Another year, another Synod

synod of bishopsThe Holy See today announced a Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for October 2018. Still two years away, it will discuss the topic of “youth, faith and vocational discernment”. Earlier, a rumoured topic for a future gathering of the Synod was priestly celibacy and married priesthood, but while that question does not pop up in the announced topic, it will undoubtedly play a part in the deliberations.

Bishops’ conferences around the world elect their representatives to attend Ordinary General Assemblies of the Synod. Most conferences, such as the Dutch, Belgian and Nordic ones, will elect one bishop, while others, such as the German, have the right to choose more, depending on the size of their membership. The heads of the curial departments willa utomatically attend, as will the twelve members of the Ordinary Council of the Synod of Bishops, who had the task of drawing up the theme of the next assembly. The Pope also chooses a number of delegates to attend.

Ordinary Assemblies generally take place every three to four years. The longest period was between the ninth in 1994 and tenth in 2001, although there were no less than six Special Assemblies on the Church in different parts of the world in that period.

The Synod of Bishops on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment can be an opportunity to not only explore and communicate anew the ways in which God calls us to follow Him, but also to show that the question of vocations does not revolve solely around a choice for religious life or the priesthood. Marriage and single life are also vocations, and God calls people to follow Him in all those states of living. They can be profound wellsprings of faith and life, ever deepening our life with God, drawing closer to Him. Especially in the west, young people, Catholic or not, need to hear and see this.

Archbishop De Kesel on celibacy – not for every priest?

Archbishop Jozef De Kesel of Mechelen-Brussels is once again in the news with his wish that married men also be able to be priests. While this seems an easy reason to consider the archbishop a liberal and a progressive, reality is a bit more nuanced.


In an interview for weekly newspaper De Zondag, Archbishop De Kesel also speaks about his role as archbishop, his choice to become a priest, being a bishop in Bruges after Vangheluwe, and the refugee crisis. About priestly celibacy he says the following:

Did celibacy not discourage you?

“Not when I was eighteen, no. You do choose for the seminary, but it takes many years before you are a priest. But once that moment is there, yes… That is a difficult decision.”

Did you have to choose between a girlfriend and the Church?

“No. I did have good friendships. But I was never faced with that existential choice. Others have, and I can understand that it must be very difficult to let someone go. Perhaps I consciously or subconsciously avoided a relationship.”

Should the Church hold on to that celibacy?

“I am no supporter of abolishing it. A celibate life is no meaningless life. I consciously chose it: it was also the state of life of Jesus. On the other hand I do not think it can be asked of every priest, especially not in a time when sexuality plays such an important role. I am in favour of the Eastern Catholic model. There men who are married can be ordained to the priesthood.”

So, unlike what some media may now suggest, the archbishop is no opponent of celibacy, and he recognises the value of it, not least because it is the way Christ lived. Many, including myself, will not agree that his proposal to follow the Eastern Catholic example is the right one, or that it is the only solution for priests who struggle with mandatory celibacy (not to mention the need for the Church to follow society in its obsession with sexuality). But it would be wrong to depict Archbishop De Kesel as a progressive who wants to abolish celibacy altogether.

Photo credit: Belga

Sent out into the world for mercy

logoWednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent (yes, it’s almost Lent already), and in this Holy Year of Mercy it is also the day of another notable event: the day on which more than one thousand special “missionaries of mercy” are sent out by the Pope into the world, to manifest God’s mercy in a specific way, by their ability to forgive the most grave of sins, which are usually beholden to bishops or the Pope alone.

Earlier, we already learned that all priests in the world have been given to authority to forgive the sin of abortion (normally residing with the bishop, all Dutch priests have had this faculty already). Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who is the chief organiser of the events of the Holy Year, outlines the five sins which can only be forgiven by the special missionaries of mercy. These are:

  • Desecration of the Eucharist
  • Breaking the seal of confession
  • Consecrating a bishop without papal approval
  • Sexual contacts by a priest and the person he has those contacts with
  • Violent actions against the Pope

Of course, some of these are more likely to happen than others, but they all touch upon the core values of our faith and Church: the sanctity of sacraments, the unity of the Church and the seriousness of vows and promises. By making the forgiveness for such sins more easily available, Pope Francis wants to emphasise that, even in such serious matters, mercy comes first (with the caveat that true mercy always incorporates justice).

