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


“Sincere, modest and humble” – Cardinal Lehmann congratulates Cardinal-designate Rauber

One of the new cardinals is Archbishop Karl-Josef Rauber, who comes from Germany and has been closely involved with the Church in Belgium and Luxembourg. Reason enough to share the congratulatory message from Karl Cardinal Lehmann on the website of the Diocese of Mainz.

Archbishop Rauber was a priest of the Diocese of Mainz from 1959 to 1982 and will be the eleventh German cardinal (five of whom, including Rauber, will be non-electors). He was the previous Nuncio to Belgium and Luxembourg, succeeded in 2009 by Archbishop Giacinto Berloco. In some circles Archbishop Rauber is seen is somewhat of a liberal, but in difficult situations, such as the commotion that followed comments by Pope Benedict XVI that condoms are not the resolution to the AIDS epidemic in Africa (which Rauber experienced firsthand as Nuncio in Uganda), he was able to explain the meaning of what happened correctly and underlined the importance of quotations in context and understanding the subject matter. But Archbishop Rauber has not always been careful: he spoke about the preparatory work he did for the appointment of the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels in 2010, and revealed that the general consensus was that Bishop Jozef de Kesel was to be appointed. Pope Benedict XVI instead chose André-Joseph Léonard. Some saw this openness as a sign of Archbishop Rauber’s frustration that his work was for naught. Likewise, his transfer from Switzerland to Hungary in 1997 was seen as a result of his role in the conflict surrounding then-Bishop Wolfgang Haas of the Diocese of Chur.

In Belgium and Luxembourg, Archbishop Rauber also oversaw the appointment of Bishops Guy Harpigny of Tournai, Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt and Johan Bonny of Antwerp.

lehmann rauber“Congratulations to the Apostolic Nuncio Karl-Josef Rauber
on the occasion of his elevation to cardinal by Pope Francis

Among the (arch)bishops that Pope Francis has appointed as cardinals is – as one of the five gentlemen over the age of 80 – the German-born former Apostolic Nuncio Dr. Karl-Josef Rauber. He is a priest of the Diocese of Mainz.

Archbishop Rauber was born on 11 April 1934 in Nuremberg, went to school at the Benedictine gymnasium in Metten in Bavaria and studied Catholic theology at the then new University of Mainz. On 28 February 1959 he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Albert Stohr in Mainz cathedral. He worked for three years in Nidda, where he got to know well the diaspora situation in Oberhessen.

In 1962, the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, he started his PhD studies in canon law in Rome and attended the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy. From 1966 to 1977 he worked as one of the four secretaries of Archbishop Giovanni Benelli, the later cardinal from Florence, who was very influential in the Secretariat of State and the Curia. He and especially Pope Paul VI had a lasting impact on Rauber. In those eleven years in the Curia, and in close proximity to the Pope, he received a comprehensive experience of the Church.

In 1977 Rauber began his extensive diplomatic work at the Nunciatures in Belgium, Luxembourg and Greece, and later as Nuncio in Uganda. In 1983, on 6 January, the feast of the Epiphany, he was consecrated as a bishop by Pope John Paul II.

In 1990 Nuncio Rauber was tasked with the governance of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome. In 1993 he once again returned to diplomatic service as Apostolic Nuncio in Switzerland and Liechtenstein (1993-1997), in Hungary and Moldova (1997-2003) and in Belgium and Luxembourg (2003-2009), where he had begun his foreign diplomatic career in 1977. Aged 75, Rauber retired in 2009 and has served the Schönstatt sisters in Ergenzingen in the Diocese of Rotternburg-Stuttgart both pastorally and spiritually.

As Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Rauber was faced in some situations with difficult challenges for the Church: in Uganda he encountered the beginning of the AIDS epidemic among the population; in Switzerland he had to help resolve the conflicts in the Diocese of Chur; in Hungary it was the long-term consequences of the relations between Church and state in the Communist era; in the political landscape of Belgium the Church did not have an easy time; in Brussels the Holy See also established its diplomatic mission to the EU: Rauber was the right man for a sensible coordination and division of work for both missions in one place.

So we may be glad that Pope Francis chose to include, from the ranks of former papal diplomats, Karl-Josef Rauber among the especially honoured emeriti in this creation of cardinals. He has especially excelled in service to the world Church and the Pope in the second half of the twentieth century: by incorruptibility and independent judgement, candor and sincerity in dealing with others and modesty and humility in his actions. Through more than a few conversations over the past decade in Rome I know that many of his colleagues think highly of him and are happy to see him in Rome and elsewhere. True to his overall program Pope Francis has highly honoured a selfless diplomat in service to the Church. One may certainly see this is a somewhat belated recognition.

