Bishop Van Looy’s powerful Synod plea for service

Another day, another Belgian Synod intervention. Today it’s Bishop Luc Van Looy who makes a powerful plea for charity and service. It is, he says, the way towards hope and credibility. Read the Original Dutch text here, and my translation below:

Intervention on Part I, Chapter II
(“The Challenge of Poverty and Social Exclusion”)
and Chapter III
(“The Challenge of Migration”)
of the Instrumentum laboris

Rome, 6 October 2015

Bisschop Van LooyTo begin I would like to thank you, Holy Father, for a special sentence in Evangelii Gaudium. I am of the impression that this thought is of prime importance: “The Holy Spirit can be said to possess an infinite creativity, proper to the divine mind, which knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs, even the most complex and inscrutable” (EG 178). He can solve the complex problems of poor families, of people living in the margins, of people who have been separated because of war, and of those who have faith in each other. He can also loosen the knots of the Synod.

Migrant and refugee families suffer because of social exclusion. They live in poverty and can not take part in social life. It is hard to obtain civil rights in western countries. They have no income and are often not welcome in the area where they end up. Invisible suffering, poverty and anger are growing in our cities because of unemployment, especially among young people. We all know that commerce, industry, banks and technology are omnipresent today and that their free circulation knows no bounds. For people, on the other hands, there are strict boundaries. It is high time that we tell the world that people are the most important. We can not give up these migrant or refugee families and leave them to their own devices. How to give them credible hope? (EG 86).

In the parable the Samaritan is God Himself who invites the Christian communities to communicate His love to all people. Christians are not only touched by the destitute and wounded man on the side of the road, they actually help him and also bring him to the inn, which is to say: to the institution, to the Church, to the school and the hospital, and afterwards they also remain involved and keep an eye on him.

The Church has the means to be present in a very effective way for migrant and refugee families. With her international network she can, with the help of the experience of local Caritas organisations, create structures of solidarity which eliminate poverty and which make sure that ethical and social rules are respected.

Service, diakonia, is for the Church the way towards credibility. Thanks to the Second Vatican Council we have permanent deacons. Should we not focus more on the diaconate and service to help separated families? How to give hope to broken families, whatever the reason for their break may be? The cry of families in need must be heard by the Christian community and by the parishes. People in great need are loved by God, the Good Shepherd. They deserve our full attention, regardless of their origin, gender, age, social status, religion or the broken situation they find themselves in. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus went looking for the lost sheep, lost by accident or on purpose. Moses, too, went back to the unfaithful people to lead it to the promised land.

This leads us to the topic of mercy. Who are we to judge, to exclude people who live in situations which make unity impossible? Who are we not to use the means that we have to bring hope and joy to families who have lost all their rights because of war and poverty? We must start from the fact that God sent His Son to all people to save them, not to judge them. His mercy fills our hearts when we encounter actual people who have been excluded and live in exile. What they need is our love, which comes from the love that God has for us.

Msgr. Luc Van Looy
Bishop of Ghent
Chairman of Caritas Europe

Bishop Bonny at the Synod – Yes to family and marriage, respect for diversity and local responsibilities

Like last year, the intervention of a Belgian Synod father has been made public. This time it is Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, who used his three minutes of speaking time to discuss the chapter from the Instrumentum laboris that deals with the fullness of the family.

The Dutch original text is available here. Below is my English translation:

johan-bonnyIntervention on Part II, Chapter III (The Family and The Path Leading to its Fullness) of the Instrumentum laboris (IL)

