He is an old man, nearly seventy, with thin, grayish-white hair. He is
very tall, as was Abraham Lincoln, nearly six feet and six inches. He
is thin, with deep-set, jet-black eyes, and thin, almost bloodless
He is a symbol of oppressed Belgium,--frail in body, lacking great
physical strength, but standing tall and erect with flashing eyes;
unconquerable because of his unconquerable soul.
The spirit of such men as he, and of such nations as his beloved
Belgium, is well expressed in Henley's now famous "Invictus."
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
* * * * *
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.
Amidst all the horrible deeds committed by the Germans in Belgium,
Cardinal Mercier has spoken the truth publicly and fearlessly. His
unconquerable soul seems to have protected his frail body. He is one of
the great heroes of brave, suffering Belgium--a hero who carries
neither sword nor gun; but his courage might be envied by every soldier
on the field of battle, and his judgment by every commander directing
The Germans seemed to fear him from the first. General von Bissing, who
was the German Governor of invaded Belgium, wrote to Cardinal Mercier,
after the Cardinal's Easter letter to the oppressed Belgians appeared,
and called him to account, suggesting what might happen to him if he
did not cease his attacks upon the Germans and German methods.
The Cardinal replied that he would never surrender his liberty of
judgment and that, whenever the orders and laws of the Germans were in
conflict with the laws of God, he would follow the latter and advise
his people to do the same.
"We render unto CÃ¦sar the things that are CÃ¦sar's," he wrote, "for we
pay you the silent dread of your strength, but we keep, sacred in our
hearts and free from your orders, our ideas of right and wrong.
"It was not without careful thought that we denounced to the world the
evils you have done to our brothers and sisters--frightful evils and
horrible crimes, the tragic horror of which cold reason refuses to
"But had we not done so, we should have felt ourselves unworthy of our
"As a Belgian, we have heard the cries of sorrow of our people; as a
patriot, we have sought to heal the wounds of our country; and as a
bishop, we have denounced the crimes against innocent priests."
They deprived him of his automobile, with which he used to hasten to
all parts of Belgium to assist and comfort sufferers from German
tyranny and torture. They ordered him to remain in his residence.
As a part of his church duty, he wished to go to Brussels to celebrate
high mass. He applied for a pass which would allow him to go by train
or trolley. An excuse was invented for refusing it. Then the Cardinal
sent word to the Commandant that he must go and that he would walk. Two
hours afterward he left his residence on foot, accompanied by two or
three priests, and started on his walk of fifteen or more miles to
Men, women, and children, and priests from every part of the city
crowded about him and followed him, till he reached the German
sentries, who stopped the crowd and demanded where they were going.
The Cardinal showed his Ausweiss, an identification card which every
Belgian must carry, and he was allowed to proceed with two priests for
companions. The other priests demanded the right to go on, and a heated
dispute arose between them and the sentries. One of the priests lost
his temper and forgot himself so far that he began to beat one of the
sentries with his umbrella. The other sentry called for help, and the
crowd was soon dispersed. The angry priest was put under arrest and led
off to the guardhouse.
The Cardinal had gone on but a short way when the uproar behind him
caused him to stop and look back at what was happening. When he saw the
priest led off by the soldiers, he and his companions turned back and
followed the soldiers to the little guardhouse. He walked directly in,
looking neither to the right nor the left, standing a head above the
rest of the crowd. He fixed his piercing black eyes upon the eyes of
the priest; then he beckoned him to come and turned and walked out,
followed by the priest.
The soldiers made no attempt to stop them. They seemed to recognize an
authority that they could not help obeying, even though they did not
want to. The Cardinal accompanied by the three priests went on down the
road and out of Malines towards Brussels. They walked about half way
to the city and then took the trolleys.
In speaking of the Germans, the Cardinal is reported to have said,
"They are so stupid, these Germans! Sometimes I feel that they are like
silly, cruel children, and that I should do something to help them."
He loves America and the Americans and is grateful for all that the
United States have done for his suffering people. He told one of his
fellow-workers who had become discouraged, "If you follow a great
Captain, as I do, you will never be discouraged."
