The Sillon and the YCW



Stefan Gigacz        

International YCW History Working Group


5-6 September 1997




Cardijn often mentioned the various historical sources from which he had drawn inspiration:  the German Christian worker organisations, the English trade unions of Ben Tillett, even the scouts of Sir Robert Baden-Powell.  However, there is one source which seems to have been particularly important to him, the Sillon of Marc Sangnier.  Indeed in 1921, Cardijn went so far as to publicly call Sangnier the  ‘l’éloquent promoteur du plus bel élan de foi et d’apostolat que la France ait connu depuis la révolution’ (Cardijn 1921: AC 130) (‘the eloquent promoter of the greatest burst of faith and apostolate that France has known since the revolution’) (Cardijn 1921: AC 130).  And yet only 11 years earlier this ‘bel élan de foi et d’apostolat’ had been ‘condemned’ by Pope Pius X in the encyclical, Notre Charge Apostolique, which was dated no doubt deliberately the 25 August 1910 – the feast of the great lay saint and medieval French king, Saint Louis.  What was it then that Cardijn saw in the Sillon that had seemed to escape the notice of the Holy See?  How was it possible for Cardijn to now seemingly embrace a movement which had been condemned for almost ‘denying the divinity of Christ’?

  1. FROM 25 AUGUST 1910 TO 25 AUGUST 1957

More importantly what did the YCW inherit from the Sillon’s short 12 year existence as a movement after it emerged from a Paris student group known as the Crypt in 1898?  As I will try to show in this paper, the answer to this last question is rather surprising.  In effect, the Sillon is so close to the YCW in its orientation and methods that it must be considered as a kind of ‘elder brother’ which educated and inspired the founders of the YCW, especially those who participated in the first initiatives of the YCW at Laeken from 1912.  As we will see, this sillonnist inspiration seems even to explain the choice of date for opening of both the first International Congress of the YCW in Brussels in 1935 and the first World Council of the IYCW at Rome in 1957: 25 August, feast day of Saint Louis, and of the self-sacrifice of the Sillon.


In this paper I will therefore examine the Sillon’s influence on the development of the YCW across four periods of its history:

a)        On Cardijn the young seminarian and student at Louvain;

b)        On Cardijn in the development of his mission at Laeken, and on his close collaborators, Fernand Tonnet and Victoire Cappe;

c)        On the post-war development of the Jeunesse Syndicaliste which evolved into the YCW movement;

d)        On the extension of the IYCW, especially in France, and in the continuing development of the international movement right up to Rome in 1957, and even in the ideas which Cardijn would defend at the Second Vatican Council.

We will see that the sillonnist influence was vital, especially for Cardijn, at every stage of the movement’s development.  My conclusion is that the sillonnist experience is so important that it must be considered as a permanent source of renewal for the movement, a sillon from which the movement must continually be reborn.



By his own account, Cardijn first heard of the Sillon in 1903.  It is not clear how this happened, but by 1903, it would have been impossible for anyone oriented towards social action not to know of it. The Sillon de Liège was already in the process of foundation in 1903 (Appendix I).  The same year Cardijn commenced to correspond with Fr Paul Six, the Christian Democratic priest from Lille, who was also close to the Sillon[1] (Cardijn 1958: AC 12A).

Perhaps even more important for a young seminarian may have been the Sillon’s public defence of the Church.  In particular, Marc Sangnier’s debate on 23 May 1903 with the anti-clerical ex-priest Charbonnel, on the night of the legendary Meeting Sanglant, which ended in a riot, had an enormous impact in the Catholic world.  It seems not impossible that this meeting which occurred two days before the death on 25 May 1903 of Cardijn’s father, may have been a factor in Cardijn’s famous ‘vow’ to consecrate his life to the working class[2].

In any event, Cardijn would later say of his discovery of the Sillon:

‘Il faudrait avoir sondé la capacité d’un coeur virginal de 20 ans pour comprendre l’explosion d’enthousiasme que de telles lectures peuvent provoquer dans l’âme d’un jeune séminariste!’ (Cardijn 1921: AC 130)

Henceforth, Cardijn lists the publications of the Sillon would become his primary reading material[3] (Cardijn 1958: AC12A).  The influence rapidly makes itself visible in his correspondence.  In a letter dated 8 March 1903, the young seminarian wrote to his friend Emile Possoz: ‘Le plus grand but de ta vie : Dieu, l’Église, le Peuple.’ (Walckiers 1981: 46) – a phrase with an unmistakable sillonnist ring to it[4].


In September 1903, Cardijn entered the Major Seminary of Malines.  This was clearly a further avenue of his progressive discovery of the Sillon[5].  A number of other mainly Flemish seminarians; led by Floris Prims and Jean-François Van Den Heuvel  had already started a ‘clandestine’ study circle at the seminary which Cardijn and his classmate, Jean Belpaire also joined (Walckiers 1981: 62).  All of these men would later become socially active priests.  Judging from the later commitments of these men, it seems reasonable to conclude that the seminary study circle had at least a certain sillonnist orientation[6].


We find more evidence of the sillonnist influence on Cardijn in his correspondence in 1905-1906 with his Flemish former neighbour and school-friend, Émile Possoz.  It seems that Possoz, then a law student at Louvain, also has some knowledge of the Sillon, which seems to have had an especially strong influence in legal circles.

Cardijn’s concern for young workers is already vividly present in these letters.  Concerned for their education, he refers in one letter to the Extension universitaire de Bruxelles, established by the Université Libre de Bruxelles for worker education and asks:

‘Pourquoi n’y a-t-il pas non plus une sorte d’Extension universitaire catholique ou autre chose qui complète, enrichit et ennoblit’ (24/12/1905 in Walckiers 1981: 58).

In other words, why are there not Instituts Populaires on the model of those which the Sillon created in France?

Six months later in mid-1906, Cardijn writes again to Possoz attempting to explain the vision of social change which he hoped to deepen in his planned studies at Louvain:

‘Il est certain que mon opinion sur la liberté humaine, l’indépendance, sur la volonté et les possibilités de développement, ce jugement instinctif et impulsif que j’ai en moi y trouvera le moyen de se confirmer et de se réaliser.  Je pense aussi que cette vie d’apostolat qui pourrait m’arriver, cette grande reconstruction sociale d’une société par l’éducation, la collaboration et l’enseignement d’une discipline, de l’esthétique et de la morale correspondra bien avec le but que j’ai donné à toute ma vie de prêtre : l’influence morale sur l’intelligence, la volonté et le coeur par l’amour…  (30/6/1906 in Walckiers 1981: 72)

Cardijn’s main themes here – liberty, independence, apostolate, education for social reconstruction, collaboration, love, even the concern for art –  all correspond to the vision of education for change fostered by the Sillon. We can therefore say that shortly before his ordination in September 1906, Cardijn conceived his future priestly apostolate in terms very close to those of the Sillon.


In the same letter to Émile Possoz of 30 June 1906, Cardijn also mentioned another potentially important initiative:

‘(Cardinal Mercier) a l’intention de mettre sur pied ici à Malines toute l’organisation du Sillon.  Tous les étudiants de rhétorique doivent rechercher de jeunes travailleurs.’ (30/6/1906 in Walckiers 1981: 72).

This letter of Cardijn seems to be the only known reference to such a project by the new Archbishop (not yet Cardinal) Mercier (Walckiers 1981: 73).  We can note that the project seems to concern the Flemish city or region of Malines, and not the archdiocese. This may indicate that the project originated in a proposal coming from that region. Alternatively, it may have been a pilot project later to be extended to the whole diocese.

The big question, however, is what became of this project of which Cardijn makes no further reference?  Here it is significant to note the date in the middle of 1906.  This corresponds precisely to the time in which the Sillon started to develop a more ‘political’ orientation (Caron 1967: 406).  One reason for this development may be found in the growing anxiety of the sillonnists at the expanding influence of Charles Maurras’ Action Française.  In December 1906, Maurras, would launch a public attack on the Sillon in a pamphlet entitled La Dilemme de Marc Sangnier.

Since Cardinal Mercier – despite his otherwise progressive reputation – remained a supporter of the Action Française his whole life, one can pose the question as to whether the emerging anti-Action Française orientation of the Sillon may have been a factor which would have led to the abandonment of the Malines Sillon project.  Soon after, in 1907, Mgr Delamaire of the Cambrai diocese on the French-Belgian border would enter into a major public conflict with the Sillon. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the Sillon project seems to have gone no further.


Professor Victor Brants, doctor of law and history, and professor of practical social economy at the University of Louvain, seems to have been the main influence on Cardijn’s university career (Walckiers 1981: 85).  It was Brants who would send Cardijn on his first educational trips to Germany and France.  I do not know whether Brants himself had links with the sillonnists.  His ideas were certainly in the same general line: the emphasis on forming ‘hommes d’action et d’étude’, the need for a ‘méthode pratique’, the ‘formation d’une élite’ (Cf. Autobiographie of Brants cited in Walckiers 1981: 88-90), but these ideas were common to the whole Catholic social movement.  It is significant that Brants also counted among his students the Dominican, Father Georges-Ceslas Rutten, who would later work closely with Cardijn.

In 1906-07, the major theme of study was ‘travail à domicile’, a theme which would also be treated by the Semaine Sociale in France the same year, and on which the Sillon also organised a major campaign.  Significantly, it was the Sillon at Rouen under the leadership of Edward Montier and Fr Eugène Beaupin which took the initiative in this campaign (Caron 1967: 523).   As part of the same campaign, Georges and Marguerite Renard, the sillonnist couple from Nancy, organised a travelling exposition devoted to this theme, adopting a method  which had been developed in Germany the year before.  In fact, Cardijn also wrote his research paper in that year on the domestic work situation in Germany, a paper in which the thing which seems to interest him most of all is ‘l’immense mouvement d’opinion de toutes les classes et tous les milieux’ to deal with the problem (Cardijn 1907: 23).

Despite the openness of Brants, Cardijn would be disappointed with his year of studies at Louvain.  At the end of it, he would criticise his teachers for not being ‘conséquents dans leur vie’[7], writing ‘je souffre de voir… qu’ils ne créent pas un mouvement comme le Sillon’ (Letter to Jules Belpaire, undated, in Walckiers 1981: 104).  In other words, what Cardijn wants is action, not just theory.


Much more important in Cardijn’s mind, then, will be his visit to France in August 1907, in which he would have the chance to meet a number of key sillonnist leaders, and also to pass an unforgettable week with Léon Harmel.

6.1 The Sillon du Nord

Cardijn began his visit to the North of France in the Lille-Tourcoing region, no doubt by visiting Fr Paul Six and the sillonnists of the region.  He evidently met Fr Louis Winnaert, a key chaplain of the Sillon in the North[8].  According to Caron, Winnaert was ‘tolerated’ as unofficial Sillon chaplain by Mgr Delamaire (Caron 1967: 637).  It may also have been during this visit that Cardijn first made contact with Pierre Bayart, a sillonnist law professor who would later write the important book, L’Action catholique specialisée (Bayart 1927).  Cardijn was obviously happy with this visit and would later recall that:

‘A Lille et à Roubaix, nous eûmes la joie d’assister à des réunions de cercles d’études du Sillon, quand nous vîmes ces jeunes gens, ces étudiants, ouvriers et employés, s’aimant plus que des frères, s’entraidant à affiner leur conscience et à exercer leurs responsabilités…’ (Cardijn 1921: AC 130).

