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.

de kesel

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.


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.

de kesel harpigny iraq

^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.


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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

Looking ahead to some future appointments

With the start of the new year, we can look ahead to some changes that may come up over the course of it. There will undoubtedly be plenty of surprises, but when it comes to bishops’ appointments, we can expect a few, and again most of them in Germany, although an important one will take place in Belgium.

lehmannThere are two active prelates in Germany who are over the age of 75. One of them is Cardinal Karl Lehmann (pictured), the bishop of Mainz, who will turn 79 on 16 May. He may retire this year, but it is also entirely possible that he will stay on until his 80th birthday, much like Cardinal Meisner in Cologne. We can’t judge if there is any recent tradition of late retirements in Mainz, as five of Cardinal Lehmann’s six immediate predecessors died in office, well before retirement age. The only exception is Cardinal Hermann Volk, who retired on his 79th birthday in 1982.

The other active prelate is Bishop Manfred Grothe, auxiliary bishop of Paderborn and Apostolic Administrator of Limburg. He will be 76 on 4 April. As a new bishop for Limburg is expected sometime this year, it is very likely that Bishop Grothe will retire from both his offices.

werbsTwo other German bishops will reach the age of 75 this year, and thus tender their resignation. Bishop Norbert Werbs (at right), auxiliary bishop of Hamburg, will reach the retirement age on 20 May, and Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff of Aachen will do so on 29 October. For Hamburg, the retirement of Bishop Werbs will be the second step in the full changeover of the archdiocese’s bishops. Archbishop Thissen already retired last year, and the last auxiliary bishop, Hans-Jochen Jaschke, will follow late next year. A new archbishop and one or more new auxiliaries appear to be on the books this year.

The final, and perhaps biggest change this year, will be retirement of Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of Mechelen-Brussels (pictured below). Even for this blog this will be a landmark, as his appointment back in 2010 marked one of the first major blog posts here, one that was copied and read by thousands of people.

léonardWho will succeed Archbishop Léonard is anyone’s guess, but if the tradition in Belgium is an indication, he will be from Flanders. Since 1832, the office of archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels has been alternately held by a Flemish and a Walloon prelate, and Archbishop Léonard hails from Namur. The bishops of Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp or Hasselt are possibilities, as are one of the three auxiliaries bishops of Mechelen-Brussels. If the successor already is a bishop, that is, and the whole idea of tradition may be ignored and another Walloon priest of bishop may be appointed. Whoever it will be, it will certainly be interesting.

And then, lastly, there will be new appointments. Berlin, Hamburg and Limburg are extremely likely, but we have seen that sometimes the waiting period is long. Still, Berlin and Hamburg are important and large sees, and for Limburg a new bishop will be a good step forwards towards permanency and a new beginning.