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:
At 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.”