The Sillon and the YCW



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 perhaps a little from 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 (Appendix I). Indeed in 1921, Cardijn went so far as to publicly call Sangnier ‘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’). 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 embrace a movement which had been condemned for virtually ‘denying the divinity of Christ’? 

2. 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 the openings 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 five periods of its history: 

I. Cardijn the young seminarian and student at Louvain, who learns and develops enthusiasm for the apostolic action orientation and methods of the Sillon; 

II. The Laeken beginnings of a young workers movement with Cardijn, Fernand Tonnet and Victoire Cappe, who give the orientation a more specific – specialised – focus on youth and workers, while continuing to develop the sillonnist formation methods in light of this orientation ; 

III. The post-war development of a YCW movement with own specific identity and with its own special relationship with the Church from the Jeunesse Syndicaliste and the young women workers groups of Laeken; 

IV.  The early international development of the YCW up until 1935, including its extension, especially in France and Europe, and in the first International Congress in Brussels in 1935; 

V. The later development of the IYCW, including its doctrine, its structures, its relationship with the Church right up to Rome in 1957, and even in the ideas which Cardijn would defend at the Second Vatican Council. 


Finally, we will see that the sillonnist influence was vital, especially for Cardijn, at every stage of the movement’s development. My conclusion is that this experience was so important in the history of the YCW that the Sillon can be considered as a permanent source of renewal for the movement, a furrow from which the movement needs to germinate and regenerate continually.