In him martyred Belgium has found a voice heard round the world. He has
never ceased to denounce the atrocious crimes of the German masters of
his country and he has continually sought to comfort and cheer his
unhappy people. He sees far, and so he sees clearly the power outside
ourselves that finally brings to Right the victory over Might. His
Pastoral Letter, Christmas, 1914, will never be forgotten nor will the
words of cheer to his suffering people when he reminds them of the
greatest truth of life, that only through sacrifice and suffering come
the things best worth while. His statement in letters to the German
Commandant of the facts concerning the deportation of Belgians into
Germany, to work as virtual slaves, will forever form part of the
records of history's blackest deeds.
This Pastoral Letter of Christmas, 1914, is in part as follows:
It was in Rome itself that I received the tidings--stroke after
stroke--of the destruction of the church of Louvain, of the
burning of the Library and of the scientific laboratories of our
great University and of the devastation of the city, and next of
the wholesale shooting of citizens, and tortures inflicted upon
women and children, and upon unarmed and undefended men. And
while I was still under the shock of these calamities, the
telegraph brought us news of the bombardment of our beautiful
metropolitan church, of the church of Notre Dame, of the
episcopal palace, and of a great part of our dear city of
Afar, without means of communication with you, I was compelled
to lock my grief within my own afflicted heart, and to carry it,
with the thought of you, which never left me, to my God.
I needed courage and light, and sought them in such thoughts as
these. A disaster has come upon the world, and our beloved
little Belgium, a nation so faithful in the great mass of her
population to God, so upright in her patriotism, so noble in her
King and Government, is the first sufferer. She bleeds; her sons
are stricken down, within her fortresses, and upon her fields,
in defense of her rights and of her territory. Soon there will
not be one Belgian family not in mourning. Why all this sorrow,
my God? Lord, Lord, hast Thou forsaken us?
The truth is that no disaster on earth is as terrible as that
which our sins provoke.
I summon you to face what has befallen us, and to speak to you
simply and directly of what is your duty, and of what may be
your hope. That duty I shall express in two words: Patriotism
When, on my return from Rome, I went to Havre to greet our
Belgian, French, and English wounded; when, later at Malines, at
Louvain, at Antwerp, it was given to me to take the hands of
those brave men who carried a bullet in their flesh, a wound on
their forehead, because they had marched to the attack of the
enemy, or borne the shock of his onslaught, it was a word of
gratitude to them that rose to my lips. "O brave friends," I
said, "it was for us, it was for each one of us, it was for me,
that you risked your lives and are now in pain. I am moved to
tell you of my respect, of my thankfulness, to assure you that
the whole nation knows how much she is in debt to you."
For in truth our soldiers are our saviors.
A first time, at LiÃ©ge, they saved France; a second time, in
Flanders, they halted the advance of the enemy upon Calais.
France and England know it; and Belgium stands before them both,
and before the entire world, as a nation of heroes. Never before
in my whole life did I feel so proud to be a Belgian as when, on
the platforms of French stations, and halting a while in Paris,
and visiting London, I was witness of the enthusiastic
admiration our allies feel for the heroism of our army. Our King
is, in the esteem of all, at the very summit of the moral scale;
he is doubtless the only man who does not recognize that fact,
as, simple as the simplest of his soldiers, he stands in the
trenches and puts new courage, by the calmness of his face, into
the hearts of those of whom he requires that they shall not
doubt of their country. The foremost duty of every Belgian
citizen at this hour is gratitude to the army.
If any man had rescued you from shipwreck or from a fire, you
would hold yourselves bound to him by a debt of everlasting
thankfulness. But it is not one man, it is two hundred and fifty
thousand men who fought, who suffered, who fell for you so that
you might be free, so that Belgium might keep her independence,
so that after battle, she might rise nobler, purer, more erect,
and more glorious than before.
Pray daily, my Brethren, for these two hundred and fifty
thousand, and for their leaders to victory; pray for our
brothers in arms; pray for the fallen; pray for those who are
still engaged; pray for the recruits who are making ready for
the fight to come.
Better than any other man, perhaps, do I know what our unhappy
country has undergone. Nor will any Belgian, I trust, doubt of
what I suffer in my soul, as a citizen and as a Bishop, in
sympathy with all this sorrow. These last four months have
seemed to me age-long. By thousands have our brave ones been
mown down; wives, mothers are weeping for those they shall not
see again; hearths are desolate; dire poverty spreads, anguish
increases. At Malines, at Antwerp, the people of two great
cities have been given over, the one for six hours, the other
for thirty-four hours of a continuous bombardment, to the throes
of death. I have passed through the greater part of the most
terribly devastated districts and the ruins I beheld, and the
ashes, were more dreadful than I, prepared by the saddest of
forebodings, could have imagined. Other parts which I have not
yet had time to visit have in like manner been laid waste.
