Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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December 25, 2005
Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

«The proclamation of the Kingdom of God is the proclamation of a God who is present to us, a God Who knows us and listens to us, a God Who enters into history to mete out justice. Therefore, this preaching is also a proclamation of judgment, a proclamation of our responsibility. Man does not have the right to do whatever he pleases. He will be judged. He must render account. This certainty applies to the powerful as to the lowly. When it is recognized, it places limits on all worldly power» (Talk by Cardinal Ratzinger, December 10, 2000). Saint Benedict often recalls in his Rule God's inevitable judgment. This is a salutary thought, conducive to illumining our hearts and guiding our lives. The King of Belgium, Baudouin I, had faith in this fundamental truth. After refusing to sign the law on abortion passed by Parliament, he wrote in his diary, «I have set off alone, with my conscience and God.»

Baudouin was born on September 7, 1930, the second child of Leopold, who would become king in 1934, and his wife, Astrid of Sweden. On August 29, 1935, Queen Astrid died in a car accident. Baudouin was deeply marked by this loss—he would always keep a photo of his mother on his bedside table. Leopold III entrusted the upbringing of his three children (Josephine-Charlotte, born in 1927, Baudouin, and Albert, born in 1934) to a young Dutch girl, to whom Baudouin developed a deep attachment. As a schoolboy, he showed himself to be a child like any other.

Engraved in his heart

In 1940, at the start of the war, the royal family, with the exception of King Leopold, took refuge in France, but when Belgium surrendered the family returned and became prisoners of the Germans. In 1944, they were sent first to Germany, then to Austria. After the end of the world war, the political climate did not allow Leopold to resume his duties, and in September 1945, he reached Switzerland, where he stayed with his children until 1950. When he returned to Belgium, a large majority voted in a referendum that he resume his royal duties. However, in the face of deadly riots organized against him, he nobly preferred to abdicate in favor of his son rather than be the cause of violence among Belgians. This admirable example of a king sacrificing himself for his people would remain deeply engraved in Baudouin's heart. To ensure a smooth transition, Leopold III continued to reign for a year, and, on July 16, 1951, Baudouin became king. He accepted this responsibility as a duty. Shy and inexperienced, he remained grave in all situations and was reluctant to be as independent as he should. These faults at the start of his reign were not from lack of character—Baudouin had plenty, and did not hesitate to show his convictions. But he had to grow little by little into his vocation of King.

His first trip to the Congo, at the time still a Belgian colony, in May-June 1955, was a revelation. Welcomed by an exuberant crowd overflowing with enthusiasm, he abandoned his usual reserve and did not hesitate to be himself. On his return to Belgium, more confident in his own abilities, he wore a smile that conquered his countrymen. Four years later, he went to the United States. His youth and charm enchanted the Americans and the trip was a complete success.

One day in February 1960, Baudouin was walking in the park of the royal palace in Laeken, near Brussels, with Bishop Suenens, who would become Archbishop of Malines and a Cardinal. Their conversation was informal, rambling, without protocol. During the walk, the town of Lourdes came up. The prelate then suggested that the king go there one day, incognito, and mingle with the crowds of pilgrims. «But,» replied the king, «I just came from there. I spent the night there in prayer in front of the Grotto, and I entrusted the question of my marriage to Our Lady of Lourdes.» Trading secrets, the future Cardinal told the king what Lourdes meant to him, as a result of his meeting an extraordinary woman, Veronica O'Brien. The king's reaction was instantaneous: «Could I meet her?» Miss O'Brien, an Irishwoman, headed the Legion of Mary. The king had a formal invitation sent to her for March 18, 1960. The audience lasted five hours. Afterwards, Veronica O'Brien sent the king a letter in English: «March 23, 1960. Dear King... May I offer you, on this beautiful Feast of the Annunciation, these precious little books which we spoke about? (The Secret of Mary and Treatise on True Devotion, by Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort.) They are coming to you completely loaded with grace, for since the feast of Saint Joseph, I have faithfully prayed for you every day... Mary is much more interested in your future than you yourself could ever be.»

Sharing the most important thing

In their second meeting the king confided to Veronica that he hoped to marry a woman who shared his deep religious convictions. He thought he could find such a wife in Spain, where religion had remained deeply rooted among many. During the following night, Veronica heard «an interior voice,» a call from the Lord: «Go offer the king to go to Spain, to break the ground for him.» That morning, during her prayer, she understood that this call truly came from God. Surprised and moved, the king gave her full powers, in the greatest secrecy. Overturning all her plans, Veronica immediately devoted herself to this very special mission. She wrote to the king: «It will be you who will in fact do the hard work of being one hundred percent holy, with every breath. This means—loving each of the children in your large family. And 'loving' means—approaching them, talking with them, giving yourself to them.»

