Young Cardijn



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 II). The same year Cardijn began to correspond with Fr Paul Six, the Christian Democratic priest from Lille, who was also close to the Sillon (Note 1)(Cardijn 1958: AC 12A). 

Founder of the Sillon, Marc Sangnier, 

studying law at the Ecole Polytechnique 

in Paris around 1896 

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 is even possible that this meeting which occurred two days before the death of Cardijn’s father on 25 May 1903 may have been a factor in his famous ‘vow’ to consecrate his life to the working class (Note 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) 

(‘Oh! You would need to fathom the capacity for love of a virginal heart aged 20 years to understand the explosion of enthusiasm that such reading could inspire in the soul of a young seminarian! ‘) 

Henceforth, Cardijn lists the publications of the Sillon among his primary reading material (Note 3) (Cardijn 1958: AC12A). 


In September 1903, Cardijn entered the Major Seminary of Malines. This was clearly a further avenue of his progressive discovery of the Sillon (Note 4). 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 their later commitments, it also seems reasonable to conclude that the seminary study circle itself already had a somewhat sillonnist orientation (Note 5). 


We find more evidence of the influence of Marc Sangnier 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 had some knowledge of the Sillon, which had a strong influence in legal circles in France and apparently also in Belgium. 

In a letter dated 8 March 1903, Cardijn writes: ‘Le plus grand but de ta vie : Dieu, l’Église, le Peuple’ (Walckiers 1981: 46) — God, the Church, the People — a phrase with a certain sillonnist not to say Lamennaisian ring to it (Note 6). 

Cardijn’s concern for young workers is already vividly present in these letters. Preoccupied about 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 that the Sillon had 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) 

(‘It is certain that my opinion on human liberty, independence, on the will and its possibilities of development, this instinctive and impulsive judgment that I find inside of myself, will find a way of confirming itself and achieving its goal. I also think that this life of apostolate which could happen to me, this great social reconstruction of society by education, collaboration and the teaching of a discipline, of aesthetics and of morality corresponds very well with the goal that I have set myself in my life as a priest: a moral influence by means of love on the intelligence, the will and the heart…’) 

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. Nor is this surprising when we consider that the sources quoted by Cardijn as his primary reading also correspond very closely to the sources upon which the sillonnists also drew (Cardijn, Mes Lectures, 1958). 


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

‘(Mgr 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). 

((‘Archbishop Mercier) has a plan to set up here the complete organisation of the Sillon. All the students in rhetoric will be required to go and seek out the young workers.’) 

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 (Note 7). 

The big question, however, is what became of this project to 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 and the need to combat this. In December 1906, Maurras would launch a public attack on the Sillon in a pamphlet entitled Le Dilemme de Marc Sangnier. 

Since Cardinal Mercier – despite his otherwise progressive reputation – remained a supporter of the Action Française his whole life (Weber 1964: 258), one can pose the question as to whether the emerging anti-Action Française orientation of the Sillon may have been a factor leading 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 

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’ (‘men of action and study’), the need for a ‘méthode pratique’, the ‘formation d’une élite’ (Cf. Autobiographie by Brants cited in Walckiers 1981: 88-90). While these ideas were common in the Catholic social movement, they were most highly developed by the Social Economy study circles promoted by Frédéric Le Play whose ideas were also taken up and developed by the Sillon (Note 8). It is also significant that Brants counted Fr Rutten among his students. 

In 1906-07, the major theme of study was ‘travail à domicile’ (domestic work), 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 issue which seems to interest him most of all is ‘l’immense mouvement d’opinion de toutes les classes et tous les milieux’ (‘the immense movement of opinion in all classes and milieux’) to deal with the social 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’ (Note 9), writing ‘je souffre de voir… qu’ils ne créent pas un mouvement comme le Sillon’ (‘I suffer to see that they don’t start a movement like the 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, would be his visit to France in August 1907, in which he would have the chance to meet several leaders of the Sillon 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 (Note 10). 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 and later a law professor who would write the important book, L’Action catholique specialisée (Bayart 1935). Cardijn was obviously happy with this visit and would 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 (Note 11). During this event, he would have the opportunity to judge a number of key sillonnist personalities (Note 12). 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’. 

(‘pushing minors into politics, limiting the field of action of the Church, unhealthy fear of the encroachment of religious authority’ as well as ‘paradoxical theories, practically scandalous alliances, unconscious but real propagation of the socialist movement, misunderstanding of the danger for certain listeners to hear certain subjects, persecution mania, damning and debilitating effects on certain people both priests and laity.’) 

Mgr Delamaire’s 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…’ 

(‘Let them listen like rank and file soldiers, under enemy fire, to the orders given to them, orders which are in no way wounding to the 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 Louis Cousin’s 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). 

Cardijn’s autographed copy of the Sillon manual, Life and Doctrine of the Sillon 

by Marianist Brother Louis Cousin. 

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’ (‘too many soutanes here and too few or nearly no lay people’) (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’ (‘not to break with episcopal authority but rather to seek an accommodation’) (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 (Note 13), 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) 

(‘Tendentious process, be that as it may; it is no less true that when the Bishop tells you that you do not have the spirit that you ought to have, he has the complete right to tell you so. Tendentious process, so be it, that is to say it is a trial of your own spirit.’) 

To what extent Cardijn also shared such reserves at the time is not clear. However, given his close links with Fr 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) 

(‘And during the Social Week at Amiens at the dinner organised by the Sillon, when I was able to read on the faces of hundreds of Sillonnists the reflection of your thoughts, the echo of each of your feelings, the answer of each one to your appeals, we understood that people could fight against you, and on occasion strike you but that each test no matter how painful it may have been would never be the occasion of death but a source of new inspiration.’) 


1. The Influence of Leon Harmel 

Cardijn would later describe his visit to Léon Harmel’s home at Val-de-Bois as ‘unforgettable’ . 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. 

Leon Harmel 1829-1915 

As mentioned earlier, Harmel, with his summer social retreat programs, 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). 

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’ (‘young lay people and priests’) (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 (Note 14). 

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 suivi sur ce point l’avis réitéré que je lui ai donné, il n’aurait pas eu les graves épreuves qui ont fondus sur lui.’ (‘If Marc Sangnier had followed my repeated advice on this point, he would not have suffered the grave trials which have befallen him.’) (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 (Note 15). 

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 the strengths and weaknesses of Marc Sangnier’s movement. 


1. The Hidden Years at Basse Wavre 

Cardijn had also planned to visit Max Turmann, who was also close to the Sillon, in Fribourg, Switzerland (Note 16). 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 (Note 17)! 

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 Cardijn 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’ (‘certain theories professed by the Sillon, some erroneous, others dangerous’) (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’ (‘of straying from the divinity of our Lord Jesus 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. These groups ‘seront, pour le moment, indépendamment les uns des autres’ (‘will for the moment be independent of each other’) under the name of Sillons catholiques, i.e. without central organisation and under the control of the local bishop, and will abstain from ‘la politique ou l’économie pure’ (‘pure politics or economics’) (AAS 1910: T. II, 607). 

This pontifical document which spelt the end of the Sillon would have an enormous impact on a whole generation of Catholic social activists. The 25 August date would be seared into their spirits, a kind of spiritual mark of Cain for all those who lived that experience. 

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, Angelo Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, later recalled the impact on himself of Sangnier’s humility — ‘la mesure de sa grandeur’ (‘the measure of his greatness’) — 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 condemnation of the Sillon of which I am aware came 10 years later during Sangnier’s 1921 visit to Brussels, where Cardijn stated as quoted earlier: 

‘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) 

(‘We understood that people could fight against you, and on occasion strike you but that each test no matter how painful it may have been would never be the occasion of death but a source of new inspiration.’) 

Moreover, since Cardijn himself had been sanctioned by Mercier, there must have been some consolation for him in seeing the Sillon’s 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 Pope Pius X had requested and perhaps even anticipated. In fact, the motivation of the Holy See seems to have been not 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. Obviously such a decision was not undertaken lightly. On the contrary, as Madeleine Barthélemy-Madaule would later write: 

‘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) 

(‘Behind his good humour and deep joyfulness, in spite of the vitality of his successive creations, the Marc Sangnier whom we knew much later was secretly the man of the lightning-struck Sillon, pierced with an unhealable wound. The unfathomable melancholy of certain of his writings… is the proof of this.’) 

“the Marc Sangnier whom we knew much later

 was secretly the man of the thunder-struck Sillon,

 pierced with an unhealable wound”: 

Madeleine Barthélemy-Madaule 

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) 

(‘Evidently there are accusations in the Pope’s letter which do not concern our true ideas and feelings. But, after all, our mistake was to have let it be understood that we thought like that… But, after all, if you want the good of the Church, you have to want it as she wants it herself.’) 

Speaking of the future of the newspaper, La Démocratie, he would also write to another friend: 

‘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) 

(‘And then, if the newspaper survives, we will still have a task to accomplish and the Sillon, in dying, will have given birth to another movement, purified undoubtedly, but truly powerful.’) 

As we will see, these statements of Henry 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, Sangnier, du Roure and others would devote all their efforts to the running of their newspaper and to the foundation of a political movement, La Jeune République. 


(1) Fr Six’s main lay collaborator was the trade unionist and sillonnist, Jules Decoopman. (Back) 

(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) (Back) 

(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. (Back) 

(4) 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. (Back) 

(5) 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 Congrès International Démocratique de la Paix). (Back) 

(6) ‘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…’ (‘We want to approach the people in order that they participate in the work of renovation that will not happen without them. Christ and the people – these two words could be the motto of the Crypt) (Le Sillon 1898: 714-716). In fact, it is likely that both Cardijn and Sangnier are drawing on the heritage of Félicité de Lamennais. (Back) 

(7) I think that it is very likely that the person responsible for this initiative was the Dominican Father Ceslas Rutten, who later became Cardijn’s superior when he (Cardijn) became director of social work for the Brussels area of the Malines archdiocese in 1915. Fr Rutten also attended the First National Congress of the JOC in April 1925 where he told the young YCW delegates: ‘Vous êtes notre espoir, notre réconfort, notre orgueil. Ce que nous avons pu faire, nous l’avons fait pour vous, vous qui devez creuser le sillon que nous avons tracé dans des terres ingrates.’ (‘You are our hope, our comfort, our pride. What we have been able to do, we have done for you, you who must deepen the furrow (sillon) that we have dug for you in ungrateful soils.’) Here, I believe, Fr Rutten, is making a play on the word sillon or furrow to make a veiled reference to the unsuccessful earlier initiatives to create the Sillon in Belgium. (Back) 

(8) Le Play held an elitist and overtly paternalistic conception of society, as indicated by the subtitle of his great work La Méthode Sociale (Le Play 1879) which classifies his work as an ‘Ouvrage destiné aux classes dirigeantes’ (Study addressed to the ruling classes). For their part the sillonnists adapted this method for use, not by external observers, but by young workers and students reflecting themselves on their own life situation: 

‘Notre manière d’étudier les faits sociaux présente aussi quelquechose de très spécial: toute école sociale doit pratiquer la méthode d’observation et d’expérimentation ; c’est ce que nous faisons, mais dans des conditions qui nous donnent de remarquables avantages. 

‘Quand les disciples de Le Play font la monographie de tel ou tel type d’ouvrier –, certes ils excellent dans ce travail — ils sont forcément dans la position de l’observateur qui étudie un objet placé devant lui, avec lequel il cherche à se mettre dans le plus intime contact ; mais qui, bon gré, mal gré, reste extérieur à lui ; ils ont donc à redouter des causes d’information inexacte et ces causes sont nombreuses aussi bien du côté de l’objet étudié que du côté du sujet qui l’étudie. 

‘Au Sillon, au contraire, la composition de nos groupes fait qu’ils constituent comme un échantillonnage complet de la société tout entière ; le type ouvrier ou intellectuel, prolétaire ou bourgeois que nous étudions est quelqu’un de notre grande famille avec qui la communication d’âme à âme est entière ; de plus ce type se trouve chez nous à plusieurs exemplaires qui se complètent les uns par les autres ; celui d’entre nous qui les étudiera le connaîtra donc à fond ; aucun aspect de leur existence ne lui échappera ; il saura non seulement ce qu’ils sont, mais ce qu’ils pensent, ce qu’ils désirent, ce qu’ils craignent. Dans de telles conditions, l’étude cesse pour ainsi dire d’être de l’observation externe ; elle devient de la conscience. Ceci n’est-il pas très original? N’est-ce pas pour le Sillon considéré comme école, un trait réellement caractéristique?’ (Cousin 1906: 98-99) 

(‘Our way of studying social facts also contains something very special: every social school must practise the method of observation and experimentation; this is what we do but in conditions which provide for us remarkable advantages. 

(‘When the disciples of Le Play write monographs on such or such a kind of worker — and they certainly excel in this kind of work — they are necessarily in the position of the observer who studies the object placed before him, and with whom he seeks to place himself in the most intimate contact; but with which he nevertheless, in spite of all these efforts, still remain outside of him; as a result they need to always be concerned about the many causes of inexact information, both on the side of the object studied and on the side of the subject studying. 

(‘In the Sillon, on the other hand, the composition of our groups is such that they may considered as a kind of a complete sample of the whole of society; the typical worker or intellectual, proletarian or bourgeois is someone of our own great family with whom we are in complete heart to heart communication; moreover there are usually a number of representatives of each type with us so that we have a complete range of personalities; therefore whoever studies each personality will know each person in depth; no aspect of his life will escape notice; the student will know not only who they are, but what they think, what they desire, what they fear. In such conditions, study ceases to be external observation; it becomes consciousness. Isn’t that very original? Isn’t that a real distinguishing mark for the Sillon considered as a school?’ 

In other words, Louis Cousin is claiming that the Sillon is at the origin of a method to be known much later as ‘consciousness raising’! 


(9) He chastises one of his masters, Mgr Simon Deploige as ‘plus dilettante’, a term of real reproach also used by the sillonnists to criticise a certain intellectual current lacking in commitment to action (Walckiers 1981: 104). (Back) 

(10) Cardijn’s copy of Marc Sangnier’s Esprit et Methodes du Sillon, published in 1905, bears the name-stamp of Louis Winnaert. (Back) 

(11) Note that the founders of the French Semaines Sociales included two law professors from Lille, Eugène Duthoit and Adéotat Boissard, who were close to the Sillon, as was another organiser Marius Gonin from Lyon, who had recently split with the Sillon (Caron 1967). (Back) 

(12) 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’ (‘Mr Chenon has given a magnificent synthesis of the influences and theories of the Church on the individual, the family and society’). 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. (Back) 

(13) 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. (Back) 

(14) 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 laïque, de l’élément ecclésiastique et de l’union des deux, sans confusion ni division’ (‘at Val-de-Bois, we were looking for the means of producing the lay-clerical organ resulting from the combination of the lay element and the ecclesiastical element and of the union of the two, without either confusion or division’) (Caron 1967: 68). Harmel had also obtained the approval of Leo XIII for this concept of lay-clerical partnership (Cf. Molette 1968: 179). Let us also add that a similar concept of lay-clerical partnership was also pioneered by the Marianist congregation of priests and brothers who ran the College Stanislas where Marc Sangnier studied and where the embryonic Crypt first began (Caron 1967: 49). 

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). (Back) 

(15) 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. (Back) 

(16) I think that it is probable that Turmann was involved in the branch of the Sillon which existed at Fribourg. (Back) 

(17) 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: 122-132). 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. Moreover, it is likely that Mercier was also concerned about the issues which had so disturbed his Cambrai colleague, Mgr Delamaire.