Désiré-Joseph Mercier

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Désiré-Joseph Mercier
Archbishop of Mechelen
Primate of Belgium
Mercier in 1915
ChurchCatholic Church
Appointed21 February 1906
Term ended23 January 1926
PredecessorPierre-Lambert Goosens
SuccessorJozef-Ernest van Roey
Other post(s)Cardinal-Priest of San Pietro in Vincoli (1907-26)
Ordination4 April 1874
by Giacomo Cattani
Consecration25 March 1906
by Antonio Vico
Created cardinal15 April 1907
by Pope Pius X
Personal details
Désiré Félicien François Joseph Mercier

(1851-11-21)21 November 1851
Died23 January 1926(1926-01-23) (aged 74)
Brussels, Belgium
BuriedSaint Rumbold's Cathedral
ParentsPaul-Léon Mercier
Anne-Marie Barbe Croquet
MottoApostolus Jesu Christi
("Apostle of Jesus Christ")
Coat of armsDésiré-Joseph Mercier's coat of arms

Désiré Félicien François Joseph Mercier (21 November 1851 – 23 January 1926) was a Belgian cardinal of the Catholic Church and a noted scholar. A Thomist scholar, he had several of his works translated into other European languages. He was known for his book, Les origines de la psychologie contemporaine (1897). His scholarship gained him recognition from the Pope and he was appointed as Archbishop of Mechelen (Malines), serving from 1906 until his death, and was elevated to the cardinalate in 1907.

Mercier is noted for his staunch resistance to the German occupation of 1914–1918 during the Great War.

Styles of
Désiré-Joseph Mercier
Reference styleHis Eminence
Spoken styleYour Eminence
Informal styleCardinal

After the invasion, he distributed a strong pastoral letter, Patriotism and Endurance, to be read in all his churches, urging the people to keep up their spirits. He served as a model of resistance.


Early life and ordination[edit]

Mercier was born at the château du Castegier in Braine-l'Alleud, as the fifth of seven children of small business owners Paul-Léon Mercier and his wife, Anne-Marie Barbe Croquet. Three of Mercier's sisters became religious sisters. His brother Léon became a physician.[1]

One of Mercier's maternal uncles was Adrien Croquet. In the 1860s Croquet became a missionary to the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation in western Oregon near the Pacific coast, where his surname was anglicized to Crockett. In the 1870s, a Mercier cousin, Joseph Mercier, joined their uncle Croquet in Oregon. He married a woman of one of the Native American tribes resident there. Today, several thousand descendants of Joseph and his wife are members of the tribe.[2]

Mercier studied at the College Saint‑Rombaut of Malines (1863-1868), and entered the minor seminary at Mechelen in 1868 to prepare for the church. He attended the Major Seminary, Mechelen, from 1870 to 1873.[3]

Mercier received the clerical tonsure in 1871, and was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Giacomo Cattani, the nuncio to Belgium, on 4 April 1874. Mercier continued with graduate studies, obtaining his licentiate in theology (1877) and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Louvain.[3]

Thomist scholarship[edit]

He returned to Malines in 1877 and taught philosophy at the minor seminary and soon after was named spiritual director of the seminarians. His comprehensive knowledge of Thomas Aquinas earned him the newly erected chair of Thomism at Louvain's Catholic university in 1882.[4] It was in this post, which he retained until 1905, that he forged a lifelong friendship with Dom Columba Marmion, an Irish Thomist. Raised to the rank of monsignor on 6 May 1887, Mercier founded the Higher Institute of Philosophy at the Louvain University in 1899, which was to be a beacon of neo-Thomist philosophy.[citation needed]

He founded in 1894 and edited until 1906 the Revue Néoscholastique, and wrote in a scholastic manner on metaphysics, philosophy, and psychology. Several of his works were translated into English, German, Italian, Polish, and Spanish. His most important book was Les origines de la psychologie contemporaine (1897).[5]

Bishop and cardinal[edit]

Cardinal Mercier by Cecilia Beaux, 1919
Mercier is commemorated by this statue outside St. Michael and Gudula Cathedral in Brussels by Égide Rombaux