Put in contact with the nuncio in Madrid who gave her a letter of recommendation, Veronica began an investigation of the apostolate in the Spanish aristocracy. She was soon referred to a young woman of thirty-two, Fabiola de Mora y Aragon, sparkling with life, intelligence, spirit, rectitude, and clarity. Gracious and generous, she took care of the sick and the poor. On their first meeting, Veronica felt she had found the person she was looking for. «How is it that you have avoided marriage until now?» she asked. «What do you want? I have never fallen in love. I have put my life in God's hands, I have given myself to Him, perhaps He is preparing something for me.» When Veronica visited Fabiola's apartment, she was overwhelmed to recognize a painting on the wall from a dream the night before.

With the king's approval, Veronica revealed to Fabiola the reason for her presence in Spain and the king's wish to meet her unofficially. The young woman then believed she was the victim of an incredible hoax, and it took the nuncio's personal intervention to convince her to accept the offer. King Baudouin and Fabiola became unofficially engaged in Lourdes on July 8, 1960. «What I like best about her,» the king would say, «is her humility, her trust in the Most Blessed Virgin, and her openness... I know that she will always make me love God more and more.» The wedding took place the following December 15th. For several years, the hope of having children burned brightly in the royal couple's hearts. But over time, they understood that they would not have any. «We have asked ourselves about the meaning of this suffering,» the king confessed one day. «Little by little, we have come to understand that our hearts are freer to love all children, absolutely all children.»

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of his accession to the throne, in 1976, the king created the King Baudouin Foundation, the aim of which is to undertake «any initiatives to improve the living conditions for the population, taking into account economic, social, scientific, and cultural factors that will influence the nation's development in the years to come.» He would ask this foundation to address such issues as the enslavement of women, problems in prisons, access to justice, sexual abuse of children, etc.


In 1979, the king and queen received seven hundred children at Laeken. In one corner, there was a group of handicapped children, many with Down's Syndrome. «I brought a plate of caramels to a little girl who could barely control her hand,» the king would relate. «With great difficulty she managed to take a caramel, but, to my amazement, she gave it to another child. For a good while, without ever keeping any for herself, she distributed these candies to all the healthy children, who looked at her astounded... What a mystery of love in these physically handicapped creatures...»

To close the reception, the king gave a short speech to his young listeners: «The world needs love and joy. You are capable of giving these. It's easy to say, but very hard to do. It takes effort, and you must start over every day. In doing it, you will see things around you change. For example, in helping your parents and expressing your love to them, you will make them happier, you will make them want to do the same with each other and with others. And so, bit by bit, relationships between people will become better. Try, persevere in this effort to love with actions. Never get discouraged. If you do this, I repeat, you will see even the faces of people change around you and, every night, you will feel great joy in your heart. Become builders of love.»

Prayer took the first place in the king's schedule. He usually devoted the beginning of the day to it. He was not spared spiritual dryness: «It was almost always difficult,» he would write, «to remain still to contemplate God in the silence and aridity of faith.» Daily Mass was the highpoint of his day. Wherever in the world his responsibilities took him, he asked a priest to be found to celebrate it. He lived in the rhythm of the liturgy, noting in his journal a thought drawn from the Mass texts. He regularly approached the Sacrament of Penance and often made weekend retreats with the queen.

I exist for You

The audience with the Lord that constituted his prayer helped him to be attentive to the people he met. He wrote, «Today, I will try to be particularly attentive to all those the Lord places on my path.... God does not ask us to be expert in all sorts of fields, from music to politics, but, guided by His Spirit, to love men and women with His Love, to look at them with His eyes, to hear them with His ears, to speak to them with His words. Lord, we desire this, Fabiola and I, with all our souls.» This was how he saw his job as king. To know the will of God in his daily activity, he invoked the Holy Spirit: «How should I behave? Holy Spirit, be always with me, I beg You. Be my strength, my wisdom, my prudence, my humor, my courage, my conversation. I feel so at a loss for words! On the other hand, I know that You need my weakness to manifest Your glory... I think too often of the mission You have entrusted to me and for which I was born. I forget too often that before all else I exist for You, to adore You, to contemplate You, to love all those You place on my path.»

The king's spiritual life supported and inspired him in his governmental duties, and he followed the country's affairs very closely. Aware of the limits the Constitution placed on his power, he exerted an influence on politics more through his advice and exhortations than by decisions. For this, he carefully informed himself on all subjects, directly interviewing competent individuals whom he received in audience. He methodically noted the main points from these exchanges in a notebook. The advice he later gave to his colleagues was appreciated. «He has more information than we do,» confessed one of them. «So of course we listen to him and often follow his advice.» The king completed his information with numerous visits around the country, meeting with the largest possible mix of people—men and women of every political and ideological persuasion. Each of his trips, in Belgium or abroad, each talk, received careful preparation. He read the works that his collaborators recommended to him and meticulously studied the files they showed him, leaving nothing to chance. Despite having the gift of being able to distinguish what was important from what was incidental, he nonetheless didn't neglect the details.