  1. According to sociological research, marriage and family are highly regarded as values, even in modern western culture. There is an honest desire among both Christians and those who think differently for authentic friendship, lasting relationships, for children and grandchildren, for supportive family structures. For the Church this desire is a positive starting point for the proclamation of the Gospel. At the same time there are doubts in our society about the feasibility and the sustainability of marriage and family (IL 65). It is therefore important that the Church has a convincing word in favour of the choice for marriage and children, and the steps and path of growth towards making that choice. In this context, civil marriage, as institutional form of marriage and family, deserves the necessary appreciation (IL 63, 66, 102). Furthermore, our contemporaries are counting on the Church as a partner in the development of social structures and legal frameworks which benefit marriage and family life. On this point the Synod can send out a strong and, if necessary, countercultural signal.
  2. Sacramental marriage is, also among faithful, no longer the de facto only model of marriage and family life. The experiences of our contemporaries are very diverse and varied on this point. More than in the past, their life stories follow a personal course. Next to risks and limitations, this development also offers possibilities and opportunities. It is important that the Church highlight the positive or constructive elements in this development (IL 56, 98), value the “seeds of the Words” which are dormant in life stories (IL 56, 99), recognise the graduality in the process of growth that people go through (IL 60), respect and promote the “divine pedagogy of grace” on the path of life that God goes with people (IL 62), and also welcome a “praeparatio evangelica” in the “symphony of differences” (IL 83), and especially to end all exclusions (IL 72, 121). For couples and families the way of the Gospel today is the way of dialogue and mutual respect.
  3. In their local Churches bishops encounter a great variety of questions and needs, to which they must provide a pastoral answer today. Across the world, faithful and pastors have made use of the Synod and the questionnaire to present their pressing questions to the bishops and the Pope. Those questions clearly differ between countries and continents. There is however a common theme in those questions, namely the desire that the Church will stand in “the great rive of mercy” (IL 68, 106). It is important that the Synod give space and responsibility to the local bishops to formulate suitable answers to the pastoral questions of that part of the people of God which is entrusted to their pastoral care. The individual bishops’ conferences have a special role in this. The Synod not only deals with “the family as Church”, but also with “the Church as family”. Every family knows what it means to work on unity in diversity, with patience and creativity.

Msgr. Johan Bonny, Bishop of Antwerp
Bishops’ Conference of Belgium

Don Danneels? The power struggles of the Belgian cardinal

danneelsIn an extensive biography (cover pictured), published earlier this week, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, retired archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and personal choice of Pope Francis to attend the Synod of Bishops assembly in two weeks time, speaks frankly about his membership of a group of cardinals and bishops, which he likenes to a maffia. This group, named Sankt Gallen for the Swiss town where they would meet, became active in 1990s and included among its members the late Cardinals Carlo Martini and Basil Hume, Cardinals Kasper and Lehmann, as well as Bishop Ad van Luyn, bishop emeritus of Rotterdam.

It should be noted that I have not been able to read the biography myself yet, so I draw my conclusion from those snippets I have read and from what others have written.

The group, which Cardinal Danneels called a maffia in an interview, had the aim of radically modernising the Church following the papacy of St. John Paul II. Members could speak freely and no records were kept, as the cardinal admitted once the group’s existence was revealed in research related to the writing of the biography.

Unhappy with the course of the Church under Saint John Paul II (who appointed Cardinal Danneels as archbishop in 1979 and cardinal in 1983), the group tried to influence the conclave of 2005, and Cardinal Danneels freely admits to have been disillusioned when the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was elected as Pope Benedict XVI. Apparently they had a Pope in mind in the mold of Pope Francis, and his 2013 election was met with satisfaction.

It is one thing to discuss the future and express hopes and wishes, it is quite another to form a sort of shadow cabinet in blatant opposition to the Pope and expressing disappointment when the wrong pontiff is chosen. Cardinal Danneels does not seem to see it as problematic that he so callously disregards one Pope and creates an artificial opposition between him and his successor.

As Catholics we believe in the guidance of the Holy Spirit when a new Pope is chosen. We believe that his work is for the good of the work, even when we may sometimes disagree with the way he works or what he focusses on. There is a certain element of loyalty involved, especially on the parts of cardinals and bishops, who have been created and appointed to assist the Pope in the affairs of the world Church. Loyal disagreement, which may be expressed personally to the Pope or even publically when well-founded and expressed with aforementioned loyalty and faith in the Spirit is certainly possible. It may even be good sometimes.

