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A Giant Among Men

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

One of the benefits of a cold day was that it almost smothered the stench of destruction: parched and sodden beams torn out of homes, barns, mills, churches; human and animal waste in the alleys; death in the fields.


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mercierCardinal Mercier, hero of Belgium
1851-1926

The day was very cold.  The cardinal stooped to hear the voice of a woman wrapped in black and wearing on her feet only the wooden sabots of the poor.  It was not only age and his voluntary privations that bowed his back.  He had to bow: he was six feet ten inches tall.

"Your Eminence," said the woman, "my son Marcel, my only son, has fallen in the trenches along the Yser."

"My dear daughter, I shall pray for him at Mass."

"Thank you," she said, and hesitated, crumpling a rosary between her hands.

"I'm in no hurry," he said.  "God meant for me to be here speaking with you.  Do you need food or shelter?  What can I do for you?"

"No, no, Eminence," she said, though she had not tasted meat in months.  "Marcel was sometimes not the best Catholic.  Oh, he went to Mass, but he was fond of drink, and you know what soldiers are, and — I am afraid."

The cardinal had heard it many times before.  "Daughter," he said, "I do know what soldiers are.  Our soldiers are our saviors.  Our Lord never had a hard word for the soldier, and remember what he said, that greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends.  Marcel has laid down his life for our poor beloved country, our brave and noble Belgium.  He has suffered unto blood.  Can we who honor his heroism doubt that God welcomes him with love?"

Kindness did what sorrow could not.  The woman wept.

"Pray for his soul, but be confident, hope in God.  How powerful is a single perfect act of charity!  In all my life I have never done anything more Christlike than what Marcel has done.  What are sins against that purifying fire?"

Statesman and Patriot

The cardinal sat at his desk. His shelves were stacked with books on chemistry, biology, and physics; volumes from the Fathers and the schoolmen; works of philosophy ancient and modern, in the original languages.  A gilt crucifix hung on the wall.  When the cardinal felt weary or prone to question the providence of God, he regained his soul's peace by meditating upon the wounds of Jesus.

If the tears of mothers and children cannot move you, consider the honor of a man's word, and remember that God watches, and he is just.

"Your Excellency," he wrote, "I thank you for attending to my letter, though I am disappointed in your reply.  You say you want to bind up the wounds of Belgium.  I beg you then to recall the assurances your predecessors gave me, in person and in writing, that no Belgian citizen would be conscripted to assist the German army or set to forced labor.  Yet your soldiers have in one night, without considering the needs of the families, rounded up two thousand Belgian men and boys and transported them to Germany to work in your factories.  If the tears of mothers and children cannot move you, consider the honor of a man's word, and remember that God watches, and he is just.

"You say England has thrust this conscription upon you by her blockade, and you suggest that we blame our ally for our misery.  Surely, your Excellency must see that were it not for the German invasion and occupation of Belgium, we would not now be suffering the "unemployment" you use to justify your actions.  Who but Germany has destroyed our mills, and who but Germany has deprived us of the raw materials our factories need?  Moreover, these "unemployed" men have, by direction of our exiled king and our bishops and priests, obeyed all laws pertaining to public order.  They are not at your charge.  With the help of men from neutral countries, we have kept them and their families from famine.

"Nor is work merely work, as you know.  Every Belgian man in a German factory frees one German man to fight in the army that has ravaged his land and slain his sons and brothers.  War, not the alleviation of hardship in Belgium, is the true reason behind the conscription."

The cardinal laid down his pen and buried his face in his hands.  "I must not hate," he said.  "The baron too is precious in the sight of God.  I must not cringe and beg, but I must not hate.  Nor may I yield.  Right is peace, and right is founded upon order, on justice."

Then he took up the pen once more.

Like a Shepherd

A portly man in his forties stood before the cardinal with bills of lading.  Food shipments had newly arrived at Ostend.  He was a mining engineer and a man of industry.  He got things done.

