Cardijn honours Gabrielle Petit

Today , we present Cardijn’s emotional sermon in honour of Gabrielle Petit, a young Belgian woman, who was executed for her work spying on German invaders.

Soon after her death, Cardijn celebrated a mass in her memory at the Church of St Michael and St Gudule in central Brussels.

No doubt he was particularly moved by the fact that she was a young worker.



Madelgarius / Wikipedia / CC BY SA 4.0

Te Deum for Gabrielle Petit

« Inter coetera potentiae tuae miracula etiam in sexu fragili victoriam martyrii contulisti »[1]

« One of the miracles in which divine power shines the brightest is the victory of martyrdom won by a young woman. »

She was 22 and an orphan. She lived simply from her humble shop assistant’s salary. She drew on the principles of righteousness and honesty proclaimed by the precepts of her religion. Love sang a hymn of hope in heart. She was engaged to be married. None of us knew her. Indeed, a young girl who respects herself usually has little history.

Then the great war broke out, sowing ruin but also awakening heroism. The young shop assistant transformed herself into an ambulance worker, caring for the wounded, both friends and foes. But such devotion did not suffice for her. She needed to make even further sacrifice.

She led her fiancé to the front then returned to her occupied nation to undertake a task punishable by death. Despite her gender and her youth, she was reported, arrested and condemned to be shot.

She refused to sign a petition for mercy. Then, on the eve of her execution, she said: “If they try to place a band over my eyes before shooting me, I will tear it off and tell them: ‘See how a young Belgian woman understands the way to die’.”

The story was indeed very short.

One spring morning, her virginal soul flew from her frail chest, holed by bullets, towards the place where martyred virgins chant their hymns at the side of the Immaculate Lamb.

Returning late, tired and meditative on the evening of the day that I read the pink poster, I came across some scruffy young women chatting in the arms of some cheeky soldiers, calling out dirty words to me. And I thought of the young shop assistant and envied her fate.

Brothers, there are blessed moments in life where the truth bursts forth dazzlingly, irrestibly and irrefutably.

We see this in the stories of those privileged beings within whom the enigma of life and destiny is resolved with a gesture so magnificent that it conquers every soul and rejoices every heart.

Greater than Iphigenia[2] and the daughter of Jephthah[3], like the Maid of Orleans[4], bringing victory through her own ordeal; understanding that a great cause requires the most sublime renunciation.

Discovering in the conscience of a young girl a means more powerful than any strategem or invention. A conviction that the final word of Love is immolation. That sacrifice itself is more eloquent than any caress. That beyond any gesture and beyond the idea that inspires it, there is something invincible at work.

The soul incarnated in this young girl. The soul, image of God, which braved death to be reborn to eternal live. The soul that transforms the eternal shell into a seed thrown to ground in the autumn of life to flower again in the spring of immortality. The soul, a phoenix reborn from its ashes.

And yet, this soul of our soul, this heart of our heart, this Faith, Love and Grace also makes us participants in divine nature, and communicates eternal happiness to us, provided only that we remain faithful.

That is what this young woman understood. That is what she teaches us, what she in a blessed hour taught our Homeland, devastated everywhere but still resisting.

It is an invincible Homeland because its weakness is founded on the force of its law. A Homeland conquering the world by its gesture of immolation.

A Homeland that neither you nor I nor our children knows or understands. We do not enough love because we do not participate enough in the greatness of the sacrifice of this young woman, immolating herself freely, voluntarily to prevent time from running out and to keep the wound open.

Brothers, let us strive to be worthy of experiencing these moments, let us strive to be worthy of becoming true children of our Homeland, brothers and sisters of this poor child. Let us not incur the criticism of our Divine Saviour to his compatriots:

“They would have an excuse if they had not seen. Are they not blind and deaf? Because when was there ever a time more fruitful in miracles?”

The miracle of a king, who has such confidence in his people that he himself takes on heroism as a duty. The miracle of a people who respond to the confidence of their king by maintaining their heroism for two years.

The miracle of this young woman who joins herself to the heroism of this king and this people, and who raises up its weakness by renouncing the most legitimate joys in order to immolate herself for their common salvation.

Brothers, have faith more than ever in victory of the soul over death, in the victory of the Faith that makes the small strong and confounds the powerful, and in the victory of the Homeland, which draws its strength from weakness.