But this is not what the Sankt Gallen group did. Secret meetings, no records, a maffia… This does not give an impression of loyalty, but of an attempt to influence things in secret, behind the scenes. And while the group is evidently happy with Pope Francis, he may turn out to be their greatest enemy. From the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has wanted to end the backroom politics and hunger for personal gain in the Curia and has been very clear about what a bishop should be: concerned not with power, but with the sheep.

Personally, I do not like pidgeonholing people (Cardinal Wilfrid Napier has a good article in the Catholic Herald on that same topic, by the way), and I don’t believe for one second that Cardinal Danneels is or has been all bad, as some would have us believe. But that does not take away the fact that he has gone beyond his authority and the conduct expected of cardinals and bishops.

Bishop surprise – Ghent’s Van Looy to join Belgian delegation to the Synod

van looyWe already knew that the Belgian bishops had delegated Bishop Johan Bonny to October’s Synod of Bishops assembly, and it is no surprise that Cardinal Godfried Danneels once again features in Pope Francis’ personal selection of delegates. What is surprising, not least to the man himself, is the choice of a third Belgian bishop to go to Rome next month, as we learned from the full list of Synod delegates that was released today. That third bishop is Msgr. Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent and, since a few months, chairman of Caritas Europe. And that function, the bishop believes, may well be the reason that he was selected by the Pope.

“I was surprised by the personal invitation from the Pope. I assume that the Pope asked me because of my experiences in the world Church and as chairman of Caritas Europe and member of the international administration in Rome.”

Those functions will also dictate his contributions at the Synod, Bishop Van Looy explains.

“I will focus therefore on families and poverty, families who are fleeing or migrating, as well as broken families and the consequences thereof for children. Additionaly, as a Salesian I am especially concerned with young people and their upbringing and all the concerns that parents have regarding this. Let’s not forget that the Synod is about the mission of the family in the world”.

A point well worth remembering in that last sentence, as too often it seems that the only thing to be discussed at the Synod is whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics should receive Communion.

Bishop Van Looy was already chosen by the other bishops of Belgium to be the substitute for Bishop Bonny, to attend the Synod if the latter would be unable to. Whetehr they will now chose another substitute seems possible if unlikely.

Two other Belgian participants are Fr. George Henri Ruyssen SJ, professor in Canon Law at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, and Fr. Emmanuel De Ruyver, a priest studying in Rome, who is an assistant in the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.

Archbishop Léonard at 75, time to look back and ahead.

léonardToday Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard marks his 75th birthday, and his letter of resignation will be delivered to the desk of Archbishop Giacinto Berloco, the Apostolic Nuncio to Belgium, who will forward it to Rome. All this is foreseen in canon law, but the immediate outcome has several options.

The resignation may be accepted immediately, after which a Diocesan Administrator will have to be appointed. The resignation may als be postponed for either a set or undefined period. In any case, the Holy See press office bulletins, which announce retirement and new appointments, will be enthusiastically scrutinised.

In any case, the relatively short period that Archbishop Léonard occupied the seat of Saint Rumbold is coming to an end. It is a time of looking back, as well as looking ahead. Back at the past five years and ahead to whomever the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels may be.

Archbishop Léonard was appointed at roughly the same time that I started this blog, and my translation of an earlier interview with him caused one of the first peaks in visitors here. Ever since his appointment, he was considered a likely candidate to be made a cardinal, which however never happened. But this never caused him grief.

One of the first major obstacles on his path was the revelation that the former bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, had been guilty of sexual abuse. As president of the Belgian Bishops’ Conference, all eyes were on Archbishop Léonard. Shortly afterwards, the archbishop went to Rome for the ad limina visit. In an interview he discussed the Vangheluwe case, as well as education and the shortage of priests. Shortly before his own retirement, the archbishop was judged guilty of negligence in a case of sexual abuse.

201104070920-1_andre-leonard-veegt-taart-weg-en-vervolgt-voordracht-About education, he later had to correct misunderstandings about his comments, something that would mark the following years as well. Notable were his comments about AIDS as a form of immanent justice. This seeming difficulty in understanding between archbishop and media even led to the archbishop’s spokesman resigning. Among many clergy and faithful, even politicians, Archbishop Léonard was not popular because of his clear voice and these misrepresentations, although in pastoral contexts he was widely loved, for example when 22 Belgian children died in a coach crash in Switzerland. Adversity, however, sometimes had the upper hand, as the archbishop was the recipient of pies (above right), pizza, slaps and water to his face. These attacks never aroused anger in him, however. On the contrary. Following that final assault, Archbishop Léonard wrote a very kind letter to all who had expressed support for him.

