Advocate:
The Archbishop of Melbourne, the Most Rev. D. Mannix, D.D., when addressing the rally, expressed his approval of the progress of the Y.C.S. Stressing the importance of this movement in the schools, he declared that he had always been of the opinion that unless Catholic Action was firmly rooted in the schools, it would possibly fail and certainly would never do what otherwise it might hope to do. He said also that, just as the Church in Australia owes its success to the excellent system of Catholic education, Catholic Action, if it is to be lasting and binding, must capture the schools.
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.
From 1942 the YCS was mandated as the preferred student organisation within Catholic schools in many dioceses.
The YCS reached maximum membership in the late 1960s when it had over 30,000 members in 24 dioceses. The YCS has become inactive in most of the dioceses in which it was once present, but its pioneering work has continued.
Since the 1960s a wide number of other social justice initiatives have been introduced into schools providing a rich diversity for student involvement in social issues and social action. Many former YCS members have contributed to the development of the lay apostolate within the Church and Catholic schools.
The YCS remains as an active student social justice movement within the Catholic Church in Australia, albeit that it now has less members than it did in 1942.
The YCS’s role within the diversity of social justice and faith formation groups operating now open to secondary students, and in a student world that could not have been dreamt of in 1942, is the focus of the YCS in its 80th year.
As part of the YCS’s initiative to support social justice activities in Catholic schools, on 12 August 2022 the YCS joined with Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools (MACS) to hold a Gathering for Student Social Justice Leaders. YCS workers Gabby Tait (Townsville) and Luke Commins (Perth) joined Liam Cowan (Melbourne YCS) and presenters from MACS and Catholic Mission in a day that has provided a model for future training days and continuing support for social justice activities in schools based on the beliefs, values and principles of Catholic social teaching.
The Gathering on 12 August 2022 could be seen as the 2022 version of the first YCS rally 80 years ago. But it is a very different world.
Responding to Social Justice issues is as important today as it was in 1942. But in a time with online campaigns, hashtags, and limited on-the-ground action, the YCS in Australia still has an important role to play, possibly now more than ever. Students can make a difference; students can and should play such an essential role in their dioceses around the country. Alongside teachers, staff, parents, and communities, YCS has and will continue to help guide students to put their Catholic faith into Action.
National President, Australian YCS, 1969
Chair, National Adult Support Team, Australian YCS
Melbourne YCS Project Officer, 2022
Melbourne YCS: Liam Cowan at [email protected]
Australian YCS Facebook: Luke Commins, editor: https://www.facebook.com/australianycs/