Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Social Reforms of Queen Astrid

Königin Astrid von Belgien, Queen of Belgium
In Astrid:1905-1935, a collection of essays edited by Christian Koninckx, Louise-Marie Libert-Vandenhove gives an interesting description of the young Queen's engagement in social causes (see especially pp. 103-115). Astrid took a special interest in the improvement of conditions for women and children. Although she was no militant suffragette, she contributed to the movement for greater freedom and independence for women in her own discreet, delicate and non-confrontational way. She was a reformer, not a revolutionary.

Libert-Vandenhove describes the difficult conditions for women, particularly those of the poorer classes, at the time Astrid arrived in Belgium. The more traditionally minded strata of society simply expected women to be content with their lot as wives and mothers, legally and politically subordinate to men, forever minors in law, ineligible to vote or run for office in national elections. The universities of Brussels, Ghent and Liège only opened their doors to women in the 1880's. At the dawn of the twentieth century, it was still quite hard for girls to pursue higher education or an interesting profession outside the home. 

Even at the outset of World War I, as Dr. Patrick Loodts has noted on his wonderful website, Médecins de la Grande Guerre, nursing as a career was still in its infancy in Belgium as it was considered scandalous for women to provide physical care to men outside their families. The Catholic University of Louvain only began admitting female students in 1920, just six years before Astrid's marriage to the heir to the Belgian throne. A emerging feminist movement had been gaining strength since the return of peace, but it was still widely frowned upon.

Many children were also suffering, particularly among the financially disadvantaged. A doting mother herself, Astrid was clearly distressed by the poor living conditions and high mortality rates of many infants and children, not only in Belgium but in the Belgian Congo and the Far East. In her memoirs, her friend Anna Sparre describes the heartfelt letters, discussing the topic, that the Queen sent her during her visits to Singapore in 1932 and the Congo in 1933

Although not particularly an intellectual woman, Libert-Vandenhove observes, Astrid was gifted with intelligence, realism and intuition. (Her husband's second wife, Princess Lilian, with her passionate interests in science, history, literature and philosophy, her creation of a kind of cultural salon at Argenteuil, was much more of a real intellectual, I always think). Above all, Astrid was blessed with a kind, gentle, sensitive disposition. These qualities, I believe, enabled her to maintain a delicate balance in promoting social change without trying to tear society apart. Aside from the fact that espousing radical feminism would have been politically disastrous for the Queen, it would simply never have occurred to her to encourage Belgian women to throw off their role as wives and mothers. She herself was first and foremost a loving wife and mother. She sought, however, to render women's lives as wives and mothers fruitful rather than oppressive. 

As Libert-Vandenhove describes in detail, Astrid was always a gracious patroness of causes promoting the good of women along with the good of their children. She was particularly interested in training women formally in childrearing and healthcare, as she herself had been trained as a young princess in Sweden. These programs had the double benefit of improving children's health while offering women better career opportunities. Astrid also tried to further the education of women in other fields. With her love of fashion, for example, she supported the training of young girls as dressmakers. A sincerely religious lady, she tended to favor Catholic charitable institutions, such as the professional school for girls run by the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul. At the same time, she was open-minded enough to support, in addition, some more liberal organizations, such as the non-sectarian Fédération des Foyers Belges. She gave audiences to advocates of women's rights such as Baroness Boël, President of the National Council of Belgian Women. 

Astrid's concern for the vulnerable was deep and intense. She appeared at so many events in support of so many causes that it might seem that her involvement must have been superficial, merely a matter of protocol. Such a notion would be far from the truth. In fact, the Queen's interest moved her to insist personally on in-depth investigations of matters close to her heart. In May 1935, for instance, she patronized Milk Week, an effort to encourage Belgians to drink this healthful beverage. She took the opportunity to charge Gatien du Parc, one of her courtiers, with the task of preparing a detailed report on milk regulations in foreign countries. The investigation was extremely painstaking. 

Three months later, Astrid's tragic death in a car accident in Switzerland would deprive her family and nation of her maternal care. We can only guess, but can never know, how her gentle, caring but firm approach to social crises might have alleviated Belgian traumas during World War II and the Royal Question. 

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Queen Who Never Was

Today is the anniversary of the civil wedding of Leopold III and Lilian Baels. The ceremony took place on December 6, 1941, less than three months after the couple's secret, religious wedding in the chapel of Laeken. Lilian was already expecting her first child, Prince Alexandre, who would be born in July, 1942. Leopold and Lilian had reversed the normal order, prescribed by the Belgian Constitution, of the civil and religious wedding ceremonies, and the King would later be severely castigated for this violation of the law. Given the bizarre, difficult circumstances, however, the irregularity was understandable. The King was a prisoner of war; the country was occupied by the Nazis, who might not even permit a royal marriage to take place. The government, whose approval was needed for a dynastic union, was in exile in London. The suffering Belgians might resent their King's idyll. By opting, initially, for a simply sacramental marriage, the couple had hoped to conceal their union until the return of peace. The bride's pregnancy, however, made it impossible. 