In Brussels, Archbishop Léonard was soon faced with the need for new bishops, as his auxiliaries left to Namur and Bruges. In 2011 he recieved three new auxiliary bishops.

In 2012, Archbishop Léonard led his diocese in a new evangelisation of cities, one of the first porjects of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation.

Archbishop Léonard took part on two Synod of Bishops assemblies, where he spoke on the reality of evil, as well as the role of women in the Church. In the 2012 Synod he was a member of the Commission for the Message.

Following the election of Pope Francis, Archbishop Léonard offered a Mass of thanksgiving in Brussels.

Last year, Archbishop Lëonard started looking ahead to the future, even clearing up some misconceptions about his upcoming retirement.

ordination léonard fraternity of the holy apostlesAfter his retirement, and contrary to his previously expressed wish to leave Brussels, Archbishop Léonard will live with the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles, a priestly fraternity which he founded in 2013 (at left, Archbishop Léonard is seen ordaining one of the fraternity’s priests in October of 2014). Priests from this fraternity, inspired by Fr. Michel-Marie Zanotti-Sorkine, are currently entrusted with the pastoral care of two parishes in Brussels. Whether this will be a temporary arrangement or otherwise, remains to be seen.

As for the future for Mechelen-Brussels, we can only guess. But there are some possibilities we may investigate. The metropolitan see of Mechelen has been held in turn by archbishops from the Flemish and Walloon parts of Belgium. While Pope Francis, who makes the final appointment, is probably not one to be bothered overly much by such considerations, preferring to choose the best man for the job, whether he be from Flanders of Wallonia, it is a sensitive issue in Belgium. I expect therefore that the new archbishop will come from one of the Flemish dioceses or that part of the archdiocese which lies in Flanders. Archbishop Léonard, after all, is a Walloon, and his predecessor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, hails from Flanders.

kockerolsThe Holy Father may choose to elevate one of the suffragan bishops of Flanders. These are Bishop Jozef de Kesel of Bruges, Luc van Looy of Ghent, Johan Bonny of Antwerp and Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt. Bishop Léon Lemmens, auxiliary bishop for the Flemish part of Mechelen-Brussels, and Jean Kockerols, auxiliary for Brussels (pictured at right), may also be added to this group. At 73, Bishop van Looy is too close to his own retirement to be a likely choice. The others are between 56 and 67, so their age is no issue. Three bishops (De Kesel, Lemmens and Kockerols) know the archdiocese well, as they serve or have served as auxiliary bishops in it. There are also bishops who are no strangers to Rome or to the Pope personally. Bishop van Looy accompanied the young people of Verse Vis when they interviewed the Pope last year. Bishop Lemmens worked in Rome before being appointed as auxiliary bishop and Bishop Kockerols is internationally active as one of the vice-presidents of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE). Bishop Bonny had made headlines for himself in relation to the Synod of Bishops, so he will also not be unknown in Rome. The only relatively unknown bishop is Patrick Hoogmartens, but he, at least, has a motto that should appeal to the current papacy: “Non ut iudicet, sed ut salvetur” (Not to judge, but to save, John 3:17).

Or the Pope may decide to do something that hasn’t happened since 1925: appoint a priest who has not yet been a bishop anywhere else to become the new archbishop. Whoever he may turn out to be, he will facing a stiff task as a shepherd in an increasingly secular environment. It may be hoped that he will be both pastorally sensitive and doctrinally clear.

