Marc Sangnier

Founder of the Sillon

“Marc Sangnier, c’est d’abord, c’est toujours Le Sillon”. Marc Sangnier – first and always the Sillon – so wrote his biographer Madeleine Barthélemy-Madaule. And although Sangnier always rightly rejected the accusation that the Sillon was built around his “personality”, the fact is that he exercised a “prodigious influence” over the whole Sillon generation – as Cardijn himself testified. Born in 1873 into a genuinely devout but liberal Catholic family of the rising “grande bourgeoisie”, Sangnier presents as a prophetic figure virtually from his schooldays.

“Are you ready to give everything to the Cause?” Thus, in the summer of 1888, did he challenge his Stanislas College schoolmate, Paul Renaudin, later a noted writer, and who would be a co-founder in 1894 of the journal Le Sillon from which the movement would take its name.

And, of course, it was Marc Sangnier who gave the lead at every stage of the development of the Sillon from the Crypt at Stanislas College until the final closure of the movement in 1910.

The end of the Sillon did not mark the end of Marc Sangnier’s mission but rather a new beginning. With the explicit approval of Pius X, he went ahead with the publication of the newly launched daily newspaper La Democratie, which lasted until the outbreak of the Great World War in 1914.

Marc Sangnier at work in the old Sillon office

In 1912, Sangnier founded La Jeune République a new movement which continued the work of the Sillon in the political domain. Other initatives followed after the war, most notably the International Democratic Peace Congresses during the 1920s.

Nevertheless, as Madeleine Barthélemy-Madaule reminds us, inside himself Marc Sangnier remained secretly “the man of the lightning-struck Sillon, scarred by an unhealable wound”.

After his death on Pentecost Sunday 1950, his wife Rénée received this remarkable testimony from, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the Nuncio of the Holy See in Paris:

“I first heard Marc Sangnier speak at a meeting of Catholic youth in 1903 or 1904. The wonderful charm of his words and soul exhilarated me. The most vibrant memory of my whole young priesthood is of his personality as well as his political and social action.

His noble and frank humility in accepting late in 1910 the admonishment of Saint Pius X – as affectionate and benevolent as it was – was to my mind the true measure of his greatness.

Souls like his with such a capacity to remain faithful and respectful to both the Gospel and the Holy Church are destined for the highest ascents which ensure glory: the glory of Christ who knows how to exalt the humble, even the glory of the present life before his contemporaries and posterity for whom the example of Marc Sangnier will remain as an example and as an encouragement.”

Now that Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, has become St John XXIII, it seems appropriate to recall that he himself considered Marc Sangnier as, in effect, a saint.