(‘Later at Lille and Roubaix, we had the pleasure of participating in meetings of the study circles of the Sillon, we saw those young people, students, workers and employees, loving each closer than brothers, assisting each other to develop their consciousness and to exercise their responsibilities…’)

6.2 The Sillon at the Semaine Sociale at Amiens

From Lille, Cardijn headed to Amiens where the 1907 Semaine Sociale was about to get under way.  During this event, he would have the opportunity to judge a number of key sillonnist personalities[9]. He reported his impressions in a letter to Professor Brants (Walckiers 1981: 111; Cardijn 1907: AC 104 (Photocopy)).

During this week, the Sillon also organised a ‘Banquet’ meeting at which Marc Sangnier was the major speaker, the purpose of which was to defend the Sillon against the attack by Mgr Delamaire, whose Cambrai diocese then included the whole Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing region. Mgr Delamaire criticised the Sillon for a whole range of faults, including:

‘la poussée de mineurs dans la politique, limitation de champ d’action de l’Église, crainte malsaine des empiètements de l’autorité religieuse’ as well as ‘théories paradoxales, alliances pratiquement scandaleuses, propagation inconsciente, mais réelle du mouvement socialiste, méconnaissance du danger pour certains auditoires d’entendre certains sujets, manie de la persécution, effets navrants de perdition pour certains, tant prêtres que laïques’.

His proposed solution?

‘Qu’on fasse comme soldat dans le rang, et sous le feu de l’ennemi, devant les ordres donnés qui ne lèsent en rien la conscience…’  

This text is quoted from Cardijn’s own press clipping of Mgr Delamaire’s speech, probably from La Croix du Nord, which can be found in his copy of Vie et Doctrine du Sillon.  In this context, then, it is highly significant that Cardijn in full awareness of the seriousness of Delamaire’s attack would characterise the Sillon meeting as ‘superb’ (Letter to Brants).

In reply to Delamaire, Sangnier and the sillonnists had characterised his attitude as ‘cléricalisme’.  This opinion seems to have won the favour of Cardijn who, in his letter to Brants, tempers his praise for the Semaine Sociale with the comment that ‘il y trop de soutanes ici, et trop peu ou presque pas de laïcs’ (Walckiers 1981: 116).  This shows clearly that one of the factors that impressed Cardijn in the Sillon was its lay character.

Moreover, the attitude of the sillonnists towards Delamaire was not at all intransigent.  On the contrary, according to Jeanne Caron, they seem to have sought ‘de ne pas rompre avec l’autorité épiscopale, mais plutôt de chercher un accommodement’ (Caron 1967: 615).  The solutions proposed by the sillonnists included the appointment of a chaplain, the choice of whom they wished to reserve to themselves.

It should also be pointed out here, however, that not all sillonnists were happy with the attitude towards Delamaire.  Pierre Bayart[10], who left the Sillon as a result of this conflict wrote:

Procès de tendances, tant que tu voudras; il n’en est pas moins vrai que l’Évêque vous dit que vous n’avez pas l’esprit que vous devez avoir et il a pleinement le droit de vous le dire.  C’est un procès de tendances, soit, c’est-à-dire que c’est le procès de votre esprit.’ (Caron 1967: 612)

To what extent Cardijn also shared such reserves at the time is not clear.  However, given his close links with Paul Six, it is unlikely that he was unaware of such feelings.  In any case, Cardijn always looked back fondly at this meeting with the Sillon.  Welcoming Marc Sangnier to Brussels in 1921, he would say:

‘Quand à la Semaine sociale d’Amiens, au banquet du Sillon, il me fut donné de lire sur le visage de centaines de Sillonnistes le reflet de chacune de vos pensées, l’écho de chacun de vos sentiments, la réponse à chacun de vos appels nous avons compris qu’on pourrait vous combattre, et à l’occasion vous frapper, mais que toute épreuve quelque pénible qu’elle fût, ne serait jamais pour vous l’occasion d’une mort, mais source d’une inspiration.’ (Cardijn 1921: AC 130)


6.1 The influence of Leon Harmel

Cardijn would later describe his visit to Léon Harmel’s home at Val-de-Bois as ‘inoubliable’.  No doubt he was impressed by the range of social action organised by Harmel at his factory.  However, what interests us here is what Cardijn could have learnt from Harmel concerning the formation of youth and the Sillon.

As mentioned earlier, Harmel, with his summer social retreat programmes, appears to have had an important role both in the formation of the sillonnist leaders and in extending the Sillon to Belgium.  There is no doubt that Harmel was greatly impressed by the Sillon and its leaders, and this admiration was certainly reciprocal.  In fact, the Sillonnists had preferred to organise their two pilgrimages to Rome in 1903 and 1904 in the company of Harmel, rather than with the conservative, even reactionary, Association catholique de la jeunesse française (ACJF).

What then did Léon Harmel think of the latest developments in the Sillon?  To answer this question, it is relevant first to mention here that Harmel had already criticised the Sillon in a letter to Marc Sangnier on 16 April 1905 for their refusal to collaborate with the Christian Democrats, whom the sillonnists regarded as not going far enough in the direction of democracy (Guitton 1927: T. 2, 356).

6.2 The lay – clerical partnership

Secondly, it is important to note that one of Harmel’s main objectives in his summer formation programmes during the 1890s had been to create links between ‘jeunes laïques et ecclésiastiques’ (Caron 1967: 68).  What was in danger in the conflict between the Sillon and Mgr Delamaire in 1907, then, was precisely this lay-clerical partnership upon which Harmel placed so much emphasis[11].

Later, as the conflict between the Sillon and the French hierarchy continued to escalate, Harmel repeatedly advised Marc Sangnier to go to Rome to visit the pope.  Although Sangnier did in fact make another visit in 1908, this was not sufficient to counter the vicious campaign then being waged against the Sillon.  Thus, following the condamnation of the Sillon, Harmel would write to an ex-sillonnist, Jean Prudhommeaux, that ‘Si Marc Sangnier avait sur ce point l’avis réitéré que je lui ai donné, il n’aurait pas eu les graves épreuves qui ont fondus sur lui.’ (Guitton 1927: T. 2, 357).

Based on this knowledge of Léon Harmél’s concerns with respect to the Sillon, it would seem highly likely that Harmel would have shared these views and warnings with the enthusiastic young Belgian priest who was visiting him.  When we remember how Cardijn would later make a point of visiting Rome every year, we can see the importance of what he learned both from the tragic fate which was about to befall the Sillon and from Léon Harmel[12].

It seems very clear then that as a result of his trip to France in 1907, Cardijn must have been very well informed both of its strengths and weaknesses.


7.1 The hidden years at Basse Wavre

Cardijn had also planned to visit Max Turmann in Fribourg, Switzerland.  However, an unexpected fate was about to upset all his social action dreams.  Upon his return to Belgium to prepare to go to Switzerland, Cardijn was met with the news of his nomination from 23 September 1907 to the Minor Seminary of Basse-Wavre.  Here he would remain for four years teaching Latin[13]!

The record of Cardijn’s activities at Basse-Wavre is meagre, however, we know that he continued to carry on his social work studies during this time, and even participated in a young workers circle at Wavre (Walckiers 1981: 139).  He also continued to travel abroad during the summer vacations, including to England in 1911 for his momentous meeting with Ben Tillett and the trade unions.

2. 25 August 1910: The mark of Cain of the Sillon

How did he react then to the final developments of the Sillon story?  The decisive battle for the Sillon was sparked on 13 February 1909 by Cardinal Luçon of Reims, who, in a statement in the diocesan bulletin, attacked in very vague and general terms ‘certaines théories, les unes érronées, les autres dangéreuses, professées par le Sillon’ (Caron 1967: 661).  Eighteen months later the outcome of this battle would would be decided by Pius X’s encyclical, Notre Charge Apostolique, addressed to the French bishops on 25 August 1910, in which the pope accused the sillonnists ‘d’écarter d’abord la divinité de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ’.  It concluded by requesting the Sillon’s leaders to ‘céder leur place’, i.e. to step down and for the members of the Sillon to reform their movement in diocesan groups, which ‘seront, pour le moment, indépendamment les uns des autres’ under the name of Sillons catholiques, and to abstain from ‘la politique ou l’économie pure’ (AAS 1910: T. II, 607).

3. The submission or ‘self-sacrifice’ of the Sillon

This letter was followed by the immediate and unconditional ‘submission’ of Marc Sangnier and the Sillon leaders who all resigned and closed down the whole Sillon organisation overnight, except for their newly launched daily newspaper, La Démocratie, for which they obtained specific permission to continue.  This act of sacrificial submission had an incalculable effect in the Church of that time.  Harmel heaped praise on the sillonnists for their loyalty.  A young Italian priest, Giovanni Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, later recalled the impact on himself  of Sangnier’s humility in accepting the admonition of Pius X (Pezet 1965: 192).

In view of this universal admiration of the decision of the Sillon – at least among its sympathisers – there is every reason to believe that these sentiments correspond to Cardijn’s own reaction.  The only recorded statement by Cardijn concerning the condamnation of the Sillon of which I am aware came 10 years later during Sangnier’s 1921 visit to Brussels, where Cardijn stated:

‘Nous avons compris qu’on pourrait vous combattre, et à l’occasion vous frapper, mais que toute épreuve quelque pénible qu’elle fût, ne serait jamais pour vous l’occasion d’une mort, mais source d’une inspiration.’ (Cardijn 1921: AC 130)

Moreover, since Cardijn himself had been sanctioned by Mercier, there must have been some consolation for him in seeing Sangnier self-sacrificing decision.

It should also be borne in mind, however, that the Sillon’s ‘submission’ was rather relative.  Very few sillonnists actually created or joined the groups of diocesan Sillons catholiques that the pope had requested, and which seems to have been the expected result of the letter of Pius X.  In fact, the motivation of the Holy See seems not to have been the closing down of the Sillon, but the replacement of Sangnier as leader and the establishment of episcopal control.  The Holy See achieved their goal at the cost of destroying the Sillon.  In this sense, then, it is fair to conclude that Sangnier and the sillonnists preferred to sacrifice the Sillon rather than sacrifice its essential character.

This is not to say, however, that such a decision was easy.  Madeleine Barthélemy-Madaule would later write that:

‘Marc Sangnier, celui que nous avons connu très tard, derrière sa bonne humeur et sa gaieté profonde, malgré la vitalité de ses créations successives, était secrètement l’homme du Sillon foudroyé, marqué d’une inguérissable blessure.  L’insondable mélancolie de certains de ses écrits … nous donne pleinement raison.’ (Barthélemy-Madaule 1973: 12)

Sangnier himself would claim to have received a special grace by the intercession of Thérèse de Lisieux in making this decision to completely close down the Sillon (Caron 1997: 96).  It is worth also noting here the reaction of another sillonnist, Secretary-General Henry du Roure,

who wrote to his mother on 3 September 1910:

‘Il y a évidemment dans la lettre du Pape des accusations qui ne portent pas sur nos idées et nos sentiments véritables.  Mais, après tout, notre tort est d’avoir laissé entendre que nous pensions ainsi…  Mais, après tout, si l’on veut le bien de l’Église, il faut le vouloir comme elle le veut.’ (du Roure 1921: T. 2: 11-12)

Speaking of the future of the newspaper, La Démocratie, he would also write to a fellow ex-sillonnist:

‘Et puis, si le journal vit, nous aurons encore une tâche à accomplir et le Sillon, en mourant, aura donné naissance à un autre mouvement, rectifié sans doute, mais bien puissant.’ (du Roure 1921: T. 2: 14)

As we will see, these statements of du Roure, which were published after his death as a soldier in World War I, would become very important for the leaders of the YCW movement which was then being born.  In the meantime, since the sillonnist apostolate was now closed to them, Marc Sangnier, Henry du Roure and others would devote all their efforts to the running of their newspaper and to the foundation of a political party, La Jeune République.



