This may be one of the last interviews in which Léonard is “just” an archbishop. He is not concerned about a possible promotion to cardinal. That is something for Pope Francis, “the single papabile I did not know beforehand”, to decide. But that will change, because Léonard is working on a new papal visit. “Before Francis travels to one European country or another, it is better that he visit the European institutions. In Strasbourg, and of course also in Brussels.”
An active senior is 73-year-old Léonard (born André, but since he became archbishop he calls himself André-Joseph) most certainly. Not that the years have completely passed him by: the archbishop walks a little more bent than in the past . But he does not really plan on stopping when he is 75, the age on which bishops are expected to offer their resignation.
Most of the time André-Joseph Léonard lives in the archiepiscopal palace on the Wollemarkt in Mechelen, but he also regularly stays in Brussels (“There really is more to do in Brussels than in Mechelen”) or in one of the numerous deaneries of his extensive archdiocese. But of course there is much work to do, because a number of aspects of the Belgian Church are cause for concern.
Last year, for example, five priests were ordained in his archdiocese – for Belgian standards a good number.
André-Joseph Léonard: “And hopefuly there’ll be six next year, if all goes well. It is therefore my wish to start a movement of renewal by which there will be more priests. I don’t only call on Flemish and French-speaking people for that but on all who really want to integrate in our country.”
So you want to call on more help from foreign priests.
Léonard: “I have already been able to welcome seminarians from Spain, Italy and Latin America. They are studying at our international seminary Redemptoris Mater Seminaris – the Seminary of the Mother of the Saviour . There are about a hundred of that type around the world. They are part of the Neocatechumenal Way, an international organisation which works for the religious formation of adults. One of the characteristics of the Neocatechumenate is universal openness. I find that really beautiful, people who come to Belgium from Colombia or Venezuela and do their utmost to be bilingual. Isn’t that an example for Walloons and Flemish? And it pays off, because a Colombian who has been ordained to the priesthood now works in Sint-Katelijne-Waver. And a Frenchman has become parish priest in Landen.”
Are people in those fairly rural communities open to a foreign priest?
Léonard: “Certainly, because their priest speaks Dutch well. And you should see how popular Ronald is in Sint-Katelijne-Waver! And in Louvain I have been able to motivate a few young Indian priests to participate in local pastoral care. They’re studying theology here but live in an English-language ghetto. Isn’t there something missing when a priests is here for a few years and does not engage himself in the Church?”
In stead of counting on “import priests” from all over the world, the Belgian Church could entrust more to “regular” Flemish and Walloon faithful.
Léonard: Oh, in the first few centuries after Christ the faith in this areas wasn’t spread by Flemish and Walloons either, but by Irish and Italians. And in the last centuries we bulk-transported missionaries to Africa, Latin America and Asia. It all evolves.”
Do you also evolve with your time? Your strict directive regarding cremations has caused wonderment.
Léonard: “The Church does not disapprove of cremation, but she has always preferred burials. It has to do with the symbolism of the seed which flowers again in he earth. The symbolism of cremation is more like… (thinks) ça se volatilise. The deceased vanishes with the wind.”
And that is why priests can no longer hold funeral Masses in crematoria?
Léonard: “We think that the Church is the normal and useful place for the Eucharist. Not the cemetery, not the crematorium. But of course priests can pray with the family for some time, at the grave or the field where the ashes are spread. But we want a full Mass to take place in the parish churches.”
You want the people back in the Church.
Léonard: “People who marry for the Church, also choose to do so in a church, and not in some sort of ‘matrimonium’, an anonymous place where one marriage after another is processed in series? It is no different for a funeral.”
When your new directive was published, the first response from one of the deacons was, “I will still continue going to the crematorium.”
Spokesman Jeroen Moens: “May I? The decision dates from February. Kerk en Leven reported very nicely about it afterwards. Then a reporter from Het Nieuwsblad brings the news, and he also reports correctly that it is a decision from all Flemish bishops together. But then the editor takes over. And he says, “Léonard has the reputation of an extremist, so we will only focus on him”.”
You don’t get that reputation of a hardliner without reason, of course. You tell it like it is. And if it doesn’t sound nice, let it clash.
Léonard: “Recently I visited a crematorium for the first time, in Vilvoorde. It made a macabre impression on me. The industrial approach: it can take no more than five minutes, and then it’s the next one’s turn, and the next… I attended a funeral in which the coffin which pushed into the fire, in those bright flames… It moved me deeply. (hesitates) I should have resisted the temptation to write that it was an industry of death. But somewhere it is true: that efficiency, that pragmatism… I acknowledge the professionality of the crematoria, because, after all, there are nice rooms to receive people in, with suitable music. But I prefer the symbolism of burial.”
Three years ago, you moved from the rural Diocese of Namur to urban Mechelen-Brussels. That is some adaptation.