The morning of April 4, 1990, unexpected news was broadcast on the radio—Belgium no longer had a king! Baudouin had refused to sign the law sanctioning abortion, and the government had declared that he could no longer reign. On March 29, Parliament had approved a law legalizing abortion, which had been accepted by the Senate the previous November 6. However, according to the Belgian Constitution, no law approved by the Chambers could be passed without the king's signature.

Sometimes difficult choices

In our societies, it seems that a majority vote is unquestionable, and such a vote is enough to make a law right. But in his encyclical Evangelium vitæ, published March 25, 1995, Pope John Paul II reminded us that a democratic vote is not an absolute: «[I]n the democratic culture of our time it is commonly held that the legal system of any society should limit itself to taking account of and accepting the convictions of the majority. ... Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality ... Its 'moral' value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the moral law to which it, like every other form of human behavior, must be subject» (nos. 69-70). King Baudouin found himself in the situation that John Paul II describes in the same encyclical: «The passing of unjust laws often raises difficult problems of conscience for morally upright people with regard to the issue of cooperation, since they have a right to demand not to be forced to take part in morally evil actions. Sometimes the choices which have to be made are difficult; they may require the sacrifice of prestigious professional positions» (no. 74). Baudouin knew that in refusing to sign, he was exposing himself to being misunderstood by many of his fellow citizens who had a weak moral sense, and even risked having to abdicate.

But the abortion law approved by the Belgium Parliament contradicted what is right, expressed by God's law. «Among all the crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable. The Second Vatican Council defines abortion, together with infanticide, as an 'unspeakable crime' (Gaudium et spes, 51). But today, in many people's consciences, the awareness of its gravity has become darkened. The acceptance of abortion by the culture, in the mores and even in law itself, is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis in the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake. ... [D]irect abortion, that is, willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. ... No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church» (Evangelium vitæ, nos. 58, 62).

Respect for the life of an unborn child is a sacred and universal principle: «The child,» King Baudouin had declared some months earlier, «because of his lack of physical and intellectual maturity, needs special protection, special care, especially legal protection before as well as after birth.» Knowing that he would have to account to God for his decisions, Baudouin wrote to his Prime Minister: «This proposed law raises a great problem of conscience for me... In signing this bill... I would inevitably take on a certain degree of co-responsibility. That I cannot do.»

Searching for the Truth

This noble refusal was the fruit and the crowning achievement of a long ascent, often painful, on the road to holiness. Faithfulness to his duties of state in ordinary circumstances had prepared the king for this exemplary act that manifested an upright conscience, perfectly docile to the voice of God. «Saint Bonaventure teaches that 'conscience is like God's herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God's authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king' » (Encyclical Veritatis splendor, August 6, 1993, no. 58). «Certainly, in order to have a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:5), man must seek the truth and must make judgments in accordance with that same truth... The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph. 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it» (Ibid., nos. 62, 64).

In response to the king's letter, to get out of the bind that the government found itself in, the Prime Minister had recourse to an article in the Belgian Constitution that foresaw the possibility that it could be impossible for the king, in extreme cases, to reign. On April 3, the Cabinet affirmed this impossibility in the present situation. The Cabinet then proceeded as though there was no longer a king, and passed the law turned down by Baudouin. But for the king to resume his duties, a vote of Parliament was necessary. On April 5, Parliament voted to allow Baudouin to take his place again as Head of State.

The king thus resumed his duties in the service of the country. But for ten years, his health had been deteriorating, and he felt death approaching. In 1991 and 1992, he underwent two operations, one of which was open-heart surgery. On July 21, 1993, the national holiday, he addressed his fellow citizens and, shortly thereafter, left Belgium to go to Spain for a rest. The evening of July 31, he settled down on the terrace of his residence. Around 9 o'clock, the queen called him for dinner. Receiving no response, she came to him and found him slumped in his chair, stricken by a heart attack. At his funeral, a large crowd came to show their affection, and the poor among the poorest testified how close the king's brotherly heart had been to the greatest human misery.

King Baudouin «had his secret: it was his God, Whom he was madly in love with and by Whom he knew himself so loved. Under the foliage of his public and political activities flowed a calm and hidden spring: it was his life in God... While the king served men, he did not cease thinking about God. In each human face that presented itself to him, he discerned the face of Christ» (Cardinal Danneels, homily for the king's funeral, August 7, 1993). Pope John Paul II described him as an «exemplary king» and a «fervent Christian.» His example encourages us to work for the glory of God in our daily activities. As Saint Thérèse of Lisieux brilliantly put it: «Oh my God, to love You on earth, I have nothing but today» (Poem 5).

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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