1.1 Easter 1912

Finally, Cardijn would get his opportunity to implement his social action ideals when he arrived in the parish of Notre Dame at Laeken at Easter in 1912.  As we know he would start his apostolate by taking responsibility for the women’s social action, in which his first key collaborator would be Victoire Cappe.  Soon after his arrival the new vicar would also make contact with a young Fernand Tonnet, who as we know would later become a founder of the YCW.

1.2 Cardijn and the Sillon in 1912

Henri Tonnet, brother of Fernand, recorded his impressions of an early meeting with Cardijn at his apartment as follows:

‘On parla enquêtes.  L’Allemagne vint d’abord.  Des noms défilèrent : Ketteler, Kölping, Vogelsang.  Mais l’Angleterre eut le pompon : Ben Tillette, Tom Mann, des leaders et des leaders aux noms impossibles furent portés aux nues.  Ce que nous devions en retenir c’est que “Labour Party” et “travaillisme” n’étaient pas synomymes d’antireligion.  Nous assistions, intrigués, à une apologie du trade-unionism qu’il réédita très souvent.  Elle nous parut sinon excessive du moins peu conciliable avec notre mentalité belge.  De France, on parla peu…  C’est plus tard que nous apprîmes qu’il avait assisté à une Semaine Sociale.  On cita de Mun, Le Play, sans trop de conviction.  Et Sangnier avec une sympathie plus grande’ (H. Tonnet 1961: 14).

One has the impression here that Cardijn has transferred his previous boundless enthusiasm for the Sillon to Ben Tillett’s English trade unions.  Does this mean that Cardijn has now abandoned his sillonnist ideals?  What is important to notice here is that the Germanic and English experiences quoted by Cardijn are all connected to the worker struggle.   What we are seeing here then is the first important difference in Cardijn’s orientation from that of the Sillon’s primarily democratic orientation.  As we will see, far from abandoning sillonnist methods, Cardijn and his partners set out to implement and reorient them into a new vision of a worker movement.


According to Cardijn’s own statement, his first objective upon arrival at Laeken was to create ‘un réseau d’oeuvres pour pénétrer dans la masse’ (Cardijn 1958: AC12A; cited in Walckiers 1981: 163).  Founding social works was certainly not at all original even if Cardijn did bring an extraordinary skill of motivation and organisation to the task.  More significant was the orientation of these ‘works’ which although having a purpose in themselves were merely the starting point of a much broader apostolic initiative.

2.1 Victoire Cappe from Liège

Moreover, from the start Cardijn chose to bypass the more conservative Brussels Catholic secretariat for womens’ works, preferring to link his women’s programmes directly to the national secretariat of the Oeuvres Sociales Féminines, of which the director was a young woman from Liège, Victoire Cappe[14].  What is significant for our story here is the fact that Cappe had been introduced to the Sillon and its ideas and methods by a progressive priest, l’abbé Paisse, who also introduced her to the tenets of the Liège School of social action of l’abbé Pottier (Eaton 1954: 57).  In 1907 she founded the Syndicat de l’Aiguille on the model of its French counterpart at Lyons.  In 1909 she gave a much remarked speech at the Catholic Congress of Malines of that year, which also attracted the attention of Cardinal Mercier, who henceforth arranged for her to study with Professor Brants, presumably in the same course which Cardijn had followed in 1906-07.  Following this formation, Cardinal Mercier asked her in 1912, aged only 26, to take responsibility for developing women’s social works in Belgium.  She seems to have first met Cardijn in 1911 when Professor Maurice Defourny, another of his former professors, who proposed Cardijn as a speaker for one of the study circles she had founded.

2.2 A Method of Formation

We can find the main conceptions of Victoire Cappe in her 1914 book, La Femme Belge, a collection mostly of her speeches together with those of other important women activists, including the Christian feminist leader, Louise Van den Plas (Cappe 1914).  Particularly striking in this book is the speech Cappe delivered at Malines in 1909, before she had studied at Louvain.  Speaking of the Formation Professionelle et Sociale de la Femme she proposes the following methodology:

a)        Enquiries: This ‘first degree’ of formation must be ‘précis, exacts et classés dans un ordre qui permette d’en tirer des conclusions pratiques.  A cette fin l’enquête sera guidée par un questionnaire bien conçu’;

b)        Study Circles: The second degree comprises monthly meetings for ‘une trentaine de jeunes filles et de dames appartenant à des professions et à des conditions diverses’;

c)        The ‘Troisième Degré’ is divided into

i)        Propaganda Section which are weekly meetings at which the gospel is read and made ‘applicable à la vie courante ou au genre d’apostolat auquel nous nous dévouons’. Each person takes a turn at being president and secretary, and each one presents a report to be discussed;

ii)        Central Committee: Once or twice a year, special meetings would be held to ‘coordonner, à synthésiser et à unifier l’ensemble de connaissances spéciales’; these meetings being prepared by a Central Committee made up of the different groups of the country.

Other articles in her book expand upon these methods.  In a 1911 speech, Les cercles d’études féminines, given at Nivelles where Jean Belpaire was responsible for social works, she describes the study circle as ‘une véritable école de formation pour ses membres’.  She emphasised the importance of knowing ‘le milieu dans lesquelles elles vivent’, and adapted her method to the needs of ‘jeunes ouvrières’ (Cappe 1914: 21).  In another article dating from 1911, Le Salaire féminin, a speech she divides her presentation into three sections: i) Les  faits;  ii) Les principes; iii) Les remèdes (Cappe 1914: 55).

These methods of Victoire Cappe are none other than the ‘methods’ which the Sillon itself had been promoting and developing since 1898[15].  Although she cites various sources, Cappe quotes at length (Cappe 1914: 43) from a brochure, Les cercles d’études de jeunes filles published by Eugène Beaupin, the former chaplain  to the Jeune Garde of the Sillon and of the Sillon féminine, and who was also in personal contact with the OSF[16].

On the other hand, Victoire Cappe’s presentation of the method is perhaps clearer and more complete than any equivalent presentation by the sillonnists.  Moreover, whereas the (male) sillonnists were often concerned with action on a large scale, Cappe seems to better combine the development of action at the personal level with social action.  In this sense, Cappe’s orientation corresponds closely to that of the Sillon Féminine who had often reproached their male counterparts for their preoccupation with theoretical issues and grand actions, forgetting the importance of the small and personal actions (IMS: MS 17)[17].  Here we can also note that the article in Cappe’s book by Louise Van den Plas is entitled Les ligues sociales d’acheteurs, a cooperative which had been pioneered in France by the Sillon Féminine (Caron 1967: 491).

With this knowledge, we can see why Cardijn would have sought out the assistance of Victoire Cappe when he began his apostolate with women at Laeken.  In fact, when we look at the work done at Laeken, the sillonnist imprint, as interpreted by Victoire Cappe, is unmistakable: the enquiries, the method of the study circles, a coordinating group, etc. (Joret 1970: 13; Bragard 1990: 61).

There can be no doubt then that Victoire Cappe and Joseph Cardijn came together by mutual attraction based on their common sillonnist roots. And when towards 1914 Cardijn coined the trilogy voir-juger-agir (Bragard 1990: 38), this stroke of genius summarised succinctly a whole methodology previously developed (mainly) by the Sillon[18], and which was already being applied in study circles for young women workers by a laywoman from Liège.  Whereas the sillonnist initiative had succeeded in launching study circles based on a life and action methodology in France and beyond, Cardijn’s brilliantly simple see-judge-act would enable the propagation of the sillonnist method around the world.

2.3 The Development of a Young Women Workers Movement

By the early 1920s, the Laeken initiative had grown to national dimensions, with young women workers groups in full expansion.  Yet, even though, the movement was soon to find its definitive identity, traces of the sillonnist origin are still visible.

Under the leadership of Victoire Cappe, the name chosen for the new journal of the movement launched in 1922 was Joie et Travail, another echo, it would seem of the Central Study Group of the Sillon féminine, whose bulletin had been entitled Prière et Travail (IMS MS 17).  Moreover, this new bulletin, it seems, was essentially the work of students or former students of the École Sociale at Heverlee, which became a source of tension in the movement.  

In fact, the women’s groups at Laeken for a long time did involve the participation of young people from middle class milieux, a practice which had evidently continued (Bragard 1990: 83).  Here again one has the impression of Victoire Cappe’s attachment to the old sillonnist ideal of students and workers collaborating, a concept which had already caused much conflict within the Sillon, resulting in the first major split in the Sillon, which had resulted in the forced resignation of Secretary-General Charles d’Hellencourt in 1905 (Caron 1967: 360).


3.1 Fernand Tonnet and the Sillon

We now turn to Fernand Tonnet[19], who had moved with his family  family to Laeken from Molenbeek in 1908.

Writing of the young Tonnet, Marguerite Fiévez states that:

‘Il admire sans réserve “Le Sillon” de France dans son christianisme dynamique et conquérant et aussi dans sa courageuse soumission à l’Église qui vient de le condamner.  Visiblement, il souffre de cette interdiction qui réduit à néant de beaux espoirs de conquête chrétienne parmi le peuple’ (Fiévez 1945: 34)

When the Sillon was condemned in 1910, Fernand Tonnet was a sixteen year old student at the Institut Saint-Louis in Brussels.  Fernand Tonnet’s brother, Henri, who had joined a youth group at Laeken the Jeune Garde[20] in 1909, indicates that the former sillonnist Edward Montier’s book Les Essaims Nouveaux published in 1910 ‘eut un grand retentissement et séduisit beaucoup de jeunes Belges par la mystique sillonniste qui s’en dégageait’ (H. Tonnet 1957: 18).  

It would seem very likely then that Fernand Tonnet had a knowledge of the Sillon at this quite early stage, well before the arrival of Cardijn at Laeken.

3.2 Tonnet at Quiévrain

The following year in April 1911 Tonnet’s father, who was a customs officer, was transferred to Quiévrain on the Belgo-French border.  Fernand, abandoning his studies, followed his family for a stay which would have a powerful influence on his future.