As Montalembert said, “When a man is forced to fight against a woman, provided that woman is not the least of creatures, she can brave him with impunity.”

She says to him: “Strike, but you dishonour yourself and you will not defeat me.”

Like a poor, weak woman, O Belgium, O my beloved mother, you said: “Strike, but you dishonour yourself and you will not win.”

Let us pray, Brothers, for those who do not believe, let us pray for those who slip into doubt and defiance, let us pray for those who do not believe enough. Let us pray for those who have died in glory and let us pray for those who are going to die.

O Christ, dead on the Cross, because of their weakness

Rendering from your breast a painful sigh;

When their hour comes, remember your own

O you, who know how to die![5]

Let us pray for our Homeland that, soon, crowned with glory, it will be able to reward all such heroism and commemorate all such oblations as it should.

Let it be so.

Joseph Cardijn

Probably April 1916

Te Deum à la Cathédrale St Michel et Gudule

Cardijn’s homily at the ceremony commemorating the execution of of Gabrielle Petit

Archives Cardijn 106

[1] Prayers for saints, Pro virgine, Old Roman Missal: 

[2] Sacrificed daughter of King Agamemnon in Greek mythology:

[3]Jephthah was an Old Testament Jewish judge, whose own daughter was sacrificed: 

[4] Joan of Arc: 

[5] Citation from Alphonse de Lamartine, Le Crucifix.

O Christ, mort en Croix, que leur faiblesse obtienne

De rendre sur ton sein, un douloureux soupir;

Quand leur heure viendra, souviens-toi de la tienne

O toi, qui sais mourir !

Biography of Gabrielle Petit

Born on 20 February, 1893 at Tournai and shot dead on 1 April, 1916 at Schaerbeek, Gabrielle Petit, full name Gabrielle Aline Eugénie Marie Ghislaine Petit, was a Belgian nurse and resistance fighter who spied for the Allies during the First World War .

She was the daughter of Jules Charles Marie Petit, notary clerk and Aline Irma Victorine Eugénie Ghislaine Sgard. Her mother died while she was a child and her father abandoned her and her sister to the convent of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart at Mons . Shortly after, they were picked up by an uncle who entrusted them to the convent of the Sisters of the Child Jesus in Brugelette. At the age of 17, she returned to her father’s home but ended up moving to Brussels where her sister found her a job as governess.

She was 21 when German troops invaded Belgium in 1914. As a result, she had to postpone her marriage. While her fiancé, Maurice Gobert, signed up for military service, Gabrielle joined the Belgian Red Cross as a nurse. Wounded during an early battle, Govert was taken prisoner, but escaped almost immediately and hid in occupied territory. While convalescing, he sought to join the Belgian army entrenched behind the Yser river. However, he was forced to travel via the neutral Netherlands, England and, finally, the north of France. Gabrielle accompanied and supports him on the way.

While in Allied territory, following a short training course in espionage, she was offered a mission, which she accepted. Returning to Brussels at the end of July 1915, she collected information and transmitted the positions and the movements of the enemy troops in the sector of Maubeuge and Lille to Allied staff. She also distributed clandestine newspapers including La Libre Belgique as well as sending letters to interned soldiers and assisted Dutch soldiers to cross the French border. Her pseudonym for the Allies was Mlle Legrand.

When she fell under suspicion from the German secret police she was arrested, questioned then released for lack of evidence and continued her missions until she was again arrested on 20 January, 1916 . On 2 February, she was transferred to the prison of Saint-Gilles . On 3 March, she was sentenced to death by a German military tribunal and was shot on 1 April at the National Firing Range. At that moment, she called out: “Long live the King!” Long live the…” but did not have time to finish her sentence.

A Te Deum was celebrated in her honour in the collegiate church of Saints-Michel-et-Gudule in Brussels. The event was announced via postcards and drew a large crowd. Father Cardijn, the future founder of the YCW, celebrated the mass.

When the war was over, the remains of Gabrielle Petit were exhumed. A state funeral was held in May 1919 in the presence of Queen Elisabeth of Belgium , who placed the cross of the Order of Leopold on the coffin in a moment of great popular emotion. She now lies in Schaerbeek Cemetery.


Gabrielle Petit (résistante) (