Thursday, May 13, 2010

Catholic Monarchs in a Secular State

Belgium is not a confessional state, and her monarchs are inaugurated, without the blessing of the Church, in a purely civil swearing-in ceremony. All notions of divine right of kings are rejected by a system according to which kings rule by the people's will. The history of strife between Catholics and Liberals, and the fact that the Belgian constitution requires the sovereign to remain above political and religious parties, mean that Belgian monarchs have been obliged to exercise a certain caution in public manifestations of piety. In Le Roi Albert et les missions (1935), for example, Joseph Masson, S.J. describes the faith of Albert I as a "hidden river," working in discreet ways, due to the restraints imposed by his public function. Years after his abdication, in an interview accorded to Gilbert Kirschen, and transcribed in L'education d'un prince (1984), Leopold III even asserted that his own public function had been totally estranged from his religion. The crisis of conscience faced by Baudouin I, enjoined by "regal duty" to sign an abortion law which violated his most sacred religious and moral principles, is well known.

Yet, as I have tried to illustrate on this blog, the Catholic faith has played an important role in the personal lives (if not the political lives) of many members of the royal family. After the First World War, the Belgian royal family was one of the few Catholic reigning houses left in Europe. Ironically enough, it was also one of the most recent Catholic royal houses, and one revolutionary in its origins. To commemorate the piety of a number of Belgium's past kings, queens, princes and princesses, I have gathered a few photographs of important religious occasions in their lives.

Here is an image of the First Communion of Princess Marie-José, the only daughter of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, and the future Queen of Italy. Despite the malicious claim of Flemish separatist Paul Belien, in his venomous book, A Throne in Brussels (2005), that Albert and Elisabeth gave their children "no religious instruction"(p. 147), the King, a man of profound faith, actually took great pains to inculcate a noble and thoughtful piety in his children. In her memoirs, Marie-José relates, in touching terms, that her father, amidst the pressures and preoccupations of the First World War, nonetheless found time to instruct her personally in the catechism, prior to her First Communion. "Prepare yourself with care for your First Communion, it is a great day of your life. I still remember my First Communion as a happy event in my life, " he had written to his 10-year-old daughter, at convent school in Brentwood. The ceremony took place on August 15, 1916, in the church of Vinckem, where Marie-José's mother had opened a school for soldiers' children.
Below is a baptismal photograph of Albert, Prince of Liège, the second son of King Leopold III and Queen Astrid, and the present King of the Belgians. In 1930, four years before Albert's birth, his mother, a Swedish princess raised as a Lutheran, had converted to Catholicism out of genuine conviction. "I am glad, very glad," her father-in-law, King Albert I, had repeated, on the day she was received into the Faith, "now all the family is united in the same religion" (quoted by Charles d'Ydewalle in Albert and the Belgians: Portrait of a King, 2005, p. 259). This image seems to exemplify this unity of faith...
And here is the First Communion of Princess Josephine-Charlotte, the daughter of Leopold and Astrid, in gloomier times. By now, her mother had died tragically in a car crash. I am not entirely sure when the ceremony took place, but it was either during or shortly before World War II and the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Can anyone clarify the exact date? In any case, it was a grim moment. Leopold looks so sad in this picture, but I think Josephine-Charlotte is beautiful.
Last but not least, we have the First Communion and Confirmation of Princess Marie-Christine, the eldest daughter of King Leopold III and his second wife, the much-maligned Princess Lilian. Bishop Fulton Sheen of New York officiated at the ceremony, which took place on May 9, 1962. As I look at this picture, I cannot help but think how sad it is that Marie-Christine became alienated from her faith and family.

1 comment:

MadMonarchist said...

I have always been very impressed by the deep faith of the Belgian monarchy. One thing I look to is what happens in the times of greatest crisis for the Church -who steps up? When the states of the Church were under attack in Italy one of the largest groups of volunteers for the Papal Zouaves was the Belgians and one of my favorite papal tiaras was the one donated to Pope Pius IX by the Belgian court during his darkest hour. It was a moving way of saying, 'you're temporal power may have been taken from your spiritual authority is untouched and we are with you!'