His reputation within his field gained the recognition of Pope Pius X, and Mercier was appointed as Archbishop of Mechelen and Primate of Belgium on 7 February 1906. He received his episcopal consecration on the following 25 March from Archbishop Antonio Vico, and took as his episcopal motto: Apostolus Jesu Christi. Mercier was created cardinal priest by Pope Pius X in the consistory of 15 April 1907.[6][3] Three days later Pope Pius gave him his cardinal's ring and assigned him the titular church of S. Pietro in Vincoli.[7]

During the modernist controversy, Mercier was both progressive and antimodernist. He sought to assess the compatibility of Thomistic philosophy with rapidly developing scientific knowledge.[8] He was a brilliant scholar, open to contemporary ideas and sufficiently respected for being able to protect scholars at Louvain, such as Bollandist Hippolyte Delehaye, from accusations of "modernism". Through his influence, Mercier prevented Albin van Hoonacker's Les douze petits prophètes traduits et commentés ["The twelve minor prophets translated and annotated"] from being placed on the Index.[9]

Mercier was a close friend of Benedictine Lambert Beauduin and kept apprised of liturgical and ecumenical developments. From 1921 to 1926 he held regular conversations with Anglican theologians, notably Charles Wood, 2nd Viscount Halifax, foreshadowing the Catholic Church's future dialogue with the Anglicans. Anglicanism, Mercier believed, must be "united, not absorbed".[10]

Pope Benedict XV sent his portrait and a letter of whole-hearted support to Mercier in 1916, and at one point told him, "You saved the Church!"[citation needed] Mercier was one of the cardinal electors in the 1922 papal conclave, which selected Pope Pius XI.[citation needed]

World War I German occupation[edit]

Poster from the United States Food Administration during World War I

In 1914, the German army attempted a surprise invasion of France by invading neutral Belgium. Mercier had to leave his see on 20 August of that same year to attend the funeral of the late Pius X, and participate in the following conclave to elect a new pope.[citation needed]

Returning from the conclave Mercier passed through the Port of Le Havre, where he visited wounded Belgian, French and British troops. Once back in his archdiocese, he found the Mechelen Cathedral to have been partially destroyed. In the Imperial German atrocities that ensued in the Rape of Belgium, thirteen of the priests in Mercier's diocese were killed, not to mention many civilians, by Christmas 1914. With his pastoral letter, Patriotism and Endurance, of Christmas 1914, Mercier came to personify Belgian resistance to the German occupation. The pastoral letter had to be distributed by hand as the Germans had cut off the postal service. Mercier's passionate, unflinching words were taken to heart by the suffering Belgians. He sometimes became a focus of Allied propaganda during the war.[9] He was kept under house arrest by the Germans, and many priests who had read the letter aloud in public were arrested as well.[citation needed]

In Ireland, Cardinal Mercier's detention and indeed the German occupation was used to help recruitment for the British army among Irish Catholics. Following the war, Mercier helped with the re-establishment of the Irish Franciscan College (St Anthony's College, Leuven), with his friend since their seminary days in Louvain, Mons. James J. Ryan.[11] Mercier Press in Ireland is named in his honour.[12]

Final years and death[edit]

Following World War I, Mercier undertook an excursion to raise funds to rebuild and stock a new library of the University of Leuven. The original library had been burned by the Germans in the war. In his travels to raise funds, Mercier visited New York City for the first and only time. Among other projects, Mercier also unsuccessfully attempted to have the League of Nations mandate of Palestine awarded to Belgium.[13]

Mercier suffered from persistent dyspepsia. In early January 1926 he underwent surgery for a lesion of the stomach. During surgery, the anesthetized cardinal held a conversation with his surgeon.[14]

In his final days, Mercier was visited by King Albert and Queen Elisabeth, Lord Halifax, and family members. He entered a deep coma around 2:00 p.m. on 23 January and died an hour later, at age 74.[15] The cardinal was buried at St. Rumbolds Cathedral. He harbored great devotion to the Sacred Heart.[16]



Inter-Belgian relations[edit]

Mercier is known for favouring French speakers and opposing the use of Dutch. Though in general social-minded, he was blind to the social aspects of the Flemish Movement and opposed many of its aims. Two examples. (1) Claiming that Dutch could never be a full-fledged cultural language, he fought all attempts to have Flemish high school and university students educated in their native Dutch. He relented only when overwhelmed by the political pressure the Flemish Movement was generating.[19] He managed to have Pope Benedict XV address him a letter[20] in which he admonished priests that they should not address arguments extraneous to their supernatural commitment nor publish on secular subjects without their superior's permission. Mercier promptly published this letter.