At the parish of St Martin’s, Quiévrain, he made contact with a young vicar, l’abbé Georges Abrassart[21], who according to the description of Henri Tonnet, was a ‘tenant convaincu de l’École de Liège’ (H. Tonnet 1964: 14).  Even more significantly, Fr Abrassart ‘avait aussi respiré, au pays des terrils, le souffle pénétrant et bienfaisant du “Sillon” de Marc Sangnier’.  In the words of H. Tonnet, Abrassart:

 ‘rythmait avec joie les éloquentes images (de Sangnier) :  “Le christianisme seul engendre la vraie démocratie”. – “L’homme d’action est celui qui se fait le champion de ses croyances”. – “L’ordre économique n’est pas humain s’il ne laisse au pauvre que la liberté de mourir de faim”. – “Conquête du peuple”. – “Faire des apôtres”. – “Cultiver et embellir les âmes”.  Slogans, qu’un jour Fernand allait reprendre à son tour et faire vibrer devant les auditoires de jeunes’ (H. Tonnet 1964: 14).

Now in France despite the ‘condamnation’ of the Sillon, many local groups had continued to function still applying the same apostolic methods. Although some of these groups had combined to form the Sillon catholique, many others had formed various diocesan initiatives, while others still integrated into the ACJF – probably an important factor in the opening up of the ACJF.

In this line, Father Abrassart continued to develop a  young workers programme in his parish based on the sillonnist method.  In Fernand Tonnet, he found an enthusiastic young partner, who became his protégé as a youth leader in the parish, helping to establish a ‘patronage’ (youth club) aimed at contacting the vast nuumber of young workers of the Borinage mining region.  According to Henri Tonnet, it was here that Fernand Tonnet learnt to conduct small enquiries, and to fill exercise books with ‘notes cursives sur d’âpres cas sociaux’ (H. Tonnet, 1957: 14).   In this way, he acquired ‘ce don, ce sens du vrai, du concret, du réellement vécu qu’il eut très accusé’.

Once again, what we see here is the classical method developed by the Sillon of making use of a patronage to reach out to young workers and then using that framework to carry out social enquiries and eventually to develop leaders or militants.  Applying this method, Abrassart and Tonnet worked also to form a branch of the Jeune Garde Catholique at Quiévrain.  Whether this initiative came from Abrassart or Tonnet is not clear. In any event, as we have mentioned, Fernand brother, Henri, was already involved in the Laeken branch of the Jeune Garde (H. Tonnet, 1961: 10).

3.3 Blessing the Flags of the Jeune Garde: 25 August 1912

So involved did Fernand become in this work that it appears he chose to stay on in Quiévrain after his parents returned to Brussels in August 1911.  Moreover, even after he himself returned to live in Brussels at the end of the year, Fernand maintained his links with Quiévrain, making a number of visits in the first half of 1912 to help in the organisation of the Jeunes Gardes.  He would again return to Quiévrain on Sunday 25 August 1912 for the ceremony of the blessing of the flag, in effect the official foundation, of the Jeunes Gardes group at Quiévrain.  Here, it is very significant to note the date chosen for this official launching of the group, two years to the day after Pius X’s encyclical against the Sillon.  In the light of what we know of the orientation of Abrassart and of Fernand Tonnet, it seems very unlikely that such a date was chosen purely by chance.  It is as if they wanted to graft their newly formed group onto the trunk of the Sillon; to reclaim its heritage.

That day there would be celebrated a ‘manifestation d’amitié franco-belge’ between the Jeunes Gardes of Laeken, in which Henri Tonnet was a key leader, the new Jeune Garde of Quiévrain and with ‘une vingtaine de sections de l’ACJF de la région de Valenciennes’  who had made the  trip across the border for the event[22].  During this event, the regional president of the ACJF, M. Widiez, gave a ‘vibrant’ speech in which he noted that  ‘nos organisations de jeunesse ne diffèrent pas beaucoup des vôtres s’ils bannissent la politique de leur action’[23] (H. Tonnet, 1961: 10).  

3.4 Tonnet meets Cardijn

Now Cardijn had arrived at Laeken in April 1912, and it seems that he met Tonnet within weeks of his arrival (H. Tonnet 1957: 16).  

Cardijn’s priority for workers, which we have already mentioned, seems to correspond with or influence the thinking of Fernand Tonnet, who once he had returned to Laeken preferred to participate in the Society of St Vincent de Paul, rather than the Jeune Garde in which his brother had participated.  Tonnet would also become involved in the patronage for boys of the parish – consistent with his Quiévrain experience.  Here he would continue to carry out his social enquiries as well as assist needy families (H. Tonnet 1958: 32).

However, since there was another vicar at Laeken, l’abbé Stas, who was responsible for social work with men and boys, there was little immediate opportunity for Cardijn and Tonnet to form boys’ groups together.  Nevertheless, Tonnet worked with Stas in the boys’ patronage (A. Tonnet 1945: 22) and seems to have made some attempt to form a boys trade union on his own (H. Tonnet 1958: 32).  He would also assist Cardijn in organising young women workers right up to his departure for the war in August 1914 (H. Tonnet 1958: 32).  Although an apprentices group for boys was later founded in 1915, the real collaboration between Tonnet and Cardijn would not begin until after the war in 1919.

3.5 Contacts with the Former Sillonnists

One wonders what contact, if any, Cardijn and Tonnet had with the former sillonnists at this time.  As we have seen, the efforts of Sangnier, Henry du Roure and others now went into the newspaper, La Démocratie and the political party, La Jeune République.

There is at least one publication in the Cardijn archives published by La Démocratie which seems to date from this period – a pamphlet by the former sillonnist, Jacques Rödel, on cooperatives.

There is also an intriguing but also ambiguous remark made by Cardijn in 1921 during Marc Sangnier’s visit to Brussels, in which Cardijn refers to Henry du Roure as ‘un ami sur’ whom ‘nous chérissons et nous pleurons’ (Cardijn 1921: AC 130).  If this is to be taken literally, it would indicate that either Cardijn and/or Tonnet were in direct contact with du Roure and Sangnier during this period.

3.6 Edward Montier

Edward Montier (1870-1954) was yet another sillonnist lawyer who had long directed the Patronage des Philippins at Rouen.  Marc Sangnier had visited Rouen in 1898 as part of the campaign to promote study circles within patronages.  Henceforth, Montier became close to the Sillon, and wrote a number of articles for the journal Le Sillon. He also became a prolific author of books dealing with the education of youth, of which there are 17 titles in Cardijn’s library, including Les Essaims Nouveaux (Walckiers 1981: 248).  The significance of the writings of Montier is the wholistic conception of youth formation which they contain – physical, sentimental, religious, moral – which seems to have most impressed Cardijn and Tonnet in his writings.

In February 1916, Tonnet wrote to Montier, commencing a correspondence which would become a lifelong friendship.  In October 1917, he visited Montier at Rouen (A.Tonnet 1945: 77).  After the war they would maintain their friendship, with Montier being invited to Brussels as a speaker in 1922.


In June 1915, Cardijn would be nominated by Cardinal Mercier as director of social works in the Brussels arrondissement of the Malines archdiocese (Walckiers 1915: 270).   Although we cannot go into the details here, it is interesting to note the orientation of these works.  In this post, Cardijn would work under the authority of the Flemish Dominican Father Rutten who was became responsible for social works for the whole archdiocese from January 1917 (Walckiers 1981: 291).

Among his responsibilities, Cardijn have responsibility for the Christian trade unions of Brussels, and for a whole range of associated services, cooperatives, etc.  Finding corruption in the existing Christian trade union movement in Brussels, Cardijn had no hesitation in using his position to ensure its dissolution and to create a new Fédération bruxelloise des syndicats chrétiens (Walckiers 1981: 279).  In the new organisation he would find a partner in Herman Vergels.  He would also become close to Hendrik Heymans, president of Confédération des syndicats chrétiens (Walckiers 1981: 314).

After the war, with these people, Cardijn would establish La Central Chrétienne du Travail as a headquarters for the social action he was directing (Walckiers 1981: 325).  A daily newspaper, Le Démocrate, would also be established in 1919 under the responsibility of Father Rutten with the collaboration of Hendrik Heyman and his brother Georges Heyman (Walckiers 1981: 340).  Apart from the name, which is already reminiscent of La Démocratie of the French sillonists before the war, we can note here that Henri Heyman, Vergels and all these people seem to have  been linked with the movements of Marc Sangnier – further indicators of the strong sillonnist influence that seems to have existed in Flanders.

Moreover, in 1919, the same group of people would also launch in Brussels a political party, the  Christene Volkspartij – Le Parti populaire chrétien (Walckiers 1981: 362).  This would be a mainly Flemish party and would win two seats in the elections of 1919, including Herman Vergels.



Having both survived the war, Cardijn and Tonnet could finally commence their partnership after Tonnet’s demobilisation in August 1919. Building on the Syndicat des apprentis which had been founded at Laeken during the war, they commenced to launch other groups in and around Brussels under the name La Jeunesse Syndicaliste (Walckiers 1970: xix).  Cardijn was ill at the end of 1919 and was sent to recuperate at Cannes in December 1919 to January 1920.  In Cardijn’s  letters to Tonnet, we get a good glimpse at what he is thinking.  The work must be ‘surtout éducative’, it must form ‘vrai apôtres’:

‘Et surtout de l’esprit d’apostolat, de conquête, d’audace : jeune et ardent!  Mon Dieu, si je pouvais m’y consacrer!! Si jamais le bon Dieu demande ce sacrifice, ce sera rude!!  Et pourtant, il ne faudra pas le refuser!’ (22 December 1919 in Walckiers 1970: 4).

‘Tous les moyens doivent être employés pour la créer : conversations isolées, récits, lectures, causeries, promenades, peut-être parfois un apôtre étranger…’

‘Et il faut vouloir les embellir, à tout point de vue, au point de vue social, matériel, intellectuel, moral, esthétique autant qu’au point de vue social!  Je n’ai jamais compris comment on pouvait séparer ces choses : ne sommes-nous essentiellement un, et les sources d’émotions les plus nobles ne sont-elles pas imbibées de beauté!’ (3 January 1920 in Walckiers 1970: 9)

‘Avoir quelques jeunes ouvriers, une cinquantaine qui soient épris de l’idéal, et qui ne réculent devant rien, et qui aillent à la conquête de toute leur âme, et qui fassent don de tout, de tout ce qu’ils ont, de tout ce qu’ils sont, de leur coeur pour aimer, de leur intelligence pour comprendre, de leurs bras pour lutter, de leur argent s’ils en ont pour tout mettre en commun.  Prions beaucoup pour cela!  Quand un mouvement mérite d’avoir de bonheur-là, il est victorieux! Regardez le Sillon!  Et puis le nôtre est plus vrai, il est plus ouvrier, il est plus pauvre! … Oui, un  sacerdoce laïque. (12 January 1920 in Walckiers 1970: 13)

What we see here is vision of a total apostolate, ardent – ‘de toute leur âme’ – using every kind of method to conquer.  And the example of this apostolate? Le Sillon.  But even the Sillon did not go far enough, and so the new movement will be ‘ plus vrai’, ‘plus ouvrier’ and ‘plus pauvre’.  Even the possibility of the ultimate sacrifice is evoked: closing down, submission in the manner of the Sillon.  In other words, the key to the new movement is to be even more sillonnist than the sillonnists!


This then is the vision that will inspire the new movement of La Jeunesse Syndicaliste.  As well as its spirit, it will borrow and build its methods of formation and coordination from those inherited from the Sillon.  As we saw earlier, these will be based on the enquiry, the study circle, and will be coordinated by a central ‘study circle’ just as the Sillon had done twenty years earlier (Cf. Caron 1967: 139).  