"We meet in the flesh at last," said the cardinal, rising and taking the younger man by the hand.  "Words cannot express the debt that all of Belgium, Catholic and Protestant, owes to you — hundreds of thousands of human souls, saved from starvation and exposure."

The man flushed.  For his age he had had plenty of adventures, even in wartime — for he was the one man determined to keep his team of Americans and Englishmen and the citizens of Tientsin at the defense of the city during the Boxer Rebellion.  They prevailed.  Yet he was a man of peace, brought up as a Quaker.  He did not fire one shot.

"Your Eminence," said this chief of operations for the relief of Belgium, "we all do what is only our duty.  God will reward us, we know.  But the duty remains, it is pressing, and we must respond." The chief had creases around his eyes; he'd often go several days with only a few hours of sleep.

"They trust you," said the cardinal.  Only someone committed absolutely to neutrality could acquire leave to travel behind the German lines.  God might well employ a Quaker to save Catholics.

"I want you to know where my heart lies," said the man.

"No need," said the cardinal.  "But here," he said, turning toward his desk.  "I have reports from priests in Liege, Charleroi, Leuven, and Toumai.  You'll see that in the country our most pressing need is for grain, and in the cities it is greens and milk."

"I'll arrange the deliveries accordingly.  This last shipment is only three tons, very small, but I have assurances from the United States and from Brazil that much more will soon be on the way."

"Be assured of the eternal gratitude of our people, Mr. Hoover," said the cardinal, "and of my prayers." Then the cardinal and the industrialist shook hands, and each turned again to his wartime tasks.

The Mind's Journey to God

The cardinal stood among the ruined schools of Louvain, where he had taught Thomistic philosophy for so long.  He was the most eminent Catholic philosopher of his generation, wielding the sword of his mind against philosophical errors in the ascendant — the positivism of Auguste Comte, the materialism of Herbert Spencer, the idealism of Immanuel Kant and his followers.  He wrote learnedly on the constitution of the cell, on the nervous system and the organization of the brain, on vegetative and animal life; on the difference between saying that all human knowledge originates in the senses, and saying that man knows nothing whatever of what cannot be sensed.  His intellect was taller than his frame.

He was the most eminent Catholic philosopher of his generation, wielding the sword of his mind against philosophical errors in the ascendant — the positivism of Auguste Comte, the materialism of Herbert Spencer, the idealism of Immanuel Kant and his followers.

The young men waited for him to speak.  These were devout Catholics who knew that the war their brothers were fighting was not the only war; or they were two theaters of the same war — one fought with ideas on behalf of the truth of God and man, and the other with bayonets, grenades, guns, spades, barbed wire, muscle and bone and blood, for the honor and freedom of their Catholic homeland.

"My sons," began Desire Mérciér, Cardinal Archbishop of Malines, "the Lion of Mechlin" in the American press, a man who in insight and charity towered over the cold puritan Wilson, the brutal Bolsheviks, the vindictive Georges Clemenceau, the opportunist Lloyd George — "my sons," he cried, "now above all we need a philosophy that does justice to the intuition that this life is not all there is!  The restless spirits of our youth cry for a wisdom that appeals to all that the mind can know.  The eternal philosophy is the door to that wisdom.  The works of Thomas Aquinas, which I have been blessed to teach for thirty years, are the key to that door.

"The forces of modern inhumanity have battered the walls of our university.  They cannot touch the truth, which remains inviolate and pure, as hard and as brilliant as diamond.  This truth is human too: for we profess Jesus Christ the way, the truth, and the life.

"These walls we will rebuild — no doubt of that.  It is for you to go forth armed with truth into a world that is confused and dispirited, for without truth there is no charity.  My sons," he said, faltering, for the terrible years had taken their toll, "be of good cheer.  Quit yourselves like men, be steadfast, never yield to what is easy and worldly and false.  Then shall Belgium shine in true glory, and our efforts for her will not have been in vain."

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Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: A Giant Among Men." Magnificat (November, 2017).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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