Church and science[edit]

Mercier recognized the mathematical talent of Georges Lemaître as a young seminarian, and urged him to study Einstein's theories of relativity. Lemaître became an early expert in general relativity as it applied to cosmological questions.

He went on to propose an expanding model of the universe, based on both Einstein's and de Sitter's models. Abbé Georges Lemaître developed his "primeval atom" hypothesis, together with researchers of the University of Louvain, and Gamow, Alpher and Herman into the better known Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.


  1. ^ Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. "Mercier, Desiré", fiu.edu. Accessed 25 February 2024.
  2. ^ Fr. Cawley Martinus, Father Crockett of Grand Ronde: Adrien-Joseph Croquet, 1818–1902, Oregon Missionary, 1860–1898
  3. ^ a b c Courtois, Luc (2017). "Mercier, Désiré Joseph". In Ute Daniel; Peter Gatrell; Oliver Janz; Heather Jones; Jennifer Keene; Alan Kramer; Bill Nasson (eds.). International Encyclopedia of the First World War. Berlin: Freie Universität Berlin. doi:10.15463/ie1418.10207/1.1. Retrieved 15 November 2017. {{cite book}}: |journal= ignored (help)
  4. ^ Roolf, Christoph. "Mercier, Désiré Joseph". Brill's Digital Library of World War I. doi:10.1163/2352-3786_dlws1_beww1_en_0390.
  5. ^ Colby & Williams 1916, pp. 430–431.
  6. ^ Acta Sanctae Sedis (PDF). Vol. XXXX. 1907. pp. 261–2. Retrieved 26 January 2021.
  7. ^ Acta Sanctae Sedis (PDF). Vol. XXXX. 1907. pp. 263–266. Retrieved 26 January 2021.
  8. ^ Aubert, Roger. Désiré Mercier and the Origins of the Institute of Philosophy.
  9. ^ a b De Volder, Jan. Cardinal Mercier in the First World War, Leuven University Press, 2018; ISBN 9789462701649
  10. ^ "A Pope on British Soil", Time, 7 June 1982.
  11. ^ Chronicle, The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Oct., 1924), pp. 416-431. Catholic University of America Press.
  12. ^ About Us, MercierPress.ie. Accessed 25 February 2024.
  13. ^ Aubert, Roger (1979). "Les démarches du cardinal Mercier en vue de l'octroi à la Belgique d'un mandat sur la Palestine". Bulletins de l'Académie Royale de Belgique. 65 (1): 166–228. doi:10.3406/barb.1979.55400.
  14. ^ "Mercier", time.com, 11 January 1926.
  15. ^ "In Belgium", time.com, 1 February 1926.
  16. ^ "Homage". Time. 16 June 1924.
  17. ^ "Zoekresultaten". www.odis.be.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q "Mercier". Archived from the original on 29 August 2010. Retrieved 18 October 2016.
  19. ^ Boudens, Robrecht & Lieve Gevers. "Mercier, Désiré J." Nieuwe Encyclopedie van de Vlaamse Beweging. Tielt: Lannoo, 1998, pp. 2035–2037.
  20. ^ Cum semper, ut ipsi, dated February 10, 1921. Full text (in Italian, despite its Latin title) available here.


Further reading[edit]

  • Johan Ickx. 2018. La guerre et le Vatican: Les secrets de la diplomatie du Saint-Siège (1914-1915), Paris: Les éditions du Cerf.
  • Sophie De Schaepdrijver. 1999. De groote oorlog: het koninkrijk België tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog. 7th ed. Amsterdam: Olympus.
  • Jan De Volder. 2018. Cardinal Mercier in the First World War. Belgium, Germany and the Catholic Church. Leuven: Leuven University Press.

External links[edit]

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by 18th Archbishop of Mechelen
Succeeded by