Father Felix Van Meerbergen is the dean of Diest, in the Belgian Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels. He shares some encouraging words regarding the arrival of the first Dutch-trained Belgian priest (Fr. Andy Penne) to the archdiocese. There is significant opposition among laity and clergy alike about these allegedly very orthodox priests, but Dean Van Meerbergen puts a sizeable portion of this opposition in perspective: it’s about externals such as the clerical collar and the cassock which some people seemingly find repulsive. Indeed, many priests in Belgium and other parts of western Europe now dress in suits and ties, hiding their identity as priests out of a misplaced desire to be ‘just like the laity, and not something special and above them’. A ridiculous reason, since priests, through their ordination and by their specific duties among the people of God are not like the laity. They are not better and more holy, but they are also not the same.

Anyway, on to Dean Van Meerbergen (the photo below obviously dating from before he started wearing his clerical collar):

“I know some of them: they are faithful priests. Oh yes, they wear a collar. And sometimes a cassock. And? Since a year, I’ve also been wearing a clerical collar. I have lost some friends. They removed me from their Facebook and for the first time they didn’t give me a call on my birthday. Apparently that clerical collar is something repulsive. For years I believed that priestly garments would alienate you from people. That it blew up bridges. I do wear it now. And it doesn’t simply make me a better priest. It doesn’t give me more holiness. And it doesn’t make my duties as dean and parish priest any easier. But I feel more connected to the world church. And yes, the unwanted priests are loyal to the pope and the bishops. And also to their flock. I wear a collar. Some people have abandoned me. But yet: I still try to be attentive to the entire flock. The stubborn sheep that stay behind or those that walk ahead. And those with spots on their skin. The sheep with mange and the outcast sheep.

The priests from the Netherlands are welcome and we should work with them in collegiality. And they with us. Didn’t St. Paul once say, “We shouldn’t say: we are of Cephas, we are of Paul or of Apollos… No: we are of Christ.” They may come… why don’t we close ranks? In great respect for each other. Those with a collar and those without. Church in Flanders, let’s build together the Church of Christ for the people. Let’s exclude no one. But let’s be loyal to pope and bishops.

I have the brave dream of hoping that one day I’ll get a priest from India or South America, from Japan or eastern Europe in the deanery. Their faith will support me. I would love it if some day in Diest we’ll be host to a group of religious from faraway… It will only enrich our faith.

Why be afraid? Why so smug and boastful about ‘our’ self-created vision of Church? Proclaiming Christ is the ultimate task. Andy Penne and the others: come. Come proclaim who Christ is. Lead us in the sacraments… And those with a collar and those without. Men and women in the Church, we are all members of the Body of Christ which is the Church… I a increasingly convinced that the archbishop has chosen the right path.”

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