Where are the Lions of Yesteryear?

Editor’s Note: I want to thank all of you who have already contributed to our June fund drive, particularly those who made significant donations or set up automatic monthly payments. Really, thanks to everyone, because even modest sums, added together, help us to no small extent. But I also have to say I’m disappointed with the response so far. I’ve heard from far too few of you at a time when we need not only to hold onto our regular supporters but to grow that group significantly. It’s easy to think that things that come free to you via the Internet are virtually an entitlement, like the air we breathe. If TCT were living off the endowment of Catholic universities or grants from large liberal foundations, we probably wouldn’t need your help. But what we do here is part of a larger effort at Catholic self-defense and education, which in our current cultural climate lives – or dies – on the margins of the mainstream. We don’t mind that, even as we aspire to changing that mainstream. But be sure of this, whether we can continue this work or not depends to a large degree on the generosity of our readers. Which means you. Please, if you value what you read here each day, click here. Read what we’re about. And make your contribution to The Catholic Thing today. – Robert Royal

As I write these words, Christians are being butchered by the thousands in the Middle East. One of the pictures is seared into my memory. A group of boys, ten years old or so, is awaiting horror at the hands of their captors for refusing to renounce their Christian faith. One of the boys seated in the foreground, handsome and dark, glares directly into the camera, his jaw set in grave defiance.

He has a boy’s body but a man’s soul. I doubt he is still alive. If I knew his name I would beg his intercession. Maybe I should do so anyway. I might call him Sanctus Ignotus: the Saint Nobody Knows, the saint nobody cared to know. If I had to assign him a name, it would be Leoninus: Young Lion.

I open one of my bound volumes of The Century, from the dreadful war year 1918. It’s hard to describe The Century to people used to Cosmopolitan, Newsweek, and TV Guide. One can get a sense of its intellectual and literary tenor by considering these words, from “The Good Shepherd of Mechlin”:

If Albert of Belgium, the chivalrous prince whose kingdom now consists of a few miles of sand-dunes and blood-stained trenches, has been the Leonidas of his martyred country, Cardinal Mercier has been its Hildebrand. Albert has endowed history and romance with the glamour of another Thermopylae; the Belgian cardinal has recalled to the world those days when a simple monk, lifted to the throne of the fisherman, faced another Emperor of Germany and thundered into his ears the words that make even tyrants tremble.

This describes Désiré-Félicien-François-Joseph Mercier, the great philosopher, archbishop of Mechlin and primate of Belgium.

How to enumerate the reasons why that passage would not now be written, or could not be read intelligibly by most college graduates? A few people, especially after the imaginatively awful movie on the battle in question, might recognize the names of Thermopylae and Leonidas, but how many could tell what the stakes were, or who were the belligerents, or what the war meant for the West and the human race? Not one person in a thousand would make any sense of the rest of it.

When a reporter for the Washington Post feels the need to define the Via Dolorosa, gets it wrong, calls it the Via Della Rosa, as if it were an Italian Way of the Rose, and then says that the words are French – I think we can safely assume that even “the throne of the fisherman” would set him scrambling, let alone that snowy confrontation at the castle of Canossa.

Cardinal Mercier, hero of Belgium [artist unknown]
Cardinal Mercier, hero of Belgium [artist unknown]

But aside from historical knowledge, who would care for chivalry, or for the drama of a courageous and holy monk struggling against an emperor? Who would do anything but snicker at the words of excommunication leveled at Henry IV? Who would want to see the Church victorious in her fight for her liberty, rather than to have her bishops invested by an ambitious worldling? Who could even write the sentences in the epic vein that the inflexible reformer Gregory VII deserves?

And then there’s a reason that has nothing to do with writers or readers.
 Cardinal Mercier never backed down, never betrayed Belgium to her German overlords. He advised his countrymen that “the sole lawful authority in Belgium is that of our King, of our Government, of the elected representatives of the nation. . . .Thus the invader’s acts of public administration have in themselves no authority,” only that which the true authorities might tacitly allow for the public good.

“Occupied provinces,” he said, “are not conquered provinces. Belgium is no more a German province than Galicia is a Russian province.” By the Treaty of London, whose terms Mercier read out to the jaundiced rulers of Europe, Belgium was to form “a perpetually neutral state,” and that meant also giving no quarter to Germans who wished to storm through it to invade France. “Belgium is not a road,” said King Albert.
Then came the atrocities, which the Cardinal never ceased to declare: what was done, when, where, and to whom. To his own people he was a tower of strength and a tireless deliverer of the best consolation, that which the world cannot understand. There was nothing petty or wavering about Mercier. To himself he cried: “Why all this sorrow, my God?”

And then “he lifted the hearts of a profoundly Catholic people to the cross which they knew so well.” Here are his words:

The Christian is the servant of a God who became man in order to suffer and to die. To rebel against pain, to revolt against Providence, because it permits grief and bereavement, is to forget whence we have come, the school in which we have to be taught, the example which each of us carries engraven in the name of a Christian, which each of us honors at his hearth, contemplates at the altar of his prayers, and of which he desires that his tomb, the place of his last sleep, shall bear the sign.

Who speaks now in such a vein? Mercier was a giant among men, standing six-foot-ten in the flesh, and far taller than that in intelligence, wisdom, courage, and fidelity. He loves Belgium better, says the author, “with the crown of thorns upon her brow than in the days of her glory. . . .He has been the good shepherd of his flock, the guardian of his people, the loyal servant of his king.”

And now, as then, but in evils as depressingly absurd and contemptible as they are pervasive, the devil roams about the world as a lion on the prowl, seeking whom to devour. The choice, now as then, is not between compromise and compromise, but between lion and lion. Ask Leoninus, or the great shepherd of Mechlin.


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Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.