In the years of his high-level work in Rome and for the world Church, Nuncio Rauber has always maintained an active relationship with his native Diocese of Mainz, and the diocese has always accompanied him on his way. That was especially visible in his participation in many happy but also painful events in the diocese. On 13 April 2014 we celebrated his 80th birthday in Mainz.

On Sunday 4 January I congratulated him with his appointment: we are happy with and for him. We thank him for his great service and pray for him for God’s blessing for body and soul.”

Photo credit: Bistum Mainz/Blum

Some personal thoughts about a resignation

Is it customary these days to blacken one’s former employer after one has resigned? I would hope not, but that is exactly what Mr. Jürgen Mettepenningen, the former spokesman of Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, seems to have done in a press statement released yesterday.

The reasons he lists for his sudden resignation are perhaps good ones, but the way he publishes them seems unethical and defamatory, they also point at the state of large parts the Church in Belgium, I fear. Mettepenningen’s words do not stand alone. With the customary zeal for hyperbole, Catholic media have declared that the entire middle field of Catholic Belgium (including priests and some bishops) have turned their backs on Msgr. Léonard. All this for his recent statements about AIDS (which have been discussed recently in this blog as well) and his calls to to exact revenge on elderly priests guilty of sexual abuse of minors. The former can well be defended with recourse to some theological and philosophical contexts, while the latter does seem to be in full agreement with civil law. But reasoned debate of topics that are sensitive in modern secular society (and no less so, by the way, in Catholic society) is now severely curtailed. Only the generally accepted opinions are deemed  so. Statements like the ones made by the archbishop are worthy of contempt, attacks and defamation. Or so it now seems. Considered objectively, that is of course complete nonsense.

But Mr. Mennepenningen, who has recently become one of the most heard Catholic voices in Belgium and beyond because of his job as spokesman, seems to have fully embraced that nonsensical attitude.

But even that may be forgiven. No one, after all, is perfect, and we all make mistakes. No, Mr. Mettepenningen’s full embrace of the popular attitude does not end with merely following its beliefs, but extend to the level of defamation. What’s worse is that this seems to be made worse by the strange view that Mr. Mettepenningen has of his former job. He likened himself to the GPS to Msgr. Léonard’s driver. The directions of a GPS, however worthy they may be, are of course not to blindly accepted in all situations. A driver may choose to take a different road. The GPS will then recalculate the route, all in the service of the driver. GPS-Mettepenningen seemed to look to take the role of driver, deciding on where to go and how to get there. That is odd in any situation, but more so when the driver is the primate of a Church province.

The Church is hierarchical. That is not popular in modern society, but it is no less true because of that. When a bishop is appointed he is also assumed to take upon him the office of teacher. Msgr. Léonard has never shunned that. In fact, unlike certain other prelates, he takes it very seriously. Teachers, as I can say from my own experience, are not always popular. But what they teach can and usually is still to our benefit. To say that what a teacher says is not to one’s liking is one thing. To then discard it (and the teacher) out of a misguided belief that we know it better anyway, is wholly irresponsible.

Mr. Mettepenningen’s resignation is probably for the best. If there are serious differences of opinion between employer and employee, a parting of ways is sensible. But to then take the different opinions of one person and ridicule them in the public forum is nothing short of unethical. For what purpose does it serve in this case? I adds fuel to the fire of the popular opinion of Msgr. Léonard as a person, a teacher, and a bishop. All that for the satisfaction of one man who wants to see his opinions validated?

Msgr. André-Jospeh Léonard is the archbishop of Malines-Brussels and chairman of the Belgian bishops’ conference. Simply in light of that role, of his appointment as shepherd of the faithful in his diocese, he must be taken seriously, and we owe it to him, to ourselves and to the Church we claim we are part of (and of which we are objectively part) to take his words seriously, to consider what they mean and why he says them. Dismissing them out of hand is not an option. Disagreement is fine, but not when it is disagreement because we couldn’t be bothered to think for a bit. And like in any discussion with anyone, we should act ethically. Venting before all to see is not very ethical.

A final word from the archbishop

If only all bishops would be as speedy in responding to media crises regarding them. Archbishop Léonard held a press conference today to further explain his statements about AIDS. These should serve as the final say on the matter, but they probably won’t be enough for some. Well, the facts are out there, the archbishop has explained himself – and very reasonably so, I think –  and now it’s up to the media to run with it, which they may or may not do.

