Good work, but not in Belgium – Mechelen-Brussels sends the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles packing

The Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels came with a rather puzzling press statement today, announcing an end to the diocese’s cooperation with the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles. This fraternity of priests was invited to Brussels by Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, but apparently his successor, Archbishop Jozef De Kesel, wastes no time in shutting them down. Even as the news broke, the priests of the fraternity were still meeting with the staff of the archdiocese.

There are rumours that there is more to the decision than the press release states, but as that is the official position of the archdiocese, it must be taken seriously, strange as it is.

This is the full text of the statement, translated by me:

Wapen-bisdom%20kleur100%25“The Fraternity of the Holy Apostles was established in 2013 as a “public clerical society of faithul” of diocesan right. It falls under the responsibility of the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels.

The Fraternity has 27 members, 6 priests and 21 seminarians of whom one is a deacon. Of the 27 members, 21 reside in Belgium and 6 in France, especially in the Diocese of Bayonne. The majority of the current members comes from France.

It is the Fraternity’s main purpose to make young people sensitive to the beauty of the vocation to the diocesan priesthood. Answering that vocation does not necessarily mean that one stands alone: the priest can rely on the support and solidarity of the brothers with whom he forms a fraternity. This option is indeed very valuable in the life of the priest today.

This initiative, however, presents a problem when one realises that at the moment the majority of the Fraternity’s seminarians comes from France, where so many areas suffer from a distressing shortage of priests. Of course, it is possible that the number of Belgian seminarians, both French- and Dutch-speaking, can increase over the years. But then, too, they will come from other Belgian dioceses to become priests for the archdiocese.

In the current situation it is better not to encourage such a process. It would indicate a great lack of solidarity among the bishops, both with the bishops in our country as with the French bishops. That is why the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels decided to no longer work with the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles in his diocese from the end of June 2016 onwards.

Those members of the Fraternity who have already been ordained as priests or deacons serving the archdiocese remain priests or deacons of the archdiocese, as prescribed by canon law. Regarding their appointment the arcbishop will take into account what was dear to them when they entered the Fraternity. In this context, and contrary to what some rumours would have us believe, it is the arcbishop’s wish that the experiences of the church of St. Kathelijne [the Brussels church entrusted to the pastoral care of the Fraternity – MV] may by further developed.

The seminarians can, if they so wish and if they meet the demands for the formation of priests of the archdiocese, continue their education at the diocesan seminary.

This decision of the archbishop is the result of long deliberations with his auxiliary bishops and the diocesan council. A special commission has met with all the member of the Fraternity residing in Belgium. The Belgian bishops were also consulted and support the decision, as do the responsible departments of the Holy See.”

So, in short, the Fraternity has too many priests from abroad, and while the archdiocese continues to make use of the priests already ordained (if only because canon law demands it), the other members can basically do whatever they please. Sure, the seminarians are welcome at the diocesan seminary, if they are good enough and if they really must, but there’s no pressure.

I can accept that there are parts of France where priests are few, but the Belgian bishops are fooling themselves if they think the same is not true, or will be in the foreseeable future, for their own dioceses. The Fraternity is drawing young men who want to work as priests in the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels. The archbishop should be overjoyed by this. Instead, there is misplaced talk of solidarity with the other bishops. Instead of closing a successful institution because it might draw future priests away from other dioceses in Belgium or France, the bishops would do better by looking at what it is that makes the Fraternity work and adopt that in their own seminaries. There is a good chance that it is this what caused the Fraternity’s seminarians to choose the Fraternity over a diocesan seminary.

By this decision’s logic, I might add, the seminaries of the Neocatechumenal Way should also be closed. These also train seminarians from other countries to work in Belgium or whatever country they are sent to. They, too, should return to the seminaries of their home dioceses, out of solidarity with the bishops there…

Like I said, this is a puzzling decision. It could well be that the true reasons remain secret, and that there is much more going on. The Fraternity has in the past struggled with accepting and submitting themselves to episcopal authority, and that is indeed problematic. But if such problems lie at the root of this decision, let it then be said. If today’s press statement is true, it is evidence of serious short-sightedness on the part of the archbishop and the other bishops; if there is instead more going on, the statement is deceitful.

