“Religious education should be about Jesus”

An interview with Archbishop Léonard of Malines-Brussels in Het Nieuwsblad, coinciding with the five-yearly ad limina visit of the Belgian bishops to Rome. The Vangheluwe affair, the shortage of priests and the state of the seminaries in belgium are all discussed, but most interesting are the measures Msgr. Léonard proposes in regard to religious education in schools.

Pope Benedict XVI with four Belgian bishops. Archbishop Léonard is second from left.

During their retreat [sic] in Rome, the Belgian bishops developed a plan to turn the tide for the Belgian Church. One of the most striking measures is that religious education in schools should once again be religious education. In other words: those classes should be about Christ and christianity.

Msgr. André [sic] Léonard did not beat around the bush last night during a meeting in the Belgian College in Rome. “Things have never been as bad for us as now,” the archbishop said , and added that he and his fellow bishop experienced their five-yearly pilgrimage to the graves of the Apostles Peter and Paul as a Church in pain.

You mean the Vangheluwe affair?

Msgr. Léonard: Not only that. The churches are emptying and there is a massive shortage of priests. There is little to be happy about.

But about Vangheluwe. Aren’t you afraid of what may yet surface?

I am not afraid of that. Everything must come out. Only then can we start rebuilding. That is the reason why I urged everyone not to become a priest or let themselves be consecrated a bishop if they’re hypocritical. And to the victims: go to the abuse committee or to the courts. The sooner the better.

What did the pope say about the entire affair?

Benedict was even more silent than John Paul II! “Tell me”, he said. So I told him. He mainly listened. And spoke an encouraging word every now and then.

There are rumours that he intends to remove Roger Vangheluwe from the priesthood…

I don’t know anything about that. That won’t happen as long as the Vangheluwe file is not complete. And if it will happen? I don’t know.

On Thursday you urged the offenders to report to the Committee. Has there been any response yet?

I know that one offender, a cleric, has turned himself in. That concerns very serious matters which are legally barred.

When will the pope complete the shortage of bishops in our country?

I asked him that too. He is working on it. A new one for Namur, where I left an empty see; a new one for Bruges and a new auxiliary for Brussels. If Brazil, with its three hundred bishops, misses three, that doesn’t do much harm. But we really feel it.

In the past weeks you have also discussed the shortage of priests. What will you be doing about that?

We must expand the seminaries even more to qualitative places of education which have a firm charisma towards young people. They say that I am a conservative. Well, that conservatism is already bearing fruit. There are some fifteen Flemish priests working in the Dutch diocese of Den Bosch. They are over there because they found things too unclear here. Isn’t that a shame? I can tell you that the conservative you are speaking with now is meeting with several young men who initially considered going to the Netherlands, but who now may be going to the seminary in Louvain. You also notice that there are vocations in new communities. We must encourage those.

How do you intend to involve young people with the Church?

The majority of young people has religious education in school, but after all those years of so-called religious education they know far too little. The reason is that religious education hasn’t been religious education for a long time, but a clutter of philosophical things. So many different teachers, so many different books, so many different contents. I want a new line in that. Religious education should be about christianity and the person of Jesus. If young people don’t learn that anymore, how do you think they’ll stick with the Church? Religious education is not social studies. Let that be clear for once.

How about the strenuous relationship between the Church and the Catholic universities in Louvain and Louvain-la-Neuve?

We should make much more use of the expertise that is there. By now we know that there are many people in those universities who want to help us, the Belgian Church. It would be stupid not to find each other in that matter. So yes, there is an approach.

You do things rather differently than your predecessor, don’t you?

I will answer you with the words of my predecessor. The menu is the same, just the waiter is different.

Adds Léonard’s spokesman, Eric de Beukelaer: “And the spices are different. It’s all a bit more spicy now.”