Churches, schools, asylums, hospitals, convents in great
numbers, are in ruins. Entire villages have all but disappeared.
At Werchter-Wackerzeel, for instance, out of three hundred and
eighty homes, a hundred and thirty remain; at Tremeloo two
thirds of the village are overthrown; at Bueken out of a hundred
houses, twenty are standing; at Schaffen one hundred and
eighty-nine houses out of two hundred are destroyed--eleven
still stand. At Louvain the third part of the buildings are
down; one thousand and seventy-four dwellings have disappeared;
on the town land and in the suburbs, one thousand eight hundred
and twenty-three houses have been burnt.
In this dear city of Louvain, perpetually in my thoughts, the
magnificent church of St. Peter will never recover its former
splendor. The ancient college of St. Ives, the art-schools, the
consular and commercial schools of the University, the old
markets, our rich library with its collections, its unique and
unpublished manuscripts, its archives, its gallery of great
portraits of illustrious rectors, chancellors, professors,
dating from the time of its foundation, which preserved for
masters and students alike a noble tradition and were an
incitement in their studies--all this accumulation of
intellectual, of historic, and of artistic riches, the fruit of
the labors of five centuries--all is reduced to dust.
Thousands of Belgian citizens have in like manner been deported
to the prisons of Germany, to MÃ¼nsterlagen, to Celle, to
Magdeburg. At MÃ¼nsterlagen alone three thousand one hundred
civil prisoners were numbered. History will tell of the physical
and moral torments of their long martyrdom. Hundreds of innocent
men were shot. I possess no complete list, but I know that there
were ninety-one shot at Aerschot, and that there, under pain of
death, their fellow citizens were compelled to dig their graves.
In the Louvain group of communes one hundred and seventy-six
persons, men and women, old men and babies, rich and poor, in
health and sickness, were shot or burnt.
In my diocese alone I know that thirteen priests were put to
death. One of these, the parish priest of Gelrode, suffered, I
believe, a veritable martyrdom.
We can neither number our dead nor compute the measure of our
ruins. And what would it be if we turned our sad steps towards
LiÃ©ge, Namur, Andenne, Dinant, Tamines, Charleroi, and
And where lives were not taken, and where buildings were not
thrown down, what anguish unrevealed! Families, hitherto living
at ease, now in bitter want; all commerce at an end, all careers
ruined; industry at a standstill; thousands upon thousands of
workingmen without employment; working-women, shop-girls, humble
servant-girls without the means of earning their bread; and poor
souls forlorn on the bed of sickness and fever, crying, "O Lord,
how long, how long?"
How long, O Lord, they wondered, how long wilt Thou suffer the
pride of this iniquity? Or wilt Thou finally justify the impious
opinion that Thou carest no more for the work of Thy hands? A
shock from a thunderbolt, and behold all human foresight is set
at naught. Europe trembles upon the brink of destruction.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Many are the thoughts that throng the breast of man to-day, and
the chief of them all is this: God reveals Himself as the
Master. The nations that made the attack, and the nations that
are warring in self-defense, alike confess themselves to be in
the hand of Him without whom nothing is made, nothing is done.
Men long unaccustomed to prayer are turning again to God. Within
the army, within the civil world, in public, and within the
individual conscience, there is prayer. Nor is that prayer
to-day a word learnt by rote, uttered lightly by the lip; it
surges from the troubled heart, it takes the form, at the feet
of God, of the very sacrifice of life.
God will save Belgium, my Brethren, you cannot doubt it.
Nay, rather, He is saving her.
Across the smoke of conflagration, across the stream of blood,
have you not glimpses, do you not perceive signs, of His love
for us? Is there a patriot among us who does not know that
Belgium has grown great? Nay, which of us would have the heart
to cancel this last page of our national history? Which of us
does not exult in the brightness of the glory of this shattered
nation? Let us acknowledge that we needed a lesson in
patriotism. There were Belgians, and many such, who wasted their
time and their talents in futile quarrels of class with class,
of race with race, of passion with personal passion.