And if any more evidence were needed, the journal of the new movement, also called La Jeunesse Syndicaliste will provide it.  Edward Montier is cited, as are Henry du Roure, l’abbé Desgranges (former sillonnist priest from Limoges), l’abbé Beaupin.  The authority of Marc Sangnier is invoked for having built the Sillon on ‘la première pierre’ of the study circle.

All the sillonnist techniques of complementary formation are present: establishment of libraries, ‘promenades artistiques et scientifiques’, founding of services for young workers.


By 1921, Cardijn was ready to invite the first ‘apôtre étranger’ to Brussels, who would be none other than Marc Sangnier.  We have a number of historical documents concerning this meeting, including those of Cardijn, Sangnier and Paul Tschoffen.

The first of these is Cardijn’s speech of welcome on 5 February 1921, from which we have already quoted a number of times.  It is a moving testimony, and significantly seems to be one of the few speeches of that period of which Cardijn kept a copy of the text.  Cardijn does not spare the praise in this speech:

‘Depuis des années je ne cesse dans des cercles d’études, dans des conférences, dans des conversations intimes de citer en exemple la vie, l’ardeur, l’apostolat, l’idéal démocratique du Sillon et de son fondateur.  Ils auront voulu m’imposer cet aveu public de notre admiration enthousiaste pour l’éloquent promoteur du plus bel élan de foi et d’apostolat que la France ait connu depuis la révolution.’ (Cardijn 1921: AC 130)

After recalling certain events, he continues:

‘Si j’ai rappelé ces détails, c’est qu’elles sont l’histoire de tant d’amis inconnus et obscurs que vous comptez dans tous les pays du monde, car c’est le privilège et la récompense du semeur d’idéal de vie de ne pas pouvoir limiter le champ qu’il ensemence, ni contraindre la portée de son geste de fécondité.  Le vent du large et les oiseaux du ciel emportent la semence et la déposent parfois bien loin, dans un champ où la rosée de Dieu la féconde et la multiplie.  Et voilà, comment il se fait, Monsieur, que dans cette Centrale Chrétienne de Travail, vous ne comptez que des amis, et comment sous une autre forme, peut-être, mais avec le même esprit s’élabore et grandit cet effort collectif pour porter aux maximum la conscience et la responsabilité morale[24], comme politique de la classe ouvrière, et pour enlever dans notre société les obstacles, d’ordre économique, d’ordre politique, moral, intellectuel et religieux qui empêchent l’éclosion et le parachèvement de cette conscience et de la responsabilité du plus humble des citoyens populaires.[25]

Of this meeting with Cardijn, Sangnier would write:

‘Les paroles que prononça pour me saluer M. l’abbé Cardyn étaient tout animées du plus pur esprit des “beaux temps du Sillon”.  Il célébra l’oeuvre accomplie par nos amis et rattacha sans hésitation et avec reconnaissance son mouvement à nôtre…  Avant ma conférence, j’ai diné dans l’intimité avec M. l’abbé Cardyn et M. Herman Vergels, député démocrate chrétien.  Vraiment, je me serais cru dans la plus intime réunion de camarades.  

Et je pensais qu’à Varsovie, et jusqu’en Lithuanie j’avais rencontré des sympathies semblables, aussi anciennes, aussi informées de notre effort et se rattachant aussi directement à la magnifique explosion de vie morale et sociale de notre vieux Sillon.’ (L’Ame Commune, 16 February 1921)

Once again, the text speaks for itself.  It is interesting to note that on the same trip to Belgium, Sangnier would visit a number of cities.  Not surprisingly, he goes to the old sillonnist centre at Liège.  He also visited Louvain, where he spoke to students groups, probably organised by the Jeunesse Sociale Catholique about the danger of the Action Française[26], with which Cardijn was closely associated, and in which the law student, Jacques Basyn played a prominent role.  He also visited Mons, where it seems he also had contacts, perhaps with the Boerenbond, who were also close to Cardijn.

Cardijn and his collaborators would maintain this contact with Sangnier and his movement.  From 1921, Sangnier would organise a series of Congrès International Démocratique de la Paix.  We find among the inscriptions for the second congress in 1922, Cardijn, Henry Heyman, Senator Albert Carnoy, professor of philology at Louvain and political candidate of the Boerenbond and Melle de Coster, a woman devoted to the social apostolate (IMS, unclassified).  The session devoted to Le rôle de la jeunesse et l’éducation would have obviously been of interest Cardijn.  Heyman and Carnoy would attend a number of these congresses as would Jacques Basyn (Cf. Reports of these Congresses, IMS).

It is significant to note that the newly elected Pius XI sent his greetings to this second congress, indicating a clear return to favour of Marc Sangnier during his pontificate.


The following year, Cardijn and his collaborators would invite Edward Montier to Brussels for a similar tour, to be followed in 1923 by Robert Garric, also close to the sillonnist line.  Neither of these visits, however, would have the impact of Marc Sangnier’s visit.


It is convenient here also to note the important role in the development of the YCW of the example of the late Secretary-General of the Sillon, Henry du Roure.  Since he had died as a hero in the war, it is natural that his example meant a lot to a former soldier like Fernand Tonnet.

Already before the war, Henry du Roure had published a collection of his own articles from the various Sillon journals.  After the war, his Journal Intime, i.e. the diary of Henry du Roure, had been published in 1921.  Finally, Leonard Constant, the former sillonnist philosopher, had published a biography of du Roure in 1923.

It is clear that du Roure’s example was important for both Cardijn and Tonnet.

‘Et s’il est un mot que nous osons faire nôtre, c’est celui que prononça en une occasion mémorable votre admirable et saint compagnon d’armes, Henry du Roure, qu’en un ami sûr, nous chérissons et nous pleurons :  Il faudrait, avait-il dit un jour, nous mettre à genoux pour dire les choses que nous avons aimées.’ (Cardijn 1921: AC 130)

Here Cardijn quoted a text of Henry du Roure in a letter of 25 December 1910, three months after the condamnation: ‘Nos rêves ont été si beaux, nos ambitions si nobles, nos naïvétés si généreuses! Tu t’en souviens ?  Il faudrait se mettre à genoux pour dire tout ce que nous avons aimé…’  (Constant 1923: 103).

The same passage would also be cited several years later by Fernand Tonnet in his brochure to mark the death of the YCW fulltimer, Raymond Delplancq.

Another text of Henry du Roure which would be important for Cardijn was his article Sur la beauté morale du Sillon dating from December 1908, and republished in du Roure’s Essais et Nouvelles.  In this article, du Roure had written that:

‘Il faut nous demander les uns aux autres et nous imposer à nous-mêmes de ne pas trop organiser le Sillon, de ne pas assagir le Sillon, de ne pas embourgeoiser le Sillon.  Qu’il reste une chose un peu folle, héroïque si l’on veut.  Par lui il vaut mieux être broyé que gavé.  Que les corps soient rudoyés pour que les âmes restent pures.’ (du Roure 1917: 181)

We find Cardijn quoting this text as late as 1958, precisely at the time that the IYCW is achieving its mature form as an international movement, in which he warns against the embourgeoisement of the YCW (Cardijn 1958: AC 12A).  The example of Henry du Roure, devoted and heroic fulltimer of the Sillon would be a permanent example for the YCW.


6.1 The Conflict with the ACJB

The influence of the Sillon on the new movement promoted by Cardijn and Tonnet can also be seen in the developing conflict between the Jeunesse Syndicaliste and the Association Catholique de la Jeunesse Belge, founded by l’abbé Abel Brohée, and of which the president was Giovanni Hoyois.  The primary issue would be autonomy, a theme dear to the sillonnists, who had always sought to defend their autonomy vis-à-vis the hierarchy, and an issue on which Cardijn himself had always stood his ground.

Another problem for the Jeunesse Syndicaliste would be its allegedly political character.  With its links to the trade unions, and with Cardijn’s involvement in the Christene Volkspartij, it is easy to see how this criticism could arise.

It would seem that the early conflict between the Jeunesse Syndicaliste and the ACJB also has overtones of  the conflict between the Sillon and the ACJF in France.  The attacks by Brohée rejoin the positions of the Revue catholique des idées et de faits, a reactionary journal published by l’abbé Van Den Hout, who was very close to Charles Maurras and the Action Française.  Moreover, as the enquiry of 1920-21 had shown, Catholic students had a great deal of sympathy for Maurras.  Indeed, the existence of this tendency in the ACJB would be proven some years later with the emergence of Léon Degrelle, who would become leader of the Rexist movement.

For all these reasons, it is clear that in the minds of Brohée and those who joined in his criticisms of the Jeunesse Syndicaliste, the new movement was very close to the Sillon.  This explains why they expected and worked for it to be condemned.  When finally the issue was brought to Cardinal Mercier for judgement at the end of 1924, it must have been obvious to all concerned that it was a re-run of the process against the Sillon prior to 1910.  In this context, it is hardly surprising, given his own political tendencies, that Cardinal Mercier should have come to the same judgment that had led to the condamnation of the Sillon less than 15 years previously.

6.2 The Appeal to Pius XI

When Cardijn made his famous visit to Rome in March 1925, looking for approval from Pope Pius XI, we find him seeking assistance from the same priests who had previously assisted the Sillon in their hour of need in 1910, namely Mgr Gaston Vanneufville (Caron 1967: 646 and 693; Fiévez and Meert 1978: 73).  Originally from the Lille region, Mgr Vanneufville had also been a founder of the journal La Démocratie Chrétienne with Fr Paul Six.  No doubt Fr Vermeesch, who was then teaching at the Gregorian University also played a role (Fievez and Meert 1978: 73).

The big difference between 1910 and 1925 was evidently Pius XI himself.  As mentioned, he had  sent a message of support to the Congress for Peace in 1922.  Moreover, the Holy See was already moving towards the condamnation of the Action Française which would come in the next two years.  It would seem also then that by 1925 there was a certain desire inside the Holy See to see the work of the Sillon relaunched in some form.  Cardijn’s appearance on the scene would have responded exactly to this desire.  And if it was known that Cardijn had the support or approval of Sangnier in his work, then this too would have worked in his favour.

All these factors help explain the success of Cardijn before Pius XI in his visit in March 1925 which saved the future of the YCW which was then being born.


7.1 Cardijn’s Annual Visits

Cardijn’s future visits to Rome can also be explained in terms of the history of the Sillon.  We see here in Cardijn’s decision to visit Rome annually the influence of Léon Harmel, who had insisted on just such an approach, with the Sillon.

7.2 The YCW Pilgrimages to Rome

It is poignant also to notice the resemblance between the first pilgrimage of the YCW to Rome in 1929 and that led by the Sillon in 1903-04.  Here it is relevant to recall that Gaston Lestrat’s Les beaux temps du Sillon had been published in 1926, and seems to have provided a blueprint for the YCW trip (Lestrat 1926).  The big difference would be that whereas a layperson, Marc Sangnier, had led the sillonnist pilgrimage, now Cardijn, a priest, had taken over that role.  Where Marc Sangnier had wanted to deliver a speech inside the Coliseum, but was prevented from doing so, we now find Cardijn in a famous photo, speaking to the YCW pilgrims.  This ‘clericalisation’ was particularly and painfully obvious to Fernand Tonnet, who found himself excluded from the private audience with Pius XI,  in which Cardijn went alone.  This clericalisation, real or perceived, also seems to have the basis of the conflict that would develop between Tonnet and Cardijn in 1934-35  (Walckiers 1970: 178)


It is also interesting to compare the relations of the Sillon, the YCW and Catholic Action. Before the election of Pius XI in 1922, the publications of the Jeunesse Syndicaliste hardly used the term Catholic Action, which at that time in Belgium was associated with conservative elements of the Catholic Party, and with the ACJB. This corresponds exactly to the situation in France at the time of the Sillon, who had a similar mistrust far any organisation using the term Catholic Action.