The archbishop’s words in my translation:

“Various passages from my book have appeared in the media and these passages have caused great commotion in many circles, both within and especially outside the Church. It is logical that the full meaning of a statement or sentence can only be fully understood when the entire context is taken seriously. Allow me to discuss the statement about AIDS which has caused so much commotion. Then I will answer your questions.

Regarding the oft-cited passage about AIDS, it should be noted that this is a point of view about promiscuous sexual behaviour that leads to AIDS. I do not, therefore, include AIDS caused by blood transfusion, and neither about AIDS as a disease that one can be born with, but solely about AIDS caused by different sexual contacts. About that I say that AIDS is not a punishment from God, but that at most it may be a sort of immanent justice. Further on in the book I say that I generally regard this form of AIDS as something in the order of a sort of immanent justice. I get the impression that the technical term ‘immanent justice’ has been misunderstood, as if I regard AIDS in all its forms as a disease that is a punishment. What I want to say can be compared to smoking. If lung cancer is the consequence of excessive smoking, the cancer is something in the order of a sort of immanent justice, because the cause of a consequence that in hindsight can be called a logical consequence, lies in the facts that one does consciously. The same goes for AIDS as a result of promiscuous sexual behaviour.

I want to emphasise that I say repeatedly in the book that I do not judge people, but I do judge certain actions. Jesus never judged people, but he did judge some of their actions. On the page following the of-cited passage about AIDS, it literally says: AIDS patients and seropositive people may never be the subject of discrimination. There is not a single reason to discriminate against them. These people must be treated like everyone else. Whatever the reason for their disease, they must be embraced, encouraged and respected.

My book is not supposed to shock, but it supposed to announce principles I hold to and to express my attitude of respect to every human in every situation. I regret that this has become clear enough yesterday and today, and I want to make clear to you all – and especially to AIDS sufferers and seropositive people –  that I consider them with respect and love.”


Msgr. Léonard’s statements in context

Archbishop Léonard shows an acute sense of the consequences of his words about the AIDS issue and has chosen to release his full answer to the question of the journalists, which I discussed in my previous post. Perhaps it may serve as a further explanation, although the damage is already done. It is clear that many people simply don’t read beyond the soundbite.

Here is my translation of the archbishop’s full answer:

What do you think about AIDS? Do you consider the disease as a ‘punishment from God for the sexual revolution?

“Someone once asked John Paul II if AIDS was a punishment from God. He then wisely answered that it is very difficult to know God’s intentions. I myself don’t reason in those terms at all. So I do not see this epidemic as a punishment, but at the most as a sort of immanent justice, sort of like how, in ecology, we are faced with the consequences of what we are doing to the environment. Maybe human love also responds when she is treated badly, without the need of a transcendent source. Maybe it is a sort of immanent justice, but as far as the concrete causes are concerned, doctors should some day be able to say how this disease came to be, how it was initially transmitted and then spread further… But considered more generally, I stick to something in the order of a sort of immanent justice. Badly handling physical nature causes it to treat us badly in turn and badly dealing with the deeper nature of human love will ultimately always lead to catastrophes on all levels.” Msgr. Léonard – conversations, pp. 173-174.


Msgr. Léonard’s small mistake?

Despite the ever-present risk of one’s words being taken out of context in today’s media, Arcbishop Léonard of Brussels consciously decided to not change some of the words in a new book of interviews with him. The book in question is titled ‘Mgr. Léonard – gesprekken’ (Msgr. Léonard – conversations), and was written and compiled by two Belgian journalists.

In one of the conversation, Msgr. Léonard speaks about the AIDS epidemic. He says, “So I do not see this epidemic as a punishment, but at the most as a sort of immanent justice, sort of like how, in ecology, we are faced with the consequences of what we are doing to the environment.”

The conclusion made here and there is, predictably, that Msgr. Léonard sees AIDS as a form of justice. But that’s too simple a conclusion. I think, upon reading these words, that the archbishop most of all wanted to say that the epidemic is (at least partly) a result of our own actions. And in that way it can be seen as justified. We made it possible, after all.

Léonard’s spokesman, Jürgen Mettepenningen, was hesitant about these words, as he explained on radio today. “I wouldn’t have said it like this. [The archbishop] left the sentence unchanged because he says that he can’t write anything but what he thinks. […] I shouldn’t be saying what he should think. I am the spokesman, not a decider of words.”

Maybe the exact wording was not wise to use, but they do deserve to be read for what they are: an acknowledgement of our responsibility when it comes to the spread of AIDS and not some divine punishment.