An archbishop’s first tempest

de keselLess then two months in, Archbishop Jozef De Kesel weathered his first true storm these past few days, as his comments about the freedom of Catholic hospitals to refuse performing euthanasia led to strong criticism, even from politicians.

In an interview last Saturday, the archbishop was asked what he thought about freedom of choice in matters of abortion and euthanasia. He answered:

“I can understand that someone with a secular view of life has no problems with it. But it is not evident from my faith. I think I am allowed to say that, and what’s more: I also think that we have the right, on an institutional level, to decide not to do it. I am thinking, for example, of our hospitals. You are not free to choose if there is only one option.”

Critics then accused Archbishop De Kesel of disregarding the law in Belgium and urging others, namely Catholic hospitals, to do the same. But others, among them politicians, lawyers and legal experts, soon countered that no such thing was the case. They pointed out that the law does not create a right to be euthanised or have an abortion performed. Institutions, parliamentary documents indicate, are free to refuse such life-ending measures within their walls. However, their obligation to offer all the necessary medical care available does include the option of referral to other institutions or persons who do offers euthanasia or abortion. This is problematic from a Catholic point of view, but that is not what the hubbub was about. Archbishop De Kesel was correct in his statement that institutions should be free to make the choice to not end the lives of their patients.

Even before his appointment to Brussels, Archbishop De Kesel has been criticised for his perceived lack of support for the Catholic doctrines regarding the sanctity of all life. At his installation, there were protesters in front of the cathedral emphasising just this.*

Some said that the archbishop should have used the occasion to say that no Catholic institution can offer to end a life, be it unborn or elderly (or otherwise deemed unsuited to live). And unequivocal statements like that remain necessary, especially in a society where euthanasia and abortion are considered normal medical procedures and even part of a person’s rights. On the other hand, it will not always be effective to do so. The interview in question focusses on the person of the archbishop, and his experiences and thoughts, rather than official Catholic teaching. Of course the latter gets a look in, and a bishop can’t go and deny or ignore it when it does, and Archbishop De Kesel doesn’t. He sheds his personal light on it, not that of the official magisterium. And more often than not, these two overlap (about priestly celibacy, for example, he says: “I am not opposed to celibacy. I think it can be very useful, and personally I have never had the idea that I was a loser or that I missed something because I am celibate. Married people also miss all kinds of things. It is simply a matter of choice”).

Of course, bishops and priests (and lay Catholics, for that matter) must take care not to keep the pendulum on the side of personal experiences and thoughts alone. In the end, a bishop has the duty to teach and communicate the faith that has been taught and communicated to him, regardless of what he personally thinks of it.

In the context of this question, it is clear that the Church opposes the killing of people, no matter the situation. That includes abortion and euthanasia. Persons or institutions calling themselves Catholic are obliged to uphold this. Archbishop De Kesel has said that they should be free to do so, and the law supports this. The Church does not oblige non-Catholics to follow her teachings (although she greatly hopes and desires for them do so).

Archbishop Jozef De Kesel is in the spotlight, now that he is the primus inter pares of the Belgian Church, and that can be both positive and negative. He is experiencing much the same things as his predecessor, Archbishop Léonard, when he took up the job.

*This makes me wonder: why are we always looking at prelates and other Church officials to vocally defend life, when it is clear what the Church teaches? Why only them and not us? Are we less Catholic? Are we somehow less obliged to uphold the sanctity of life? I think that if we take our own responsibility (and not just in these matters either) in defending our faith, we would soon discover the bishops and priests, that we now look towards with expectation, at our side.

