This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marc Sangnier, founder of the French democratic movement, Le Sillon (The Furrow), which so inspired Cardijn and the early YCW.
Today, we have a remarkable testimony to that influence of “Marc” as he was universally known and the wonderful movement he created.
It was written by Georges Montaron, a French YCW leader, who published the Catholic resistance newspaper “Témoignage chrétien” or Christian Witness during World War II.
I didn’t meet Marc SANGNIER until after the war when he was campaigning in Paris’s 3rd District. That was in October 1945. He was seeking election to the National Assembly under the banner of the M.R.P.. But many years before, I had heard of Sangnier of the Sillon (Furrow Movement), of the Auberges (Youth hostels) and the Jeune République (Young Republic). At that time, I was a national YCW leaders and our chaplain, Father Guérin, loved to recall certain episodes which had had a strong impact on his life.
Georges Guérin was still a young worker – around 1907-08, before the First World War – who was involved with an association linked to the Brothers of the Christian Schools when he met several leaders of the Sillon. They included Marcel Poimbœuf, Paul Pariant and Eugène Bernou. By their presence, more than by what they said, those young men were a revelation for Georges Guérin.
“Their faces,” he said, “shone with the presence of He who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
The Christianity that he had learned in catechism was thus not simply an abstract idea but a life capable of transforming other lives. The “formal” Christianity of Georges Guérin was completely overturned. And in 1913 he decided to become a priest.
Concern for the poorest
But the Sillon had conveyed another message to him. Religion and everyday life were not two different worlds. Religion could only be lived in the midst of life. And it was the life of each person, in every aspect, that needed to make known the testimony of the Gospel. Just as he had witnessed Christ in the eyes and in the manner of Marcel Poimboeuf and his friends.
What’s more Marc spoke of the people, the masses, the workers. Whereas the Church seemed primarily concerned with the elites. It preferred to maintain good relations with prominent people. Marc on the other hand cared about the poorest. And he reminded those who came to listen to him that “the emancipation of the proletariat must be the work of the proletariat itself.”
“One of the great architects of this marvel”
Thus, as a seminarian, Georges Guérin, who had been a young worker in a precious metals foundry near Parmentier Square, Paris, declared that he would live out his priesthood at the service of the working class. Inspired by Cardijn, in 1927 he launched the YCW at St Vincent de Paul parish in Clichy where he had been appointed as a curate. This did not please everyone. The parish priest of the neighbouring parish, Notre Dame Auxliatrice, did not want the YCW to spread to his parish
“It’s the Sillon all over again,” he lamented. But the YCW took off nevertheless. Many chaplains had been leaders of the Sillon assisted the new jocist leaders. The triumphal congress of the YCW at the Parc des Princes gathered 70,000 young workers, who were genuine sons and daughters of the proletariat as well as authentic sons and daughters of the Gospel. In their midst, a young jocist who had become a priest celebrated his first mass. Marc Sangnier was there. At his side, Cardinal Gerlier, archbishop of Lyon, leaned towards him and said “Marc, rejoice this evening because you are one of the great architects of this marvel that we have just witnessed.”
It was the YCW that transformed the young worker that I was in a rough area of Paris and who grew up among the workers of Porte de Vanves into the person that I have become.
“I owe him everything”
Fr Guérin believed in the eminent dignity of ordinary workers. He adopted Marc Sangnier’s formula that “there’s something greater in a man than the man himself.” So we sang about our pride in being workers. We dreamed of freeing our brothers from the oppression they suffered. We discovered that the Gospel was primarily Good News for the poor. And without false modesty, we presented the face of Christ to our comrades.
We had to look for Marc Sangnier during the war. I was one of those national YCW leaders forced to go into hiding. I took part in the Young Christian Combatants of the Resistance. I was publishing the clandestine newspaper, Témoignage chrétien (Christian Witness).” When it reached to Paris, it was only natural that Marc made the printing press of the Démocratie in Boulevard Raspail available to us.
Alas! Charles Geeraert and his friends were soon arrested by the Gestapo. They were to meet death in a concentration camp, as did our first printer from Lyon, Eugène Pons, who had also been a Sillonist.
Once Témoignage chrétien was finally able to be published openly, many former leaders of the Sillon, the Young Republic and Friends of the Youth Hostel Movement subscribed to our journal. Témoignage chrétien regards itself as in the direct line of the Sillon.
Faithful to the Gospel and to the Church
We have always sought to be fully faithful to the Gospel and to the Church. We have always believed in the merits of democracy. We understand that labour, victim of capital, must become the master of capital. We constantly say that there can be no real and profound social and economic liberation without a growing participation of everyone in the management of public affairs. We fight, with the weapons of the spirit, because we first appeal to the conscience of men and what we want with them is to go beyond ourselves together.
On 11 November 1930, Maurice Schumann, who then belonged to the Socialist Party, made a speech to the members of La Jeune République gathered in congress to explain the similarities between Sangnier and Léon Blum.
We are continuing this research. There are countless Christians formed in the spirit of the Sillon, which has not ceased to bear fruit since that evening of 25 August 1910 when some people believed that it had closed its doors forever, who are present in the vast popular current of 10 May that is profoundly renewing France.
The struggles and hopes of the poor
I couldn’t be anywhere but on the left. My working-class past, my action in the YCW, my culture, family and roots mean that I can only flourish on the left. But the Sillon previously, the YCW and the Church of Vatican II have all showed us that we can continue to be Christian while belonging to the left.
And I even think that we are better Christians on the left, with the fights and the hopes of the poor, than in the ranks of the conservatives. Those conservatives on the right, who never ceased to attack Marc Sangnier each time he stood for election. Those conservatives of the right, who have tried to monopolise the Church by hiding the message of the Gospel under a bushel.
The spirit that makes apostles
Not everyone who lives by the spirit of the “Sillon” has the same beliefs. It has even happened that these beliefs are contradictory. Thus, Emilien Amaury had very different political ideas from mine. I was active in La Jeune République. But in 1956, at the time of the Republican Front, the issue of Algeria separated us. And yet, I bear witness to it, our friendship remained strong and deep. And it wasn’t just a romantic friendship. More than once it was very concrete. Thus Emilien Amaury, who was one of our supporters during the war, always found a way to help Témoignage Chrétien when the existence of our newspaper was threatened.
For him as for me, our strength is our friendship and the spirit that brings us together and makes us brothers, largely transcends our temporal options.
And yet this spirit must be embodied since it is what animates each moment of our lives.
For me, the Sillon is first of all a spirit. And what a spirit. The spirit of God himself. The spirit that makes the apostles. This is perhaps why Marc Sangnier died on Pentecost Sunday. So that no one would forget his message. A spirit that needs to be transmitted to all people, whatever their race, nationality or social condition. A spirit that helps them to go beyond themselves.Georges Montaron
A remarkable article on a remarkable man and movement.