12647487_441962256013964_8703646690579720740_n13 priests from the Netherlands and 33 from Belgium (11 from Flanders, 22 from Wallonia) will be appointed as missionaries of mercy. One of the Dutch priests is Fr. Johannes van Voorst, of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam (one of seven from that diocese; the other six come from the Diocese of Roermond). Fr. Johannes (seen above offering Mass at St. Paul Outside the Walls today) will be going to Rome to receive his mandate, together with some 700 of his brother priests (the remaining 350 or so will receive their mandate at home). His adventures in Rome can be followed via his Facebook page, where he also posts in English.

After receiving their mission, the names of the missionaries will be made known, so that they can be at the disposal of the faithful in the country.

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.

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

In Rome, no one was fired for being gay

We’ve all read the headlines by now. A Polish official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was fired for announcing his homosexuality and the Church is therefore full of old meanies. Reality is bit different, as it often is.

krzysztof-charamsa-ranghoher-vatikanmitarbeiter-100~_v-img__16__9__l_-1dc0e8f74459dd04c91a0d45af4972b9069f1135Msgr. Krzysztof Charamsa, pictured at left, who has worked for the Congregation for more than a decade, yesterday informed the world about his sexual preference and also introduced the man he has a relationship with. In the process he strongly criticised the Church and the Congregation he worked for, calling for an end to homophobia and, by his actions, the acceptance of same-sex relationships and marriage. Of course, working where he had for the past decade and more, he should have known better.

There are three things that are significant here:

  1. Msgr. Charamsa’s homosexuality. This is no reason to fired him, and it wasn’t. No one can be held accountable for his sexual orientation, and it should not play a part in his suitability for his job in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
  2. A secret relationship. Msgr. Charamsa has a relationship with a man, which means he broke his promise of celibacy, made freely at his ordination. This is a serious problem. Of course, any priest, be he homosexual or heterosexual, can fall in love. In such a situation, the priest in question has the obligation to take his vows and promises seriously and try and find a way to resolve the situation. And he should get all the assistance he needs, not least from his bishop and brother priests.
  3. Timing. It would be a very strange coincidence that Msgr. Charamsa made his announcement yesterday, the day before the opening of the Synod of Bishops, when all (media) eyes are on Rome. This is not the story of a victim of inhuman rules, but a well-planned and well-timed statement of disobedience. It has all the hallmarks of a man burning his bridges behind him. He should have known that this was what would happen.

Many media and commentators, including Catholic ones, reduce this to just the man’s homosexuality, to show how intolerant the Church is. It is good to remember that the outcome would have been no different if Msgr. Charamsa had revealed that he was in a relationship with a woman.

Judging by the press statement released yesterday, the Holy See was less than pleased and announced that Msgr, Charamsa would not be continuing his work at the Congegration for the Doctrine of the Faith and several Roman universities. His ordinary, Bishop Ryszard Kasyna of Pelplin, was quick to announce that Msgr. Charamsa was “admonished … to return to the way of Christ’s priesthood”.

“The freedom to commit myself” – Archbishop Heße on marriage and fatherhood

Portrait_Hesse_webThere are many eyes on the German bishops in the runup to the Synod of Bishops assembly in autumn. Their ideas about family, marriage and related topics has been much discussed and criticised. Today I came across an interview with the archbishop of Hamburg Msgr. Stefan Heße. Journalist Norbert Vojta is not overly familiar with the Catholic Church and has managed to craft an honest and open interview with the archbishop, which delves into various topics, from Pentecost and the Holy Spirit to the archbishop’s football team preferences (he has none) and hobbies (classical music). From some questions on celibacy, Archbishop Heße moves to the topic of marriage, which I share in translation here:

“I believe that freedom does not consist of me leaving everything open and free and undertermined, but instead, that I choose and commit myself. Analogously, that is also the case in marriage. […] I can’t permanently keep all options open, but I am only happy when I can concretely commit myself to someone.”

“In our understanding, I can not get a divorce. Marriage exists until death separates the spouses. The idea is that I give myself fully and completely to a person and trust him or her fully and completely. That is a magnificent undertaking. I am happy that my parents are able to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary. Of course, I also know that marriages do fail.”

Does the archbishop have no wish to be married and have children?

“I can imagine myself as a father. In all honesty, that was a topic during my studies.That was very clearly a question I had to ask myself.”

“For me it is a comfort that I can also see myself as a husband or father. I would have found it harder if I had told myself, well, you’re unsuited to be a father or husband, so you may as well be a priest.”