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.”

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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.

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.

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.

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