léonard coat of armsArchbishop Léonard’s coat of arms

A month before retirement, Archbishop Léonard in court

léonardA court in Liège has convicted Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of negligence in the face of complaints against an abusive priest, made known to him when he was bishop of Namur in the 1990s. The victim intially kept quiet about the years of sexual abuse he suffered, wanting to be a priest himself, but eventually did inform the Catholic Church. He had a long conversation with then-Bishop André-Mutien Léonard, but saw little follow-up. The priest in question was merely transferred. Only in 2001 did the victim go to court over the abuse and was eventually awarded 37,000 euros in damages, to be paid by the abusive priest. Archbishop Léonard was also charged in 2013, but not convicted because he wasn’t a bishop yet when the abuse took place and the victim had already been awarded damages. A subsequent appeal was successful, and Archbishop Léonard has now been ordered to pay an additional 10,000 euros in damages for having underestimated the seriousness of the abuse. Five percent of the victim’s disability is due to the archbishop’s inaction, the court judged.

This is the first time that a bishop in Belgium has been convicted for failing to act against sexual abuse by clergy. This case is all the more noticeable in light of the recent removal of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, two years after he was convicted of similarly failing to act (Bishop Finn waited overly long before reporting a priest who possessed child porn to the authorities). Archbishop Léonard will most likely not be facing such a removal as he turns 75 next month and will send his letter of resignation to the Holy Father. Another important difference in the two cases is that Archbishop Léonard was dealing with crimes which took place when the period of limitation had already ended.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, established by Pope Francis in March of 2014, has recently been emphasising the accountability of bishops, and it may be expected that they will want to take a close look at this case. Ever since the sexual abuse crisis broke, and especially in the last five years, the Church does not hold to periods of limitation when it comes to sexual abuse by clergy.

I have no doubt that the archbishop will accept the verdict, nor do I suspect any ill will in his transfer of the abusive priest, but it is clear that it was a wrong decision (although we don’t know if the priest went on abusing elsewhere, that is not a risk that should ever be taken). And wrong decisions also have their consequences.

Wit and wisdom – Archbishop Léonard explains the truth behind the headlines

Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard wrote an article in this month’s edition of Pastoralia, the magazine published by the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, concerning his upcoming retirement. It is written with wit, but it is also a serious reminder about the nature of the mandate of a bishop, the priesthood and the hope of a Christian.

ARCHBISHOP ANDRE-JOSEPH LEONARD OF MECHELEN-BRUSSELS TESTIFIES DURING HEARING“In December some media were moved to hear that I would be writing a letter to the Holy Father on 6 May, to make available my office as archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels. All those emotions were completely unnecessary, since some one hundred bishops will write a similar letter this year, on the occasion of their 75th birthday, as dictated by Canon Law (can. 401 § 1). It is up to the Pope to accept or deny this resignation.

Since normal news reports are not interesting to the media, some have wanted to interpret that future letter as a clear sign of discouragement or disappointment, or even as an expression of disagreement with Pope Francis! Such imagination…

Some reporters asked me if a hoped that my mandate would be extended for a few years, as was often the case for archbishops during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I replied that I did not hope for that. A Christian’s hope, and that of a priest, is rather directed at something much more important than the extension of his mandate. From that they concluded that I did not hope for an extension and wanted to retire immediately. As if “I do not hope that…” and “I do not hope for..” are synonymous. Well, the hope of a Christian and a priest is not so much to retire quickly, but to remain active in his mission for a long while. But from the media I draw the conclusion that people do not excel in logic, even when they have made words and language their profession…

In short: I ask my brothers in the priesthood and the faithful of the diocese not to be carried away by unfounded assumptions. What I hope for especially – in this and many other situations – is that the will of God will manifest itself in my life and that I will be sufficiently free to accept the Holy Father’s  decision, whatever it may be, with an equanimous heart.

In that respect I appreciate greatly the words of Pope Francis, who reminds his brother, cardinals, bishops and priests, that they are neither eternal nor irreplaceable, and in which he discourages every spirit of careerism and human ambition in servants of the Holy Church. Let he who has ears, listen!

Finally, until the time that my duty in Mechelen-Brussels ends, I would use all my strength for my task, with the same enthusiasm and the same gratitude as today. And when the time comes to bid each other farewell, I will live my priesthood – for the time that remains for me on this earth – with the same attitude and the same hope.

 + André-Joseph Léonard, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels”