Contacts between the Catholic University of Louvain and the Church seem to be flourishing. A part of the staff recently visited the Vatican. As Grand Chancellor of the CU Louvain Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard is therefore delighted. “Of course we should be open and give a voice to people with other ideas, but it should also be clear that Christ has a place in our university.”
A few years ago the CU Louvain reflected on and discussed about keeping and the meaning of the C in her name. It should be no surprise that Archbishop Léonard is glad that the C was kept. “It has an undebiable symbolical value. It is a form of confirmation of identity, and that is important. But that is not all, of course. It must be made concrete. When you keep that identity vague – “open and multicultural”, “good quality”, “a palette of values” – you could in fact call all universities “Catholic”. It is indistinctive. I think that the C of the CU Louvain means something more specific. The core is that what we do indeed share with the other universities, shines for us from the person of Christ. You must not fear to express that either. The bond between Christ and His Church can be visible in what the CU Louvain does.”
“A Catholic university which is chronically neutral, could not be Catholic. The same is true if it offers no room for her inhabitants to meet Christ. Of course we should be open and give a voice to people with other ideas, but it should also be clear that Christ has a place in our university. That can be concretely translated in various fields. I am thinking about the university parish, where students and staff can experience their Christian identity. I also think about the singularity of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies And why not organise a university-wide course on religion?”
Not all forms of scientific research can meet with approval by the Church. How do you deal with that?
“That’s right. There can be tensions. For me those are a reason to enter into dialogue, to really get to know each other’s vision. It is often about a tension between the need for efficiency, which is a major concern for the university, and the need for respect for the human person, which is so fundamental for the Church. A dialogue can, for example, teach us that the one does not exclude the other. Sometimes the tension dissolves by itself. That happened, for example, regarding the research into embryonic stem cells. That was a problem, but that was largely removed because stem cell research is now also possible without making us of embryos and therefore the integrity of a human person.”
You are Grand Chancellor of the CU Louvain. What does that actually mean?
“I try to maintain the relationship between the Church and the university. Not by myself, but I do hope to contribute. It is a position without power, but I hope that it involves some moral authority. I am part of an organising body. I see my colleagues in that body a few times a year. In practice I mainly try to promote the communication between the Church and the university. That can lead to very pleasant contacts. For example, Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, the Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, a part of the Curia, told me he would appreciate getting to know the managing board of the CU Louvain. That led, a few weeks ago in Rome, to a very sympathetic and educational meeting between a major part of the rectorial team and the persons in authority in the Church. You then conclude that so many concerns are similar. I think such meetings are important, for everyone.
How is your rapport with the rector?
“I knew the honorary rectors Vervenne and Waer very well, and of course I also knew Professor Torfs before he became rector. When we meet, it is very relaxed – his sense if humour is very helpful in that regard. Most important, I think, is that he is clearly attached to the Catholic identity of the university, without agreeing with all positions of the Church. That is mutual: I and my fellow bishops don’t always agree with his opinions, but that does not matter. We can discuss things candidly, freely and very interestingly, and I appreciate that. Of course, it helps that he has a thorough knowledge of the Church and how she operates. He knows the Church from within. That fosters good contact.”
You are also Grand Chancellor of the Université Catholique de Louvain. Do you notice any differences?
“The CU Louvain is somewhat bigger, she scores slightly higher in some rankings, but those are details. The mood is equally good at both universities. They are clearly related to one another. I am happy to be able to do something for both universities. I have been a professor for a long time, and it feels good to do something in my current function for the environment which I hold so dear.”
Priest, then and now
When you became a priest in 1964, the Church was obviously something radically different than it is now. Do you look back with nostalgia?
“I don’t like nostalgia. What’s been is been. What matters is the present, also for a priest, also for the Church. But there are of course differences between 1964 and today, fifty years later. Then you were a priest in a clear and complete context. Everything was clear. Today it is certainly more difficult to become or remain a priest. But exactly because of that it has perhaps also become more beautiful. There is a larger amount of free engagement. That makes a true priestly life more authentic, more grounded in perseverance, commitment and flexibility instead of on following marked paths.”
Is the modern Church as flexible as her priest?
“The Church is like a river. Christ is the source, the fullness of the Kingdom of God her goal. And in between the river meanders. Making a new bend in the river is perhaps sometimes slow, but she does reach her goal. That does not mean that institutional course corrections aren’t sometimes necessary, which then need to be be given form in local pastoral care. I don’t see that is a way of “recovering” people or luring them in with marketing trick. That does not work. The Church must find way of attracting people, with truth, goodness and beauty.”
“We need locations, movements, initiatives which give some indication of who Christ is. These exist. I know parishes which do not follow any wonderfully Original methods to get people to come to Church , but to which people do flock. That can be because of so many thing: an appealing prayer life, beautiful liturgy, useful efforts of charity, and so on. I do not believe in one-sidedness: only liturgy, or only social engagement, that will not work in the end. A combination offers far more opportunities.”
More than a few people think that Pope Francis will bring new momentum into the Church. Do you expect likewise?
“Pope Francis certainly introduced a new style. That is very good, because the way in which the Church brings her message to the people is very important. Pope Francis uses words and actions which clearly touch the hearts of people. I think that is very positive. But you can’t expect him to do away with the teachings of the Church. He is still a Catholic Pope… To expect anything else from him would be an illusion.”
“Let us also give him the time to develop his ideas. He has only been Pope for little over a year, which is a rather very short time to dare to evaluate. A good benchmark will arrive, by the way, in a few months. In October of this year the first part of a Synod of the family will take place, to outline the situation. And next year a second to take adjusted steps. We will have to find a common language, send a message which makes sense worldwide. That is not easy, but I expect much from it. The family, after all, remains the cornerstone of society.”
The Pope did not make you a cardinal? Was that difficult?
“Well, I think some people had expected that appointment, and perhaps they would have been a little bit disappointed. But I was certainly not disillusioned. There is a certain tradition, which began in 1835, to make the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels a cardinal. That did not happen now. And then? For the Church a 150-year-old tradition isn’t that impressive. And if not now, maybe later. It does not keep me awake at night.”
“In a way it is even more practical at this time that I am not a cardinal. It would mean being called to Rome five or six times annually for meetings. You no longer control your own planning. Now I am free to spend, for example, a lot of time on pastoral visits to the 33 deaneries, where I spend some ten days every time. I find that exceptionally valuable. And I understand very well why the Pope has wanted to give special attention to newer countries so soon after is election. He emphasises the universality of the Church much more by creating a cardinal in Haiti than with a cardinal in Mechelen-Brussels.”
You will be 75 on 6 May 2015. Normally your time as archbishop would then end. Will you retire?
“The rule is that you tender your resignation to the Pope around your 75th birthday. It is up to him to decide what happens then. Sometimes, depending on the situation and your health, he will ask you to stay on a bit longer. The archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Meisner, is 80! In other situations you retire. I will do what will be asked, and enthusiastically so. It is a wonderful duty. I meet so many people, from soldiers to prisoners, from professors to young families. That gives an unimaginable wealth to life. If I am allowed to continue doing that a while longer, I would be very grateful. When I retire, I will also enjoy that very much. Didn’t I say a priest had to be flexible?”