Seriousness and joy, two bedfellows in the Year of Mercy – Archbishop De Kesel’s installation homily

Last Saturday, Msgr. Jozef De Kesel was installed as the 24th Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, at the Cathedral of St. Rumbold. Attending were, among others, the Belgian king and queen, all other Belgian bishops (including Archbishop De Kesel’s two predecessors, Archbishop Léonard and Cardinal Danneels), as well as Cardinal Wim Eijk from the Netherlands and Bishop Gérard Coliche from France. In his homily, the new archbishop looked at the readings of the third Sunday of Advent, and kept close to the theme of the Holy Year of Mercy. In the spirit of Pope Francis, he called for a Church that goes out into the world, to confront “our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.”

Read my translation of the homily, which was given in both French and Dutch, below.

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“Dear friends,

The Scripture readings we have just heard are the reading for the third Sunday of Advent. They are words that are being read today and tomorrow everywhere in the world, wherever Christians come together on the Sunday. They prepare us for Christmas. But they do give us mixed feelings. On the one hand we have John’s call for conversion. That we do not miss He who is coming. For He is coming, he says, “to clear his threshing floor”. Not exactly a comforting message. Words that point out the seriousness of the situation and our responsibility.

But at the same time there is also the call to joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” he says. Of old this Sunday has also been called this: Sunday Gaudete! And Saint Paul adds, “Have no anxiety …  the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds. The Prophet Zephaniah shares the same call for joy. They seem unlikely bedfellows: the seriousness and responsibility that John emphasises and the call to joy and happiness. But it is these two which brings us together today: great responsibility, but also great joy.

Yes, the words of John are binding. He calls to conversion. Yet when those who have just been baptised ask him, “What should we do?”, his response is surprising. He asks for nothing extraordinary or sensational. Share what you have. They should not give everything, but what they have. If you have more clothing than you need, then give to those who do not have enough. The same applies to food: share what you have more of than you need. And to the tax collectors he does not say to cease their work. He simply says, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed”. Beware of corruption. And the soldiers who come to him, he does not ask to desert. He simply asks them: do what you do properly, without abusing your position and without the use of arbitrary violence. Never forget that you are human like everyone else. What John asks requires string commitment. That is true. But he does not ask anything extravagant. A baptised person does not keep a distance from others. We are to return to the responsibility and solidarity that we share with all men, regardless of their religion of belief.

But why be baptised? Why be Christian? The liturgy of this Sunday gives us the answer, and it too is astonishing. It is the joy that makes me a believer. It is not out of necessity or because I feel obligated. I am a Christian in freedom and love. We are known and loved by God. This is the heart of our faith. This joy and all love is therefore a call to fidelity and conversion.

This is the heart of Christianity. Not in the first place a doctrine or morality. But the certainty that we, frail and temporary people, are known and loved by God. It can hardly be imagined. But how, if this is true, can we not rejoice? Of course this does not answer all questions or solve every problem. But we know from experience how much this makes us happy, gives meaning and direction to our existence: that we are known, appreciated and loved by other people. That we are not nobody. Exactly that is the joy of the Gospel: to know that we are not only by those who are near to use, but by God Himself, the Creator and source of all that exists. Known and loved and radically accepted. Not without reason did Pope Francis call his first Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel”. And not without reason did he, last Tuesday in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, at the start of the great jubilee, open the door, the door of God’s mercy. Like we will do tomorrow here, and in Brussels and in Nivelles and in all cathedrals and jubilee churches in the entire world.

No, God is not an indifferent God. No arbitrary power, only concerned with Himself. We people are worth everything to Him. That is why He ask that one thing: that we are also not indifferent to each other. Especially not to those who stand at the side and do not matter, the poor and vulnerable, and the countless who are fleeing from war and violence. That we respect all life, no matter how small and vulnerable. Respect for the religious and philosophical convictions of every man. Respect and care for the planet we inhabit. We are also responsible for future generations. This world can be a hard place. This is what the Gospel asks from us: that we do not became hard and indifferent, insensitive and merciless. Because that is our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.