Léonard: “Mechelen -Brussels actually consists of three separate dioceses: Walloon Brabant, Brussels and Flemish Brabant plus Mechelen and socalled “Little Brabant”. That makes it complicated and diverse. Each vicariate is actually a world in itself. But I still want to be present in the entire diocese. That is why I reguarly spend ten days in my deaneries: Tienen, Diest or, recently, Eigenbrakel. I also live there then. I get to know the pastoral workers, the catechists, I visit hospitals, schools and nursing homes. In the beginning I was a bit afraid of a Flemish reaction: “What is that Walloon doing here?” But that never happened. On the contrary, the reception was very positive. I feel at home here.”
The reception was not only positive, but also ‘warm’. More than once you received a pie in the face. And there was the Femen protest.
Léonard: “The Femen attack was the most enjoyable: I only got water on me. The pie I got in my face in the cathedral in 2010 was decorated with strawberries, and that tasted nice. Only in Louvain-la-Neuve it was mostly unpleasant: those pizzas were really greasy. Terrible.”
You may laugh about it, it is still a form of aggression.
Léonard: “Some priests asked me, “How much did you pay those Femen ladies? You should know how much sympathy you won because of your calm reaction to that attack.” And do put attack in quotation marks: the things that happen in Iraq, Syria or Pakistan, are incomparably worse than a splash of water.”
Apparently your person triggers rage. Your predecessor Danneels never suffered such things.
Léonard: “Some people only know me from the slogans they’ve heard. When I was bishop of Namur, Télémoustique once asked me about my opinion on homosexuality. When I talk about homosexuality, I never speak about deviations or anomalies. I always say that homosexual behaviour does not conform to the objective meaning of sexuality. But people turn it into me calling homosexuals ‘abnormal’. And apparently that is burned into the collective memory. One of the slogans of Femen was to fight against ‘homophobia’. That was simply meaningless. I am not homophobic whatsoever.”
You also found that an archbishop can afford less than a bishop. Already in 2006 you called the Aids epidemic a form of of ‘immanent justice’. That was reprinted when you were archbishop. Your spokesman at the time pointed the risk of that passage out to you, but you refused to change a single letter.
Léonard: “What I learned then is that some concepts are difficult to translate. ‘La justice immanente’ is in the French language a common way of saying, “There are consequences to what you do”. Someone who does not brush his teeth, runs the risk of getting bad teeth. That is the natural consequence of a certain behaviour. But ‘immanent justice’ is not really used in Dutch. That caused the misunderstanding.”
One more time: what is immanent justice about babies contracting Aids in the womb?
Léonard: “But it wasn’t about children who contract Aids in the womb or through a blood transfusion. It was about the outbreak of the first Aids epidemic. And it is common knowledge that that was the result of promiscuous sexual behaviour.”
Did you learn something from that situation?
Léonard: People always ask me about my opinions on sexuality. I never speak about it of my own accord. And today I refer you to what I wrote then,. If I don’t, I give the impression that I am obsessed by those problems.”
That is a statement from Pope Francis: the Church has to get rid of her obessesive focus on themes like abortion and homosexuals.
Léonard: “That is also my conviction.”
Yet you remain an admirer of John Paul II, and he did habitually address moral issues such as abortion. “I wish in any case that all successors of John Paul II will follow in his footsteps,” you once wrote.
Léonard: “I especially admired his courage. John Paul II was also close to the people. He is the first Pope who became pastor of the entire world.”
He did let himself be applauded by the people everywhere in the world. But Church policy was run very centrally from Rome. For the upcoming Synod Francis wants to involve the parishes for the first time.
Léonard: “That is not new. In the past, bishops’ conferences also received a list of questions from Rome to prepare the Synod. And now it isn’t so that every parish must organise some sort of referendum on Rome’s request. How should a parish be able to answer socioligical questions such as the number of divorces and people living together?”
Isn’t Francis a bit too modern to your taste?
Léonard: “Every Pope is different from the others, luckily. Francis is not a clone of his predecessor. He may perhaps never be such a great theologian as Benedict XVI. Benedict was not able to give a speech as John Paul II could. And so on. Ususally, one Pope complements the other. They are complementary.”
Do you understand the enthusiasm of many Catholics for the new Pope?
Léonard: “Of course. Although Francis was the only one of the papabile whom I didn’t know personally. When people asked me if I was happy that Cardinal Bergoglio was the new Pope, I did not know what to say very well. I was happy that there was a Pope, yes. Now I have been able to get to know him a bit, also via the Internet.”
Do you e-mail one another?
Léonard: “No, but I did read some things about him, of course. I have seen him work at the World Youth Days in Rio de Janeiro. And recently in Rome I was able to meet him for a few seconds. I would like for Francis to come to Strasbourg and Brussels.”
Oh? Are you working on a new papal visit?
Léonard: “A number of people are insisting that Francis should first visit the European institutions, instead of just travelling to one European country or another. He will undoubtedly also visit Brussels then.”
You are secretly hoping for a repeat of the massive and enthusiastic reception of John Paul II at the time.
Léonard: “If he is received here in Brussels at the European institutions, Francis will of course also offer a Mass at the Koekelberg basilica. And perhaps he will want to visit a number of social initiatives. And yes, through his actions Francis appeals to the people. That won’t be any different in Brussels. But his visit to Lampedusa, for example, was most certainly impressive.”
Until last week you had your own Lampedusa, with the homeless and asylum seekers in de Gesu church. But you didn’t visit them.
Léonard: (Somewhat bored) “I wasn’t in Brussels when the conflict surrounding the Gesu church escalated. If the opportunity presents itself again, I will certainly stand up for those people. My auxiliary Bishop Léon Lemmens concerns himself with those issues. I don’t know this specific case that well. The situation of those people was not ideal, I heard. In the newspapers I read about promiscuous situations and that there were problems with hygiene. But did that require so much police brutality to chase those poor people out? With all due respect for those who are politically responsible, but the Church should always stand with people who have to live so fragile and precariously.”
That is why Francis acted so strict against the ‘bling’ bishop of Limburg in Germany.
Léonard: “I personally don’t understand why a bishop should have such a train de vie. Why should a bishop have an expensive car? I usually take the train, tram or metro. And if I do have to suffer a traffic jam, I do so in a simple Polo diesel. It uses four litres per one hundred kilometers.”
Francis energetically confronts what goes wrong. Among other things he wants to reform the Curia. Did you find, during your visits to Rome, that that modernisation is necessary?
Léonard: “At the time I insisted with Ratzinger that the Vatican should make its texts more pastoral. People should be able to understand what the Church is saying, right? In his typically mild tone, he answered, “You have a point. But I don’t just write for the faithful in Belgium and Germany, but for the entire world, from South America to Alaska. It is specifically your task, of the bishops, to explain our message locally.” I wasn’t completely convinced.”
Francis shows that one man can bring a message with more clarity and force than thousands of bishops who all have to explain individually what Rome is trying to say.
Léonard: “Francis is a grace to the Church. My priests tell me that they feel the enthusiasm for the new Pope in their people. Even non-Catholics regard this Pope with interest and admiration. (Subtly) Although that is also because he hasn’t broached some difficult topics yet. As archbishop of Buenos Aires he did speak about morality and marriage, but he hasn’t yet as Pope.”
You are also working on your own popularity. Your appearance in De slimste mens resulted in hilarious television.
Léonard: (Amused) “I am not really a conventional bishop. Every nursing home I visit afterwards wants to hire me as entertainer. I can let people sing for hours, in Dutch and in French. I have a large repertoire. And I am most at ease with simple people.”
Perhaps they are also more loyal to authority than Catholic intellectuals. The late Piet De Somer of the Catholic University of Louvain claimed during the papal visit in 1985 the “right the err” for his scientists. He who searches may make mistakes or choose an alternative path.
Léonard: “Is that so? May a scientist make mistakes? When I build a house, I do hope that the architect does not afterwards appeal to his “right to make a mistake”. Does a medical doctor have a “right to make mistakes?” No. So a theologian should not use the “right to err” in order to not have to take the tradition of the Bible and the Church Fathers seriously.”
Didn’t you, as member of the organising authority of the university of Louvain, have to compromise with yourself? In Louvain research into stem cells also uses human embryos.
Léonard: “It is my chief concern that dialogue remains possible between faith and science, and also between Louvain and Rome. A delegation from Louvain has been received in Rome for a number of years. In a positive atmosphere they listened to the other’s arguments. Such conversation will certainly continue in the future, not just about bioethics, but also about the Catholic identity of the university. What is the place of Christ in the university? I won’t avoid that discussion. And I have the advantage that I have been a professor in both Louvain and Louvain-la-Neuve.”
You are part of the generation of French speakers who were chased out of Louvain in 1968.
Léonard: “Of course there was some brutality and violence. But I wasn’t as angry as the French rector André Massaux. He called the split a “sin against the Holy Spirit”. That was not my opinion. I thought Louvain was too small a town to house several tens of thousands extra students.”
So you are not traumatised by “Walloons out”?
Léonard: “Not at all. I mostly remember what the Flemish students sung in the streets of Louvain at Christmas time. (Sings in Dutch) “Louvain, Louvain, Louvain, Flemish for all people of good will”. That is my deepest memory of the conflict. Oh well, considering the political evolution of Belgium, a split was unavoidable. Just like the fact there is now a good cooperation between both universities. In that sense “Louvain Flemish” and the split have contributed even to a better understanding between Flemish and Walloons.”
You are a true Belgian, with good connections at the royal court.
Léonard: “I have met Philippe and Mathilde a few times before their ascension to the throne. At that time I saw a book on philosophy lying on a table. I thought, is that his faourite reading material? Yes, it turned out, because Philippe asked me about the most difficult book I have written, Métaphysique de l’être: “I read that book”, he said. I then asked him a few questions to see if he had understood it. (laughs) And he had. Philippe has a broader development than I had initially thought. He knows Aristotle, Kant and Hegel. He knows what it is about.”
And now he could learn something about rock and pop music.
Léonard: “King Philippe is not unwordly. The last time we met was at the Hanswijk Cavalcade in Mechelen, at the toilets in the underground parking. While we were waiting together, the king said, “Monsignor, this is a rather strange place to meet each other.” And I replied, “Sire, but this is a place where even a king goes on foot.” (laughs)
BY WALTER PAULI