When Pius XI introduced the term, however, he redefined it, in effect broadening it to mean ‘collaboration’ or ‘participation of the laity in the apostolate of the Church’, thereby adopting a concept which had been pioneered by the sillonnists twenty years earlier (Cousin 1906: 54) (Note 32).

However, although the YCW had managed to ‘recuperate’ the hierarchy through the support of Pius XI, it would face a big danger of being itself coopted by the hierarchy.



The first ‘sillonnist’ influence on the French YCW was undoubtedly that of Fr Paul Six, who had been present at the first National Congress in April 1925, and who helped launch the movement in the North of France.

No doubt the biggest sillonnist influence on the French YCW, however,  was its founding chaplain, Fr Georges Guérin, who belonged to the Sillon in Paris in 1909-10 (Pierrard 1997: 55).  Although he would later say that he had not found ‘l’unité de vie que donne au jeune travailleur le mouvement jociste’ in the Sillon, there can be no doubt that it prepared him for the discovery of the YCW with Cardijn.

Another Jesuit, Father Jean Boulier, although not a former sillonnist, would be attracted to the movement by its proximity to Sangnier and the Sillon:

‘Sur le bureau de Tonnet, voisin de celui de Cardijn, je voyais avec étonnement une photographie de Marc Sangnier.  Tonnet puisait son inspiration dans les publications du Sillon. Cela me parut un bon signe et nous fûmes vite amis’ (Boulier 1977: 79).

Finally, it is relevant to note in Cardijn’s famous speech at Reims in 1927 at a Congrès d’Oeuvres Ouvrières before an audience which included Cardinal Luçon, the old Cardinal who had triggered the final battle for the Sillon in 1909.  If Cardijn’s passionate speech, the ‘baptême de Reims’ brought many in the audience including the Cardinal to the point of tears, it was for the good reason that Cardijn needed to ensure that he won the support of Luçon for the YCW (Debes and Poulat 1986: 15).


Just as former sillonnists played a role in establishing the YCW in Belgium and France, it seems likely that they played a role in the extension of the IYCW.  Once again, Eugène Beaupin seems to have played a significant role.  In his later life, as director of the Amitiés Catholiques Françaises, an international bulletin and association which he directed, he would not only publish articles concerning the YCW, but his organisation would send books to different countries around the world.  It seems probable, for example, that knowledge of the YCW first arrived in Australia by this means[27].

There are no doubt other similar such stories elsewhere, perhaps in Québec, Switzerland, etc.


In the light of all these events, one can ask whether it is merely chance when the YCW chose to open its first International Congress on 25 August 1935 – the 25th anniversary of Pope Pius X’s encyclical against the Sillon.

To answer this question, we need to remember the blessing of the flags at Quiévrain in 1912.  We need to be aware of the date chosen for the letter of Cardinal Andrieu in 1926 against the Action Française.

It seems to me, then, that the choice of this date reflects the consciousness of the first generation of YCWs of their indebtedness to the Sillon which had come before and which had cleared the way for the success which had been denied to them.

Moreover, I believe also that in a certain sense that it was both the ‘condamnation’ and the ‘submission’ of the Sillon which made possible the YCW.  On one hand, the submission of the sillonnists had the effect of disarming many critics; it proved the faithfulness of the Sillon.  Secondly, the disappearance of the Sillon had the effect of creating a demand for a successor, a demand that the YCW was able to respond to.  Thirdly, it gave Cardijn the chance to have a fresh start.

For these reasons, I also believe that Cardijn probably felt that the condamnation and submission of the Sillon opened the way for the YCW.  Choosing the date of 25 August to celebrate as the foundation day of the IYCW pays eloquent testimony to that debt.



We continue to find traces of the sillonnist influence on the IYCW in the period from 1935 to 1957.

It is significant that many of Cardijn’s key articles have always drawn heavily on sillonnist doctrines.  In his Laïcs en premières lignes we find a number of articles which seem to be inspired by sillonnist sources.

The article Le laïcat, which was originally published in 1935, seems to owe a great deal to the doctrine of Louis Cousin in his Vie et Doctrine du Sillon published in 1906.  Cousin’s insistance that lay action ‘s’exerce sur le terrain laïque’ (Cousin 1906: 54) coincides precisely with Cardijn’s later insistance on the ‘apostolat laïc, propre aux laïcs’.  Even Cardijn’s insistance on the importance of the role of the priest is consistent with the positions of both Sangnier and Cousin, who saw the priest’s role as a ‘guarantor’ of the movement (Cf. Statutes of the IYCW, 1957).

However, Cardijn as always pushes Cousin’s doctrines further. Whereas Cousin still frames his theological reflection on the laity in terms of the spiritual-temporal ‘two societies’ theory, Cardijn totally rejects this dichotomy, preferring to emphasise the continuity between earthly and heavenly life.

In relation to another important and controversial issue of the 1950s, i.e. the conception of the movement as an elite or a mass movement, Cardijn’s 1954 article on La formation de l’élite again draws on the sillonnist notion of forming an elite drawn from the mass, and capable of acting within the mass like the yeast in the dough (Cousin 1906: 142).

Plus we could multiply the examples where Cardijn quotes the famous sillonnist definition of democracy as the social system which tends to maximise the civic consciousness and responsibility of each person. As Cardijn noted, for example, during his keynote speech at the First World Congress for the Lay Apostolate in 1951:

‘Seule, la défense d’une doctrine, d’une éducation et d’une organisation sociales, respectueuses de la personne et de la famille humaines, de la conscience et de la responsabilité humaines, pourra maintenir et épanouir dans le monde un personnalisme garant de dignité et de liberté.’ (Cardijn 1951: 16)

(‘Only the defence of a doctrine, an education and of a social organisation, respectful of the person and of the human family, and of human conscience (or consciousness) and responsibility, can maintain and spread throughout the world a personalism guaranteeing dignity and liberty.’)


The sillonnist influence again comes to the fore before the 1957 First International Council of the YCW in Cardijn’s concern to avoid over-structuring the movement. Here again there is a strong echo of Marc Sangnier in 1906:

‘Décrire ce qui est vivant, c’est-à-dire complexe et mystérieux; préciser en un corps de doctrine des conceptions et des idées toutes spontanées, rattachées surtout les unes aux autres par une profonde amitié de sentiment ; expliquer la force et l’intime puissance d’une amitié, puisque le Sillon est une amitié: cela est une oeuvre ardue et périlleuse. J’avoue, pour ma part, que je n’eusse pas oser l’essayer.’ (Sangnier, Préface to Vie et Doctrine du Sillon (Cousin 1906))

(‘To describe that which is living, that it is to say complex and mysterious; to set out in a body of doctrine a number of quite spontaneous conceptions and ideas, linked to one another above all by a profound feeling of friendship; to explain the strength and the intimate power of a friendship, since the Sillon is a friendship: this is an arduous and perilous task. I admit, for my part, that I would not have dared to try.’)

In this passage which is marked in Cardijn’s copy of the book, Sangnier expresses his fears of overstructuring the Sillon and rigidifying its doctrine. Having expressed these fears, he goes on to congratulate Cousin for having succeeded in his task.

And in his hitherto unpublished articles on the origins of the YCW, Cardijn can be found again quoting Henry du Roure’s concern to avoid the ’embourgeoisement’ or bourgeoisification of the movement (Cf. Les premiers apôtres ouvriers, AC, now available on internet).

I think that Cardijn’s sillonnist spirit is also evident in his reticence to codify the relations of the YCW with the Holy See at the time of the negotiation of the First Protocol in 1956 and his reluctance about the drafting of Statutes for the IYCW.


There are many other issues which we could also take up here, questions and lessons from the life of the Sillon: its experience of reaching out to Protestants and even to Muslims, its methods of organisation, its demands at the level of financial commitment, its methods of selling its publications, the commitment of its fulltimers and volunteers.

In fact, we can also find nearly every future tension of the YCW prefigured in some way in the Sillon. The Sillon’s 1905 d’Hellencourt crisis is a perfect example here involving a student-worker clash, an orientation problem concerning the role of services in the movement, the degree of structuration, the problem of personalities, etc.

Within the Sillon, we can also discern the first moves towards specialisation of the movements. The student-worker tensions were themselves signs of this. Moreover, by 1907 the Sillon was already in the process of establishing a more or less autonomous Sillon rural, specialising in issues in country areas of France. In this, sense, all the specialised movements, including the YCS (JEC), the Young Christian Farmers (JAC), etc. are equally indebted to the Sillon as the YCW .

The difficult problem of the relationship of an apostolic movement with the political sphere is also raised in the Sillon.

So too is the problem of the relationship of a lay movement like the Sillon with the Church. Indeed, on this last aspect, one of Cardijn’s major contributions was to find a way to link the YCW to the Church — finding a solution to the problem of linking an autonomous movement to the Church — the lay-clerical partnership that Leon Harmel had dreamed of and Marc Sangnier had tried to implement.

On these issues, it is true that in many respects the YCW went further than the Sillon. But in nearly every case, it was the Sillon which first broke the ground, tracing the furrow in which the YCW and its sister movements would later germinate. Like the grain of wheat in the Gospel, the Sillon perhaps needed to die so that our movement could live.

Nevertheless, if as Cardijn insisted so often, the YCW needs to continually start again, there may be no better place for replanting than in the fertile soil first opened up by the Sillon of Marc Sangnier.



1893: Marc Sangnier, Étienne Isabelle and others create a students group called the Crypt at the Stanislas College in Paris. Their objective is to bring the Church and People together in light of Rerum Novarum and to build democracy in France.

1894: Foundation of the magazine Le Sillon by Paul Renaudin and other members of the Crypt. Its early orientation is literary, philosophical and social.

1897-8: The members of the Crypt launch a campaign to establish Study Circles for young workers and students especially within the existing network of youth clubs (patronages). They begin to develop methods of action and reflection on life and on the gospel, which are an early form of the YCW’s Review of Life and Worker Action method.

1899: The movement in the process of being formed takes the name of the journal, Le Sillon.

1902: First Congrès National de Cercles d’Études in Paris organised by the Sillon open to all such study circles.

1903: First major public debates, the night of the Mille Colonnes-Meeting Sanglant event. First pilgrimage to Rome with Leon Harmel.

1905: A decision is made that the congresses will henceforth become National Congresses of the Sillon. The d’Hellencourt Crisis takes place concerning the student-worker character of the movement, the role of services in the movement and the degree of organisation necessary. Fortnightly and later weekly newspaper started, L’Éveil Démocratique.

1906: The opening out of the Sillon to other denominations and other religions, including Muslims. The ‘politicisation’ of the Sillon as they see the need to get involved politically in face of the anti-clerical and socialist forces on one side and the reactionary Catholic and Action Française forces on the other.

1907: Development of cooperatives, campaigns on issues, e.g. domestic work, etc. Conflict with ‘clericalisation’ of Sillon, i.e. control by priests.

1909: Beginnings of crisis with clash with Cardinal Luçon at Reims and other bishops.

1910: Encyclical Notre Charge Apostolique of 25 August which condemns sillonnist conception of democracy, and calls for resignation of leaders and episcopal control, followed by ‘submission’ of sillonnists who close down the movement rather than compromise its character. Foundation of newspaper La Démocratie.



Although study circles and formation programmes for young workers had existed in Belgium since the 1860s, the new orientations and methods developed and promoted by the Sillon in France from 1897-98 rapidly crossed the porous northern border.

First, it seems clear that Sangnier had already himself visited Belgium before 1900, where he had made contacts with the Catholic democrats grouped around Henri Carton de Wiart and his wife[28].  Father Arthur Vermeesch, the Jesuit sociologist and canonist, and author of an important  Manuel social mentions the creation of study circles in Brussels under the leadership of M. Carton de Wiart, the methods of which show a clear sillonnist influence[29].

Léon Harmel, a strong and early supporter of the Sillon, was also certainly a second channel of transmission of sillonnist methods.  Paul Tschoffen, a young lawyer from Liège had met Marc Sangnier at a summer social formation programme at Harmel’s Val-de-Bois property in the late 1890s[30] (Letter from Paul Tschoffen to Marc Sangnier, 21 February 1900, IMS unclassified).  As an outcome of this meeting, Sangnier visited Liège in March 1901 at the invitation of the Société Générale des Étudiants Catholiques, a group of Christian democratic students led by Tschoffen (Gérin 1959: 259).  Over the next two years later the same students would found a number of study circles, one of which would become the Sillon de Liège, in which Professor Godefroid Kurth was enrolled as an honorary member.  Each month the Sillon would organise meetings on social questions, e.g. the need for Sunday rest, in support of striking workers, etc. (Gérin 1959)

A third vector of transmission of the Sillon to Belgium was probably the large number of religious who were forced out of France by the policies of the anti-clerical French government.

The universities seem to have been a fourth vector of transmission of sillonnist ideas.  The Sillon seems to have had a certain influence at the University of Ghent.

There was also probably some direct transmission of sillonnist influence across the border, especially in the Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing region, where the Sillon had a strong presence[31], and which is only a few kilometres from Tournai, which was a stronghold of social action in Belgium.  Moreover, one of the most famous of the Sillon’s public debates took place between Marc Sangnier and the socialist, Jules Guesde, at Tourcoing on 9 March 1905 before a crowd of 2-3,000 people.

Thus, although the history of the Sillon in Belgium has not yet been fully documented, it seems clear that the new movement had managed to achieve rapid a rapid penetration of its ideas by 1905.


As in France, the Belgian groups who were influenced by the Sillon can be divided into two broad rather imprecise categories. The first smaller category comprised those who identified themselves as belonging to the Sillon, i.e. du Sillon and the second category consisted of those who had adopted some sillonnist notions and were to some degree ‘en relation’ with the Sillon.

The Sillon de Liège is an example, perhaps the only one in Belgium, of the first category.  It continued to develop links with the Sillon Central in Paris.  In 1908, for example, we find Paul Tschoffen presenting a report to the Sillon National Congress on the democratic movement in Belgium (Report of the VII Congrès National du Sillon 1908: 13). The journals of the French Sillon also contain occasional reports and articles from Liège.  The Liège sillonnists also maintained relations with the sillonnists of the North of France, contributed to the journal A la Voile.

The groups associated with Carton de Wiart in Brussels were examples of the second category., and no doubt there were others as well.  A young priest, Jean-François Van Den Heuvel even started children’s groups applying the sillonnist methods in a Brussels parish (Vermeesch 1908).


1903-10: La découverte du Sillon par Joseph Cardijn: Le Sillon commence à avoir un rayonnement en Belgique dès 1900. En 1903, Cardijn découvre ce mouvement à travers ses publications et ses actions, par exemple, le Meeting Sanglant. Il participe dans un Cercle d’Études au Grand Séminaire qui semble très proche du Sillon dans son orientation. En 1906, il y avait une tentative non-avenue de créer un Sillon à Malines. Cardijn visite la France en 1907 où il rencontre le Sillon du Nord et participe dans une grande réunion publique à Amiens. Le Sillon ‘soumit’ à la décision de Pie X dans son encyclique, Notre Charge Apostolique du 25 août 1910. Grand impact sur Cardijn de cette soumission.

1912-18: Les oeuvres de Laeken: Pour organiser les oeuvres féminines dans la paroisse, Cardijn choisit de travailler avec Victoire Cappe, elle-même formée dans les méthodes sillonnistes. Il rencontre Fernand Tonnet, qui a travaillé avec les méthodes sillonnistes à Quiévrain, et qui a fondé un groupe de Jeunes Gardes le 25 août 1912. Ils modifient l’orientation du Sillon en mettant en avant les aspects ouvrier et jeune. Ils précisent les méthodes de formation du Sillon.

1919-25: Lancement d’un mouvement : La Jeunesse Syndicaliste s’organise sur base de la méthodologie sillonniste. La JS se trouve devant les mêmes problèmes que le Sillon: l’autonomie, les attaques des conservateurs (Action Française), le menace d’une condamnation. Mais la JOC est sauvé par Pie XI, qui est sympathique au Sillon, qui cherche un successeur à Marc Sangnier, et qui rédéfinit l’Action Catholique en termes du projet sillonniste: la participation et la collaboration des laïcs dans la mission de l’Église.

1925-35: Extension internationale de la JOC : La JOC se développe en s’appuyant en partie sur le réseau des sympathisants du Sillon, en Belgique, en France et même plus loin. La JOC choisit la date du 25 août 1935 pour ouvrir son premier congrès international à Bruxelles. Lettre Autographe de Pie XI pour consacrer cet événément.

1935-57: Développement de la JOCI : Cardijn repense la JOCI en termes de la doctrine, les méthodes et des structures du Sillon. Date d’ouverture du Premier Conseil Mondial à Rome le 25 août 1957.


BARTHÉLEMY-MADAULE Madeleine, Marc Sangnier 1873 – 1950, Seuil, Paris, 1973, 301p.

CARON Jeanne, Le Sillon et la démocratie chrétienne 1894 – 1910, Plon, Paris, 1967, 798p.

COGNETS Jean des, L’un d’eux : Amédée Guiard, Bloud et Gay, Paris, 1921, 205p.

CONSTANT Léonard, Henry du Roure, Bloud et Gay, Paris, s.d. (1921?), 239p.

DAUBIOUL David, Paul Archambault et les Cahiers de la Nouvelle Journée, Prat/Europa, Paris, 1990, 320p.

DESGRANGES Jean, Carnets intimes, Journal d’un conférencier populaire, La Palatine, Paris-Génève, 1960, 451p.

DU ROURE Henry, Chroniques Françaises et Chrétiennes, La Démocratie, Paris, 1913, 261p..

DU ROURE Henry, Lettres précédées d’un journal intime, 2 tomes, Plon, Paris, 1921, 257p. + 219p.

DU ROURE Henry, Essais et Nouvelles 1902-1914, Plon, Paris, s.d., 381p.

FABREGUES Jean de, Le Sillon de Marc Sangnier, Perrin, Paris, 1964, 315p.

GALLIOT Simone & Hélène, Marc Sangnier (1873 – 1950), Chez les auteurs, Le Mans, 1960, 144p.

INDA Jean-Pierre, Léonard Constant 1880 – 1923, Universitaire et apôtre, Cerf, Paris, 1988, 378p.

INSTITUT MARC SANGNIER, Marc Sangnier et les débuts du Sillon 1894, Institut Marc Sangnier, Paris, 1994, 153p.

LESTRAT Gaston, Les beaux temps du Sillon, Bloud et Gay, Paris, 1926, 203p.

SANGNIER Marc, L’éducation sociale du peuple, Rondelet, Paris, 1899,

SANGNIER Marc, Discours, Tome 1, 1891 – 1905, Bloud et Gay, Paris, 1910, 526p.

SANGNIER Marc, Discours, Tome 2, 1906-1909, Bloud et Gay, Paris, 1910, 509p.

SANGNIER Marc, Discours, Tome 3, 1910 – 1913, Bloud et Gay, Paris, 1913, ???p.

SANGNIER Marc, La Lutte pour la Démocratie, Perrin, Paris, 1908, 300p.

SANGNIER Marc, Une méthode d’éducation démocratique, Au Sillon, Paris, 1906, 165p.

SANGNIER Marc, L’Esprit démocratique, Perrin, Paris, 1906, 290p.

SANGNIER Marc, Cléricalisme et Démocratie, Au Sillon, Paris, 1907, 49p.

SANGNIER Marc, Une méthode d’éducation démocratique, Cercles d’Études et Instituts Populaires, La Chapelle-Montligeon, Montligeon, 1901, 25p.


I.        INTRODUCTION        1

II.        THE SILLON IN BELGIUM        2








F.        THE VISIT TO FRANCE IN SUMMER 1907        10

1.        The Sillon du Nord        10

2.        The Sillon at the Semaine Sociale at Amiens        10

G.        THE VISIT TO LÉON HARMEL        13




1.        Easter 1912        18

2.        Cardijn and the Sillon in 1912        18


1.        Victoire Cappe from Liège        19

2.        A Method of Formation        19

C.        FERNAND TONNET        24

1.        Fernand Tonnet and the Sillon        24

2.        Tonnet at Quiévrain        25

3.        Blessing the Flags of the Jeune Garde: 25 August 1912        26

4.        Tonnet meets Cardijn        27

5.        Contacts with the Former Sillonnists        27

D.        THE SOCIAL WORKS        29

V.        THE BUILDING OF A MOVEMENT 1919 – 1925        30



C.        THE 1921 VISIT OF MARC SANGNIER        31




1.        The Conflict with the ACJB        35

2.        The Appeal to Pius XI        36

G.        THE YCW AND PIUS XI        37

1.        Cardijn’s Annual Visits        37

2.        The YCW Pilgrimages to Rome        37

VI.        THE SILLON AND THE IYCW        38

A.        THE FRENCH YCW        38

B.        THE EXTENSION OF THE YCW        38


D.        THE DOCTRINE OF THE YCW        40


[1] Fr Six’s main lay collaborator was the trade unionist and sillonnist, Jules Decoopman.

[2] Walckiers gives 25 May 1903 as the date on which Cardijn received a telegramme of his father’s illness (Walckiers 1981: 47) whereas Fiévez & Meert give 24 May as the day of death (Fiévez & Meert 1978: 21)

[3] Cardijn’s personal library at UCL, Louvain-la-Neuve, contains at least 80 books and publications by various sillonnist authors, including a number of key texts by Marc Sangnier and other leaders.

[4] ‘Nous voulons nous approcher du peuple pour qu’il participe à l’oeuvre de la rénovation qui sans lui ne se fera pas.  Christ et le peuple – ces deux mots pourraient être la devise de la Crypte… La démocratie est la responsabilité de tous…’ (Le Sillon 1898: 714-716).

[5] In France, the Sillon had a definite policy of penetrating the seminaries, and it is therefore not surprising that insofar as it had a presence in Belgium we should find a similar phenomenon  at Malines.

[6] Van Den Heuvel began to found study circles virtually as soon as he arrived in a parish (Appendix I).  Prims later became publisher of a magazine devoted to social action.  In 1912 -13, he also took part in public debates with the socialist leaders, Hendrik De Man and Camille Huysmans, which are reminiscent of the Sangnier-Guesde debate of 1905.  Jean Belpaire, who would  remain close to Cardijn all his life, would later participate in at least one of the Peace Congresses organised by Sangnier (IMS, Enrolment forms, 1922 Peace Congress).

[7] He chastises one of his masters, Mgr Simon Deploige as ‘plus dilettante’, a term of real reproach coming from the vocabulary of Léon Ollé-Laprune and meaning lacking in commitment (Walckiers 1981: 104).

[8]Cardijn’s copy of Marc Sangnier’s Esprit et Methodes du Sillon, published in 1905, bears the name-stamp of Louis Winnaert.

[9] Many of the speakers on the programme were from the Sillon or closely associated with it.  Marcel Lecoq, director of the Office Sociale of the Sillon, in charge of the sillonnist cooperatives spoke on the legislation concerning work in France.   Professor Max Turmann, who had played a key role in reorienting youth work education in the patronages, and in the Sillon in Fribourg spoke on the topic of producers cooperatives.  Turmann evidently impressed Cardijn, who made plans to visit him, a visit he would be unable to make. Professor Émile Chénon, law professor  from Paris, who had given a course on the history of Church and State relations to the sillonnists, lectured on L’Action de l’Église. Chénon also impressed Cardijn, who wrote: ‘M. Chénon a donné une magnifique synthèse des influences et théories de l’Église sur l’individu, la famille et la société.’  Cardijn later bought his book, L’Action Sociale de l’Église, of which the copy is heavily underlined.   Professor Joseph Brunhes, yet another sillonnist lawyer from Dijon, – ‘un esthète un peu superficiel’ – obviously did not impress.

[10] Pierre Bayart would later write the book, L’Action catholique spécialisée, which was much appreciated by Cardijn for its justification of the principles of the YCW.  There is no indication, however, as to whether Cardijn and Bayart had met in 1907.

[11] Marc Sangnier would adopt this objective for the Sillon in the following terms: ‘… au Val-de-Bois, nous cherchions les moyens de produire l’organe laïco-ecclésiastique résultant, de l’élément ecclésiastique et de l’union des deux, sans confusion ni division’ (Caron 1967: 68). Harmel had also obtained the approval of Leo XIII for this concept of lay-clerical partnership  (Cf. Molette 1968: 179).  Here it is important to add that Harmel was no apologist for ‘clericalism’.  On the contrary, he himself had been defamed for his views and methods, especially by the anti-modernist Mgr Turinaz of Nancy, later a reactionary supporter of the Action Française.  Harmel had in fact launched a canonical action addressed to Pius X in 1904 for redress against these attacks (Guitton 1927: T. 2, 211).

[12] It is worth also noting that Georges Guitton’s two volume biography of Léon Harmel recounting the details of Harmel’s advice to the Sillon was published in 1927, a date which coincides precisely with the beginnings of Cardijn’s annual visits to the Holy See.

[13] Marc Walckiers explains that the cause of Cardijn’s nomination to Basse-Wavre was his platonic and indeed apostolic friendship with the 20 year old, Marie Possoz, younger sister of Émile, who later became involved in social work at Halle, finally entering a religious congregation where she died of illness in 1917 (Walckiers 1981).  Although Walckiers is no doubt correct in identifying this as the immediate cause of Cardinal Mercier’s decision, one can also ask whether this incident was merely the last straw, with the Cardinal being also concerned about the broader ‘action’ orientation towards which Cardijn was tending.

[14]Victoire Cappe (1886-1927) was born into a Freemason family in which her father had forbidden religious instruction.  She converted herself to Catholicism at age 15 around 1901, and with her family background which valued freedom and social responsibility, she rapidly became interested in the social teaching of the Church.

[15]Already in 1899, Marc Sangnier had presented the basic method of the Sillon in the following terms: ‘Tout citoyen doit :

1° Connaître l’état de sa patrie; lorsque la situation est mauvaise, il doit

2° chercher les rémèdes; enfin, les rémèdes trouvés il doit

3° agir. (LS 1899: 306)

Moreover, the Sillon Study Circles had developed the method of reporting on and discussing ‘faits’ drawn from life by 1898 if not earlier, as these extracts from the the journal Le Sillon indicate:

‘Dès lors, on ne discute pas sur des sujets abstraits et vagues, car ces jeunes gens qui viennent d’être mis en face des réalités de la vie, viennent dire à leurs camarades ce qu’ils ont vu, ce qui les a frappés; ils leur racontent ce qu’ils font eux-mêmes soit dans les patronages, soit dans les cercles d’ouvriers’ (Bulletin de la Crypte, 1898, No. 11: 184).

‘Pour notre travail en commun, écrivions-nous à nos amis “il faut que nous apportions des ‘faits caractéristiques‘, c’est-à-dire non pas les détails instructifs et curieux que recherchent le spécialiste et le savant, mais des faits précis d’un caractère général, susceptibles de montrer les grands traits d’une question, sa nature propre et sa connexité avec les autres problèmes moraux et sociaux, en un mot d’éveiller une idée féconde à notre point de vue’ (Le Sillon 1898: 708).

[16] Eugène Beaupin published a number of books, including L’Éducation social et les Cercles d’Études (Beaupin 1911),  in which Chapter 5, L’Effort Personnel is subdivided as follows:

I.        Le travail personnel – Tout membre d’un Cercle d’études doir lire, écrire, réfléchir personnellement;

II.         Une discipline de vie – L’emploi du temps. – Les lectures, comment d’en tirer profit.

III.        Une méthode de formation personnelle – L’éducation du jugement.  – L’observation de la vie.  – La léçon des voyages.

IV.        Pour juger sa vie 

Conclusion:         Pour juger son action.

Here again we see how close we are to the see-judge-act without actually getting there.

[17] The attitude of the Sillon Féminine is exemplified by Marguérite Gény-Renard of Nancy, who stated:

‘Mon Sillon à moi, vois-tu, ce serais comme idéal l’accomplissement plus généreux de mon devoir de femme, l’acceptation plus résignée de la volonté de Dieu, plus d’amenité dans mes relations.  Mais toutes ces discussions, non, vois-tu, cela ne me dit rien.  Dans la mesure où je le puis, aider des autres à faire leur devoir, à réaliser en eux ce que je veux faire pour moi-même, voilà ce que je voudrais comme apostolat.’ (Renard 1934: 60)

Married to the sillonnist leader, Georges Renard, Marguerite Renard also seems to have  had an influence in Belgium (Renard 1934).

[18] This is not to say that the sillonnists themselves invented all these methods. However, it seems clear that the explosion in study circles in France and beyond from 1898 is due in large part to the campaign launched by the Sillon.  As a result of these experiences there gradually developed the methods which Cappe and Cardijn adopted and developed in their own turn.

[19]Born at Molenbeek, a suburb of Brussels, on 18 July 1894, Fernand Tonnet died in February 1945.

[20] It should be noted that the Jeune Garde Catholique of Belgium, founded at Mons in 1886, predated the Jeune Garde of the Sillon, founded at the end of 1901, a few months after Marc Sangnier’s visit of March 1901.  It seems likely that Sangnier took his inspiration from the Belgian Jeune Garde, although he certainly pushed the concept much further.  It is interesting to note that the specific goal of the Belgian Jeunes Gardes was to ‘se rendre utiles au parti catholique’, although they also insisted that ‘ils ne forment pas davantage la section de jeunesse d’un parti politique’ (Revue de l’Action Populaire, 1910: 285).  Although the Belgian Jeune Garde had conservative origins, and was even associated with Count Charles Woeste, by 1912 it had adopted the line of the ‘democratic’ Jeune Droite grouping of the Catholic Party.

[21] Georges Abrassart (1883-1937) was ordained in 1905, and came to Quiévrain in 1907.  His father had been active in the Fédération Boraine Catholique of ‘democratic’ orientation 5H. Tonnet 1964: 8).

[22] Here we need to remember that Valenciennes, the biggest city of the region, was also the fief of the former sillonnist priest, l’abbé Thellier de Poncheville, whose Catholic youth group had been  ‘en attente’ of recognition by the Sillon as early as 1903 (Caron, 1967: 217).

[23] This is undoubtedly a reference to Pope Pius X’s Lettre à Jean Lerolle in 1907, in which the pope requested the ACJF to stay out of politics.  This comment indicates on one hand the reticence of the French ACJF in regards to politics, but also shows that the Belgian Jeune Garde was still seen as political, despite its officially non-political orientation.  In Belgium, then, it would seem that the ‘political’ orientation of the Sillon  was not necessarily a cause for condemnation – at least for the Jeunes Gardes!

[24] Les sillonnistes définissaient la démocratie comme ‘l’organisation sociale qui tend à porter à maximum la conscience et la responsabilité civiques de chacun’ (Marc Sangnier, L’Esprit démocratique, Perrin et Cie, Paris, 1906, p. 167.

[25] In Cardijn’s original text there is even a line crossed out in which he proposes to Sangnier that he should ‘nous parliez de Notre Dame de la Démocratie, comme le Poverello d’Assise parlait de Notre Dame de la Pauvreté’.  But he obviously seems to have thought discretion is the better part of valour concerning this particular phrase!

[26] It seems clear that it was as a result of this visit that an enquiry was launched in Belgium concerning the attitudes of Belgian students, along the model of a similar enquiry which had been promoted in France by the former sillonnists.   The objective of these enquiries was obviously to expose the pernicious influence of the Action Française. This campaign would eventually be successful with the Letter of Cardinal Andrieu criticising the Action Française, dated 25 August 1926, a letter which would be confirmed the following year by Pius XI, resulting in the definitive ‘condamnation’ of the movement of Charles Maurras.

[27] The founder of the Australian YCW, Kevin Kelly, received a packet of books in French in 1933, including a copy of the Manual of the YCW.

[28] ‘Depuis le berceau même du Sillon, M. Carton de Wiart est un de nos amis.  Quant à Madame Carton de Wiart, elle n’a jamais cessé d’affirmer combien l’idéal et religieux du Sillon lui tenait profondement au coeur.’ (Marc Sangnier, L’Ame Commune, 16 February 1921).

[29] Comparing the different editions of Vermeesch’s manual, one sees a definite development in the methods in use in the study circles, which seems to be due at least in part to the spread of sillonnist concepts (Vermeesch 1908: 51).

[30] These annual sessions organised by Harmel aimed to give both practical and doctrinal formation based on the Church’s social teachings.  It seems highly significant that the Sillon’s initial period of development from the Crypt took place in 1897-98, i.e. shortly after the participation of Sangnier and other key members of the Crypt in Harmel’s session of summer 1897.

[31] The Sillon du Nord was one of the strongest of the provincial Sillons (Caron 1967). Some groups were so close to the border that they could have had members from both sides, e.g. at Comines (Cf. Mielke 1993: 10).