This is the Gospel that the Church proclaims. The Gospel of God’s tenderness. And this is not just rhetoric. He is committed to the very end. And His Son, Jesus Christ, became one of us, vulnerable and defenseless as a child of men. A miracle of humanity. A love to which there is only one answer: to love in our turn. We appreciate and respect each other. Proclaiming the mercy of God and calling for respect and love, that is the mission of the Church. This is the place it searches out in our pluralistic and modern society. Nothing more, and nothing less. In a secularised culture, she can and must make her voice heard. And so much more than a religious fundamentalism that at this time constitutes a very real threat.

Not a Church that looks inward, but a Church that shares in the joys and sufferings of the world. Sympathetic to the plight of humans, of any kind. This was the message of the Second Vatican Council. Last Tuesday, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, it was exactly fifty years since the closing of the Ecumenical Council. The Constitution on the Church in the world begins with these impressive and moving words: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

This is the vocation that the Church has received from God. To that we want to dedicate our best forces at the task entrusted to me today. I with you, and you with me. As we heard from John: no extravagant or spectacular projects. But a search for a consistent experience of the Gospel. And with that one certainty: that we are known and loved by God. That is our joy and faith today.

+Jozef De Kesel
Mechelen, 12 December 2015″

Archbishop Léonard’s farewell, part one

On Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard bade his first of four farewells to the archdiocese he led for six years. He did so as Mechelen’s cathedral of St. Rumbold, for the vicariate of Mechelen and Flemish Brabant, in the presence of priests, faithful, auxiliary Bishop Léon Lemmens and his predecessor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels. In his homily, the translation of which follows below, the archbishop looked back on the past years and his own efforts in shepherding the faithful of Mechelen-Brussels “towards the heart of our faith, the person of Jesus Christ Himself”.

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“Dear brother priests,

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am very happy to be able to say goodbye to you on this first Sunday of Advent. For, as you may perhaps know, I took my episcopal motto from the prayer at the heart of this liturgical time: “Yes, come Lord Jesus!”. Of course, the second coming of Jesus in glory will be preceded by terrible tests; a bit like everyone’s arrival into eternal life will be preceded by the narrow passage of our death. That is why we do not give in to fear, but recover and rise again, for our salvation is at hand.

In the six years that I was bishop among you, I tried to lead you to the heart of our faith, namely the person of Jesus Himself, true man and true God, crucified to bear all our pain and resurrected so that we down here could already have a taste of a life which continues past death. I have tried to raise you up “on high”, to the Lord, true my teaching and especially through the celebration of the liturgy in a way worthy of the Lord and which could teach our hearts most deeply. That is why I wanted to meet you all in the field, in the 15 deaneries of our vicariate of Flemish Brabant and Mechelen. I was touched by the warm welcome that I received everywhere and by the wealth of what is happening in numerous parishes. For that I thank you from my heart.

At this time you are working hard on the restructuring of the parishes. That operation is necessary, but sometimes also a but painful or disconcerting, as, by the way, is the case with every ‘operation’. But this restructuring is only a means. As my successor has said at the press conference for his appointment: the essence lies elsewhere, the essence is the blazing flame of love, the spiritual, yes, even prophetic elan which must inspire the structures. This inspiration can only be received as a grace, through prayer and adoration, because it is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

When I met you during my pastoral visits, I was full of admiration for the engagement of so many lay people, so many consecrated persons, and a great number of very well-formed deacons. But you will understand that I will express my special gratitude, first and foremost to my auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Lemmens, and his coworkers, on whom I could count, and finally to all my brother priests. I was very pleased with you engagement, you availability for all people. I when I met brothers who experienced difficulties or about whom I had heard bad words, I tried as best as I could to give them a new chance, by given them my trust, every time anew.

The best gift I could give you, dear brothers, at the end of my episcopacy, seemed to me to be the assurance of succession: young brothers who are able to continue your pastoral task, even along new ways. This year our archdiocese has 55 seminarians: 20 in the familiar diocesan program, 20 in the Redemptoris Mater seminary and 15 in the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles. Among these future priests there are – I admit – only eight fully Flemish. That is progress compared to the past. But among our seminarians of foreign descent there are several who are trying their best to be properly bilingual, so that can also work in Flanders. I entrust these future priests to your good care and your prayer. For they are bearers of hope, of that hope about which the prophet Jeremiah says, “Look, the days are coming when I shall fulfil the promise I made to the House of Israel and the House of Judah.” But what interests us here today is especially everything that can contribute to the happiness of our diocese, and especially of our beloved vicariate of Flemish Brabant and Mechelen. Thanks to all of you that you are willing to contribute to that happiness, in a great community of the heart with my successor!”

André-Joseph Léonard”

The three other occasions to bid farewell to Archbishop Léonard will be at the cathedral of St. Michael and Gudula in Brussels on 5 December, the national basilica in Koekelberg on the morning of 6 December and the Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude in Nivelles in the afternoon of that same day.

Photo credit: Phk/KerkNet

Just before the announcement, an interview with Archbishop De Kesel

Minutes before today’s announcement and presentation of the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Kerknet had the chance to sit down and ask a few questions to Archbishop-elect Jozef De Kesel. The interview about memories of the past and hopes for the future gives some idea of who Msgr. De Kesel is.

In my translation:

aartsbisschop-jozef-de-keselAt your ordination as priest you were surrounded by priests of the family, and especially also your uncle, Leo De Kesel [auxiliary bishop of Ghent from 1960 to 1991, who ordained his nephew]. Was it a matter of course for you to follow in their footsteps?

“The well-known Uncle Fons, a Norbertine from Averbode Abbey, was also there. But no, in 1965 it was already not a matter of course anymore. My vocation comes in part from the family context, but also from my involvement in the Catholic Social Action and in the parish, where a group of us studied the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council.”

Who were your mentors?

“In that time we read, for example, Romano Guardini. I also followed the movement around Charles de Foucauld. Later, when I studied theology, I read with interest the Jesus book and other literature of Msgr. Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner and Willem Barnard.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also a great source of inspiration for me. I mostly discovered him when I was responsible for the Higher Institute of Religion in Ghent. I was so fascinated by Letters and Papers from Prison that I subsequently read all his works.”

What connects these inspirations?

“The theologians teach me that the Christian faith is a great treasure with a rich content and tradition. Bonhoeffer teaches me to understand that this tradition can be experienced in different contexts.

We no longer live in the  homogenous Christian society of the past. But the comfortable situation of that time is not the only context in which to experience your faith.”

As bishop you chose the motto “with you I am a Christian” in 2002. What did you mean by that?

“The first part of the quote by St. Augustine is, “For you I am a bishop”. By choosing only the second part I clearly state that my first calling as a bishop is to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus. Everything else follows from that. For me it is important to jointly take responsibility. That responsibility binds us as a society. The quote is also a clear choice for collegiality in exercising authority. I am very happy with the three auxiliary bishops that I can count on in the archdiocese.”

What are the great challenges for the Church today?

“The question is not so much how many priests we need and how to organise ourselves. But: what do we have to say to society? Formation and the introduction into the faith are very important for that. It is not a question of having to take an exam in order to be a part of it. There can be many degrees of belonging. But we can assume that there is a certain question or desire when people come to Church.

Don’t misunderstand me. A smaller Church must also be an open Church and relevant for society.”

What sort of Church do you dream of?

“A Church that accepts that she is getting smaller. The Church is in a great process of change and that sometimes hurts. But that does not mean that there is decay. There have been times in which the Church was in decay while triumphing.

I dream of a Church that radiates a conviction, that radiates the person of Jesus Christ. Of an open Church which is not only occupied with religious questions, but also with social problems such as the refugee crisis.

Politics have to be neutral, but society is not. Christians are a part of that and should express themselves.”

You did not take part in the Synod on the family, but will probably get to work with its proposals. What will stay with you from this Synod?

“The Synod may not have brought the concrete results that were hoped for, such as allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. But it is unbelievable how much it was a sign of a Church that has changed. The mentality is really not the same anymore.

I may be a careful person, but I do not think we should be marking time. Mercy is an important word for me, but in one way or another it is still  somewhat condescending. I like to take words like respect and esteem for man as my starting point. And that may be a value that we, as Christians, share with prevailing culture.”

May we assume that you will take up the thread of Cardinal Danneels?

“It is of course not my duty to imitate him, but I have certainly learned much from him. Also from Msgr. Luysterman [Bishop of Ghent from 1991 to 2003], by the way, with whom I have long worked in Ghent.”

Your predecessor liked to court controversy in the media. Pope Francis stands out for his human style. What is the style we may expect from you?

“In the papers I have already been profiled as not mediagenic. We will see. For my part, I will at least approach the media openly and confident.”

Will you be living in Brussels, like Msgr. Léonard, or will you choose the archbishop’s palace in Mechelen?

“Msgr. Léonard will be staying in Brussels for a while, so my first home will be Mechelen. I think it would be interesting to alternate and also have a place in Brussels.”

You like Brussels, don’t you? And Brussels likes you.

“The love is mutual, yes. I am certainly no stranger to the French speaking community in our country.”

The Church in Brussels announced this week that Confirmation and First Communion will now be celebrated at the same time, at the age of ten. A renewal you can agree with?

“I wrote the brochure about the renewal of the sacraments of initiation myself, and I conclude that Brussels interprets my text to the full. I am very happy about that. Brussels immediately shows itself as the laboratory of renewal that I so appreciate about it.”

The five years in Bruges were not easy. How have they changed you as a man or what did you learn from them?

“In Bruges I had final responsibility in an environment I did not know well. As auxiliary bishop I was happy to often discuss things with the archbishop, and now I was more on my own. As archbishop I am very happy to be able to rely on three good auxiliary bishops with whom I will be pleased to discuss matters. Like my time as episcopal vicar in Ghent and as auxiliary bishop in Brussels, I consider the past five years as an important learning experience.”

Jozef De Kesel returns to Brussels, but now as archbishop

In the end, Pope Francis decided to stick to the silent agreement: after a Walloon archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels comes a Flemish one. Succeeding Archbishop André-Joseph, who offered his resignation upon his 75th birthday in May, is Msgr. Jozef De Kesel, until today the Bishop of Bruges, where he succeeded the disgraced Roger Vangheluwe in 2010. Before coming to Bruges, Archbishop-elect De Kesel was auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels from 2002 to 2010.

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The new of Bishop De Kesel’s appointment broke widely in Belgian media yesterday afternoon, but it is only official now, upon the announcement in Mechelen-Brussels and later in Rome.

Bishop Jozef De Kesel is 68, which places him among the older active bishops of Belgium. A long ministry like that of Cardinal Godfried Danneels will not be forthcoming then. As the 24th archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels (before 1961 simply Mechelen), Archbishop De Kesel will lead the archdiocese with its three auxiliary bishops, Jean-Luc Hudsyn, Léon Lemmens (who has been tipped to succeed De Kesel in Bruges) and Jean Kockerols.

Iraq

Bishop De Kesel was most recently in the news because he journeyed to northern Iraq on a mission of solidarity with Tournai’s Bishop Guy Harpigny and Bishop Lemmens, an experience that greatly moved him. He likened it to visiting sick relatives, which is what you do to express your sympathy and concern. Back home in Bruges, Bishop De Kesel began calling on parishes to make housing available for refugees.

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^Archbishop-elect De Kesel and Bishop Harpigny in Iraq

Dealing with abuse

Bishop de Kesel has also had to deal with priests who have been guilty of abuse, like more than a few of his colleagues. Through his diocese, Bishop De Kesel has been very open about those dealings, though. In 2014 he appointed a priest who had been found guilty of abuse by a court of law, although any punishment was waived. This priest later chose not to accept the appointment. In recent weeks, Bishop De Kesel had to suspend a priest after he returned to Brazil against previous agreements. He also contacted Brazilian Archbishop Murillo Krieger to warn him against this priest.

First choice

Earlier this year, it became clear that Bishop De Kesel was the first choice to succeed Cardinal Danneels, but that Pope Benedict XVI overrode this choice, as he has the right to, and appointed Archbishop Léonard.

Criticism and views

Bishop De Kesel, while largely popular among faithful in Belgium and abroad, is not without criticism. In 2010 he said he hoped that women could one day be priests, although in 2012 he underlined that the Church is unable to do so. He also believes celibacy for priests should be optional, but also says that this a decision that the Church as a whole should make. No chance of married priests (barring converts or the like) in Brussels anytime soon, then.

While he is a practical man, not blind to the realities around him, the new archbishop does not think that modernisation of Church and priesthood is the answer to everything. In 2013 he said, “Modernising the Church will not mean that people will return.” He added, “More personnel will also not solve our problems. It goes far deeper. Filling as many positions as possible with lay people, or allowing priests to marry, means staying blind to the real problems.” He has a clear vision of the Church, saying in an interview on the occasion of his appointment as auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels in 2002: “The Church should not be a dictatorship, but neither should she degenerate into a half-hearted thing that denies its own values and visions.”

De Kesel or Bonny?

Some have suggested that Bishop De Kesel is a compromise choice, and that his time as archbishop is intended to prepare the way for Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp to succeed him and make the real changes int he archdiocese. Considering that Bishop Bonny will be 67 when Archbishop De Kesel retires (and will have only seven years left before his own retirement), and Pope Francis 87 (if he has not retired by then), this is exceedingly unlikely. A future Archbishop Bonny will have no more time to affect changes than Archbishop De Kesel has now.

bishop jozef de keselBiography

Jozef De Kesel was born in 1947 in Ghent and raised in Adegem, halfway between Ghent and Bruges. His father was the town’s mayor, and his uncle, Leo-Karel De Kesel, would be an auxiliary bishop of Ghent for almost three decades. In 1965 he entered seminary and he also studied at the Catholic University of Louvain. He studied theology at the Pontifical University Gregoriana in Rome and was ordained in 1972 by his uncle. In 1977 he became a doctor of theology. In the 1970s he worked as a teacher of religion at several schools, and in 1980 he was appointed as prefect and professor at the seminary in Ghent, teaching dogmatic and fundamental theology, a job he held until 1996. He also taught at the Catholic University of Louvain from 1989 to 1992, and since 1983 he was responsible for the formation of pastoral workers in the Diocese of Ghent. In 1992 he was appointed as episcopal vicar in charge of the whole of the theological education and formation of priests, deacons, religious and laity in the diocese. He also became a titular canon of the St. Bavo cathedral in Ghent. In 2002 he was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels and titular bishop of Bulna. His episcopal motto was inspired by St. Augustine: “Vobiscum Christianus“. Bishop De Kesel was appointed as episcopal vicar for Brussels. In 2010, Archbishop Léonard transferred him to the Flemish Brabant/Mechelen pastoral area. Three months later, Bishop De Kesel was appointed as Bishop of Bruges.

In the Belgian Bishop’s Conference, Archbishop-elect De Kesel is responsible for the Interdiocesan Commission for Liturgical Pastoral Care, for the contacts with the religious, the interdiocesan commission for permanent deacons, the commission fro parish assistants, for bio-ethical questions, for the Interdiocesan Council for Culture, the National Commission for Pastoral Care in Tourism, and for the Union of Women Contemplatives.

Installation

Archbishop-elect will be installed in Mechelen’s cathedral of St. Rumbold on Saturday 12 December.

More to come…

Photo credit: [1] BELGA, [2] Kerknet

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.