Lastly, it is hard not to see this as a slap in the face of the archbishop emeritus, André-Joseph Léonard, who lived with the Fraternity for a short while between his retirement and his departure for France. He brought them to Brussels, seeing them as an asset in the new evangelisation of the Belgian capital.

In Liège, Cardinal Maradiaga hints at a consistory and a red hat for Archbishop De Kesel

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Visiting Liège for a conference on Monday, Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga (pictured above with Liège’s Bishop Jean-Pierre Delville), archbishop of Tegucigalpa in Honduras and one of the members of the C9, the council of cardinals advising Pope Francis on reforming the Curia, hinted at a possible consistory for the creation of new cardinals to be either held or announced in November. He also suggested that among the new cardinals could be the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Jozef De Kesel, but chances are that that was just inspired by the fact that Cardinal Maradiaga was speaking in Belgium. And while Archbishop De Kesel could theoretically be made a cardinal – many of his predecessors were (with the notable – and regrettable – exception of Archbishop Léonard) – Pope Francis’ eye is not automatically focussed on the old dioceses of Europe when it comes to handing out red hats…

Between now and the end of the year, seven cardinals will turn 80 and thus become unable to vote in a conclave. The number of electors is now 114 and will be 107 at the end of November. If a consistory is held sometime in February, as the previous two were, at least one and perhaps two more cardinals will have aged out, allowing Pope Francis to create up to 15 new cardinals to bring the number of electors back up to the maximum of 120.

The nine cardinals turning 80 between now and mid-February are:

  • William Levada, Prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on 15 June.
  • Anthony Okogie, Archbishop emeritus of Lagos, on 16 June.
  • Antonio Rouco Varela, Archbishop emeritus of Madrid, on 24 August.
  • Jaime Ortega y Alamino, Archbishop emeritus of Havana, on 18 October.
  • Nicolás López Rodríguez, Archbishop of Santo Domingo, on 31 October.
  • Ennio Antonelli, President emeritus of the Pontifical Council for the Family, on 18 November
  • Théodore-Adrien Sarr, Archbishop emeritus of Dakar, on 28 November.
  • Audrys Bačkis, Archbishop emeritus of Vilnius, on 1 February.
  • Raymundo Assis, Archbishop of Aparecida, on 15 February.

Of these, seven are retired, but it would be altogether too easy to expect their successors to be made cardinals after them ( and Cardinal Levada’s successor in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Müller, already is one). Still, it would fit with Pope Francis’ focus on the periphery, the plight of refugees and the importance of families to make Archbishops Alfred Martins in Lagos, Juan García Rodríguez in Havana and Vincenzo Paglia in the Pontifical Council for the Family cardinals.

Dr. Heiner Koch, Erzbischof von BerlinIn addition to Archbishop De Kesel, there are some more possible candidates for a red hat in northwestern Europe. In Germany, Archbishop Heiner Koch (at right) of Berlin is one. Six of his predeccesors in the German capital were cardinals, and although elected by the cathedral chapter of Berlin, he was included on the list they chose from, which was okayed by Pope Francis. Another option, if a remote one, is Archbishop Stefan Heße of Hamburg, appointed by his fellow bishops to oversee the Church’s efforts in the refugee crisis, a topic close to Pope Francis’ heart. It would Hamburg’s  first red hat. I don’t foresee any new cardinals from other countries in the area. That said, anything’s possible, as Pope Francis has previously elevated cardinals from unlikely dioceses.

If Pope Francis creates any cardinals in this part of Europe, it would be a first. In his past two consistories he did make some German cardinals, but they were all either retired or working in Rome.

Photo credit: [1] Diocese of Liège, [2] Walter Wetzler

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