Yet when, on the second of August, a mighty foreign power,
confident in its own strength and defiant of the faith of
treaties, dared to threaten us in our independence, then did all
Belgians, without difference of party, or of condition, or of
origin, rise up as one man, [close-ranged] about their own king
and their own government, and cry to the invader: "Thou shalt
At once, instantly, we were conscious of our own patriotism. For
down within us all is something deeper than personal interests,
than personal kinships, than party feeling, and this is the need
and the will to devote ourselves to that more general interest
which Rome called the public thing, Res publica. And this
profound will within us is Patriotism.
Our country is not a mere gathering of persons or of families
dwelling on the same soil, having amongst themselves relations,
more or less intimate, of business, of neighborhood, of a
community of memories, happy or unhappy. Not so; it is an
association of living souls to be defended and safeguarded at
all costs, even the cost of blood, under the leadership of those
presiding over its fortunes. And it is because of this general
spirit that the people of a country live a common life in the
present, through the past, through the aspirations, the hopes,
the confidence in a life to come, which they share together.
Patriotism, an internal principle of order and of unity, an
organic bond of the members of a nation, was placed by the
finest thinkers of Greece and Rome at the head of the natural
We may now say, my Brethren, without unworthy pride, that our
little Belgium has taken a foremost place in the esteem of
nations. I am aware that certain onlookers, notably in Italy and
in Holland, have asked how it could be necessary to expose this
country to so immense a loss of wealth and of life, and whether
a verbal manifesto against hostile aggression, or a single
cannon-shot on the frontier, would not have served the purpose
of protest. But assuredly all men of good feeling will be with
us in our rejection of these paltry counsels.
On the 19th of April, 1839, a treaty was signed in London, by
King Leopold, in the name of Belgium on the one part, and by the
Emperor of Austria, the King of France, the Queen of England,
the King of Prussia, and the Emperor of Russia on the other; and
its seventh article decreed that Belgium should form a separate
and perpetually neutral State, and should be held to the
observance of this neutrality in regard to all other States. The
signers promised, for themselves and their successors, upon
their oaths, to fulfill and to observe that treaty in every
point and every article. Belgium was thus bound in honor to
defend her own independence. She kept her oath. The other Powers
were bound to respect and to protect her neutrality. Germany
violated her oath; England kept hers.
These are the facts.
The laws of conscience are sovereign laws. We should have acted
unworthily had we evaded our obligation by a mere feint of
resistance. And now we would not change our first resolution; we
exult in it. Being called upon to write a most solemn page in
the history of our country, we resolved that it should be also a
sincere, also a glorious page. And as long as we are required to
give proof of endurance, so long we shall endure.
All classes of our citizens have devoted their sons to the
cause of their country; but the poorer part of the population
have set the noblest example, for they have suffered also
privation, cold, and famine. If I may judge of the general
feeling from what I have witnessed in the humbler quarters of
Malines, and in the most cruelly afflicted districts of my
diocese, the people are energetic in their endurance. They look
to be righted; they will not hear of surrender.
The sole lawful authority in Belgium is that of our King, of the
elected representatives of the nation. This authority alone has
a right to our affection, our submission.
Occupied provinces are not conquered provinces. Belgium is no
more a German province than Galicia is a Russian province.
Nevertheless the occupied portion of our country is in a
position it is compelled to endure. The greater part of our
towns, having surrendered to the enemy on conditions, are bound
to observe those conditions. From the outset of military
operations, the civil authorities of the country urged upon all
private persons the necessity of avoiding hostile acts against
the enemy's army. That instruction remains in force. It is our
army, and our army solely, in league with the brave troops of
our Allies, that has the honor and the duty of national defense.
Let us intrust the army with our final deliverance.
Towards the persons of those who are holding dominion among us
by military force, and who cannot but know of the energy with
which we have defended, and are still defending, our
independence, let us conduct ourselves with all needful
forbearance. Let us observe the rules they have laid upon us so
long as those rules do not violate our personal liberty, nor our
consciences, nor our duty to our country. Let us not take
bravado for courage, nor tumult for bravery.
Our distress has moved the other nations. England, Ireland, and
Scotland; France, Holland, the United States, Canada, have vied
with each other in generosity for our relief. It is a spectacle
at once most mournful and most noble. Here again is a revelation
of the Providential Wisdom which draws good from evil. In your
name, my Brethren, and in my own, I offer to the governments and
the nations that have succored us the assurance of our
admiration and our gratitude.
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.... Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY.