The Sillon and the International YCW



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. Emile Poulat believes that there were in fact many examples of former sillonnist priests helping the YCW (Poulat in Delbreil 1997: 219). 

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’ (‘the unity of life that the jocist movement gives to the young worker’) in the Sillon, this experience certainly prepared him for the discovery of the YCW with Cardijn. 

Georges Guérin with Cardijn in the 1930s 

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). 

‘On the desk of Tonnet, neighbouring that of Cardijn, I noticed with astonishment a photograph of Marc Sangnier. Tonnet sought his inspiration in the publications of the Sillon. That seemed to me to be a good sign and we quickly became friends.’ 

A photo of Marc Sangnier, 

perhaps similar to the one

on Fernand Tonnet’s desk 

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’ (baptism of 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 (Cf. Debes and Poulat 1986: 15). 

This sillonnist filiation of the YCW and other youth movements was well recognised at least until the 1930s. Cardinal Verdier would recall this specifically in 1931, writing to the Sillon catholique which succeeded the Sillon after 1910: 

‘Le Sillon est à l’origine du grand mouvement social contemporain. Il a été le premier mouvement de cet esprit démocratique chrétien qui se répand partout aujourd’hui. 

Il est bon que, sillonnistes catholiques, vous en conserviez la source.’ 

… C’est en fait le Sillon qui a donné le branle à toutes les initiatives de jeunes nées depuis.’ (Cited in Pezet: 191) 

(‘The Sillon is at the origin of the great contemporary social movement. It was the first movement with that Christian democratic spirit which is developing everywhere today. 

It is right that you, Catholic sillonnists, guard the source. 

It was in fact the Sillon which set in motion all the youth initiatives which have been born since.’) 

And at the famous 10th anniversary rally of the French YCW in 1937 at the Parc-des-Princes in Paris before a crowd of 70,000 young workers, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Pierre-Marie Gerlier of Lyon, upon seeing Marc Sangnier, congratulated him emotionally with the words: ‘Soyez heureux ce soir, Marc, car vous êtes l’un des grands ouvriers de la merveille que nous venons de voir’ (MBM 1973: 283) (‘Be happy this evening, Marc, because you are one of the great workers of the marvel that we have just seen’). Coming from Gerlier who had been president of the rival ACJF at the time of Pius X’s 1910 letter, this was a particularly meaningful tribute. 

‘Be happy tonight, Marc, because you are one of the great workers of the marvel that we’ve just seen.’ — Pierre Gerlier to Marc Sangnier at the 10th anniversary rally of the French YCW at Parc des Princes 1937. 

Finally, let us mention Henri Colas, songwriter to the Sillon, who would later also write an early song Jociste, où vas-tu for the French YCW which he dedicated ‘aux chers abbés Cardijn et Guérin’ (‘to dear Frs Cardijn and Guérin’) (Caron, undated: Henri Colas, 83-84) 


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. Fr Beaupin in fact visited the Belgian YCW office on one of his periodic visits to Belgium where the YCW personnel (Cardijn, Fr Kothen and ‘their young friends’) specifically asked him to help in the promotion of the movement (Amitiés Catholiques Françaises, avril 1933). 


In the light of all these events,we are entitled to ask whether it was merely chance that the YCW chose to open its first International Congress in Brussels on 25 August 1935 — the 25th anniversary of Pope Pius X’s encyclical against the Sillon. 

To answer this question, we need to remember Fernand Tonnet and the blessing of the flags at Quiévrain in 1912. We need to be aware of the date – 25 August 1926 – chosen for the letter of Cardinal Andrieux in 1926 in which he condemned the Action Française (Réponse de S.E. le Cardinal-archevêque de Bordeaux à une question posée par un groupe de jeunes catholiques au sujet de l’ “Action française”, cf. L’Action française et le Vatican, Préface de Charles Maurras et Léon Daudet, Flammarion, Paris, 1927 at p. 21). In general, we need to be aware of how deeply the memory of the condemnation of the Sillon was etched into the collective memory of those who lived that experience. 

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. 

In addition, there can be no doubt that Pius XI himself fully understood the significance of the date. The fact that he chose to send his 19 August 1935 Lettre Autographe to Cardinal Van Roey for this event, a letter which I believe forms the basis of the canonical status of the IYCW, is of crucial importance. In a sense, this letter marks the rehabilitation of the sillonnist project as reinterpreted by Cardijn and the YCW. 

Moreover, the choice of this date for the 1935 was like a coded signal, a call to arms, to all those who had lived through the experience of the condemnation. It meant that they could now officially and publicly recommence the work suspended on 25 August 1910. 

To me the date also has a kind of spiritual meaning as well, which I believe was shared by Cardijn and no doubt others as well. In many ways, it was the ‘condemnation’ 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 Abrahamic faithfulness of the Sillon. Secondly, the disappearance of the Sillon had the effect of creating a demand for a successor, a demand to which the YCW was able to respond (Note 33). Thirdly, it gave Cardijn the chance to have a fresh start, free from the controversies which engulfed the Sillon towards 1910. For these reasons, I believe that Cardijn probably felt that the condemnation and submission of the Sillon providentially opened the way for the YCW — the new purified movement that Henry du Roure had prophesied. Choosing the date of 25 August to celebrate as the foundation day of the IYCW pays eloquent testimony to that debt. 

25 August 1935 – 25th anniversary of the closure of the Sillon. 

Note also the YCW emblem originally designed in 1912 by the Benedictine monk, Fr Anselme Veys OSB at the request, ironically enough of Fr Abel Brohée (Cardijn AC: 206), which incorporates, whether by chance or design, the Sillon’s own emblem of a sheaf of wheat combined with the crusader cross symbol of the Jeune Garde. This may also explain why the YCW was later happy to adopt as its own the emblem of Fr Brohée’s ACJB. 

Sheaf of Wheat Emblem of the Sillon 



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 book Laïcs en premières lignes (Laymen into Action), which is a collection of his main articles dating from the 1930s to the 1960s, we find a number of articles which seem to be inspired by sillonnist sources. 

The article Le laïcat (The Laity), 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’ (‘is exercised on lay terrain’) (Cousin 1906: 54) coincides precisely with Cardijn’s later insistence on the ‘apostolat laïc, propre aux laïcs’ (‘lay apostolate, proper to lay people’) . Even Cardijn’s insistence 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. 


(33) It is also very significant that the French jurist, Maurice Hauriou, who was close to the sillonnists, had developed a theory of social change in his book La Science Sociale Traditionnelle in which he postulated the need of ‘sacrifice’ as necessary for social ‘salvation’ (Hauriou 1896). This book was undoubtedly known to the sillonnists, especially to their counsellor, Louis Cousin, who seems to have perhaps known Hauriou. Henry du Roure’s anticipation in 1910 of a new movement to be born from the Sillon is a perfect example of this attitude.