Yet, amidst war and occupation, in the government's absence, the King did not think it appropriate to impose a new Queen and new royal heirs upon the country. As Cardinal van Roey, Archbishop of Malines, emphasized in his pastoral letter of December 6, 1941, Lilian herself had renounced the title and rank of Queen. In a similar vein, the King drew up a document, declaring his desire that none of the descendants of his second marriage should have the right to succeed to the throne. By contrast, his new bride and their children should have the right to all of his other ancestral titles; Royal Highness, Prince and Princess of Belgium, Duke and Duchess of Saxony, Prince and Princess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. 

In constitutional terms, however, Leopold and Lilian lacked the authority, on their own, to decide matters of regal status and succession. Accordingly, the King added: "As soon as my liberty as a Sovereign is restored to me, I will ask the Government of the time to realize my intentions legally." Strangely, the King's intentions would not be realized legally for fifty years. During a constitutional revision in 1991, Prime Minister Wilfried Martens would finally clarify the issue, officially stating that the offspring of Leopold and Lilian had no rights to the throne.

After the civil ceremony, the King introduced his three eldest children, Princess Josephine-Charlotte, Prince Baudouin, and Prince Albert to their new step-mother. The children adored the beautiful, clever, vivacious young woman and immediately started calling her maman. By all accounts, it was the beginning of nearly twenty years of a close, tender family life, happily restored after the tragedy of Queen Astrid's death. The Queen Mother, Elisabeth of Bavaria, was also very fond of Lilian.

Outside the gates of Laeken, news of the wedding provoked mixed reactions. Some Belgians reproached Leopold for considering his personal happiness at a time of national disaster, others sympathized with his situation, sending flowers and congratulations to the palace. Unfortunately, however, the marriage would prove to be an important tool in the hands of the King's political opponents, particularly after the war.  Princess Lilian of Belgium was viciously vilified, by politicians and journalists bent upon toppling her husband, as the maleficent beauty behind the throne, as a veritable Whore of Babylon! 

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Berthe Petit

Berthe Petit (1870-1943) was a Belgian Franciscan tertiary, mystic, stigmatist and apostle of devotion to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary. She was born in Enghien, the daughter of pious parents. She was a delicate child, and, throughout her life, suffered many illnesses, causing her to receive the Last Rites seven times. From the age of four, she believed she experienced visions of Christ and the Blessed Mother. These recurred throughout her life, centering on her chief mission- to obtain the consecration of the world to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary. Berthe was always respected by the ecclesiastical authorities. As far as I know, the Church has never found anything contrary to the Catholic Faith in her revelations.

Berthe was born into a family of comfortable means; her father was a prosperous attorney. Deeply devout, Berthe longed to become a Sister of Charity, but it was not to be. During her youth, her father suffered severe financial reversals and Berthe was obliged to work to help support her family. She offered her disappointment as a sacrifice for the sanctification of a priest of God's choice. This proved to be Father Louis Décorsant, a French priest who became one of her spiritual directors and close collaborators.

Berthe's life was marked by physical and spiritual suffering. At the age of 10, after her First Communion, she told her teacher, a nun: "I must suffer a great deal, I must be like Jesus." The nun asked: "who told you that?" The child replied: "the little Host which is my wonderful Jesus." In addition to painful illnesses and accidents, she experienced fears, doubts, perplexities, and diabolical persecution. At one point, during World War I, while praying, she was hurled down a stone staircase by an unseen force, yet her life, miraculously, was saved. She heard hissing in her ear: "I shall fight you to the end, obsessing minds, hardening hearts, feeding passions."

By all accounts, Berthe was a delightful character, combining spiritual fervor and common sense, humble, cheerful, thoughtful, attentive to others, loving and deeply sincere. She was a splendid cook, yet, from the age of 38, lived only on Holy Communion. At one point, when she was lodging in a convent, a nun who shared her room was instructed by her superiors to observe if Berthe took any food in secret. Despite her initial skepticism, she found, after a year's observation, that Berthe really ate nothing, only drinking, in the morning, a cup of coffee (soon rejected), and, in the afternoon, a small glass of wine.

Berthe's revelations often had a political character, dealing with the spiritual dimensions of national and international events. Msgr. Pieraerts, court chaplain during the reign of King Albert I, was one of her spiritual directors and close friends. Berthe reported that Christ requested Belgium's consecration to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart, as a remedy for the country's political and moral ills. Shortly after World War I, according to Berthe, Our Lord made this striking statement:
Internal strife is more rampant than ever in your country. It is being fanned by the evil seeds sown by the invader; it is fed by egoism, pride and jealousy, malevolent germs which can only generate moral ruin. I continue to have pity on a country that defended its honor at the cost of the greatest sacrifices, and on a sovereign faithful to his duty. To save this nation, I have wished, and continue to wish, that it should be solemnly consecrated to the Heart of My Mother....

(The Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary: Messages of Our Lord to Berthe Petit, Franciscan Tertiary, 1870-1943, 2004, p. 51)