The radicality of Fr. Michel-Marie Zanotti-Sorkine

He’s shown up on my computer screen more than once in recent weeks: a young French priest from Marseille who has gotten attention for dressing like a priest wherever he goes. In this video (in French with Dutch subtitles) he explains why.

Fr. Zanotti-Sorkine: “But I also think, you see, that the priesthood must be visible!”

Interviewer: “That is why, if I may, you wear the cassock?”

Fr. Zanotti-Sorkine: “Yes, the cassock, I truly wear it for the 96% who do not come to Church. Because, these throngs who stay outside, who do not go to the churches, how do you want them to have the chance to encounter a priest? It is necessary that, in the bars I visit, on this great boulevard I walk every day, that there is the possibility for everyone to come to me, to speak to me, to entrust me with something in their lives. This cassock, it is essential!”

Interviewer: “That is how that happens?”

Fr. Zanotti-Sorkine: “That is indeed how that happens! I think we should really have a major examination of conscience here, because at this time we are about 15,000 priests in France, do you realise that? 9,000 are active, I think. There are also 4,000 religious! I am certain that when everyone, by a decree from heaven, would again wear the cassock, put on the hood, well, what would happen: every day many people would meet servants of God, and the Church would once again take her place in social events.”

Interviewer: “You are not making friends by saying this.”

Fr. Zanotti-Sorkine: “But that does not matter, I am saying it for the Lord, and I am saying it for the future of Christianity!

The visibility of the priest through outward appearances has nothing to do with vanity or a sense of importance. Rather, the cassock and, more frequently, the Roman collar, serve two purposes: wearing it, the priest is continuously reminded of his very nature as one ordained to serve God in a very particular way. And his visibility as such makes him available for the people he is tasked to serve. If they don’t recognise him for what he is, they do not know to come to him with their needs.

Father Michel-Marie’s enthusiasm is a reflection of the importance of priestly attire. No vanity, but availability and service.

HT to Fr. Andy Penne.

Belgian dean welcomes Dutch-trained priests

Father Felix Van Meerbergen is the dean of Diest, in the Belgian Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels. He shares some encouraging words regarding the arrival of the first Dutch-trained Belgian priest (Fr. Andy Penne) to the archdiocese. There is significant opposition among laity and clergy alike about these allegedly very orthodox priests, but Dean Van Meerbergen puts a sizeable portion of this opposition in perspective: it’s about externals such as the clerical collar and the cassock which some people seemingly find repulsive. Indeed, many priests in Belgium and other parts of western Europe now dress in suits and ties, hiding their identity as priests out of a misplaced desire to be ‘just like the laity, and not something special and above them’. A ridiculous reason, since priests, through their ordination and by their specific duties among the people of God are not like the laity. They are not better and more holy, but they are also not the same.

Anyway, on to Dean Van Meerbergen (the photo below obviously dating from before he started wearing his clerical collar):

“I know some of them: they are faithful priests. Oh yes, they wear a collar. And sometimes a cassock. And? Since a year, I’ve also been wearing a clerical collar. I have lost some friends. They removed me from their Facebook and for the first time they didn’t give me a call on my birthday. Apparently that clerical collar is something repulsive. For years I believed that priestly garments would alienate you from people. That it blew up bridges. I do wear it now. And it doesn’t simply make me a better priest. It doesn’t give me more holiness. And it doesn’t make my duties as dean and parish priest any easier. But I feel more connected to the world church. And yes, the unwanted priests are loyal to the pope and the bishops. And also to their flock. I wear a collar. Some people have abandoned me. But yet: I still try to be attentive to the entire flock. The stubborn sheep that stay behind or those that walk ahead. And those with spots on their skin. The sheep with mange and the outcast sheep.

The priests from the Netherlands are welcome and we should work with them in collegiality. And they with us. Didn’t St. Paul once say, “We shouldn’t say: we are of Cephas, we are of Paul or of Apollos… No: we are of Christ.” They may come… why don’t we close ranks? In great respect for each other. Those with a collar and those without. Church in Flanders, let’s build together the Church of Christ for the people. Let’s exclude no one. But let’s be loyal to pope and bishops.

I have the brave dream of hoping that one day I’ll get a priest from India or South America, from Japan or eastern Europe in the deanery. Their faith will support me. I would love it if some day in Diest we’ll be host to a group of religious from faraway… It will only enrich our faith.

Why be afraid? Why so smug and boastful about ‘our’ self-created vision of Church? Proclaiming Christ is the ultimate task. Andy Penne and the others: come. Come proclaim who Christ is. Lead us in the sacraments… And those with a collar and those without. Men and women in the Church, we are all members of the Body of Christ which is the Church… I a increasingly convinced that the archbishop has chosen the right path.”

Returning south? The Belgian priests in the Netherlands

Fr. Andy Penne

In an attempt to stem the development of DIY Church communities in Belgium, Archbishop Léonard of Mechelen-Brussels has welcomed the initiative by Father Andy Penne to see if it is possible to return to his native land. Father Penne is one of fifteen Belgian priest incardinated in the Dutch Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The reasons for their presence in the Netherlands are varied; Fr. Penne works here simply because he felt most at home in the ‘s-Hertogenbosch St. John’s seminary; others chose to be educated and formed here because they considered the Belgain seminaries too liberal. And for years the general attitude among the Belgian episcopate has been that once in a foreign diocese, the priests had best stay there.

But when Archbishop Léonard came to Brussels, the mood has changed. In a newspaper interview, Fr. Penne reports that he will be leaving his current parish in the Netherlands to work in the Belgian archdiocese, near the town where he grew up. Officially, he is ‘on loan’ from the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, but the change from the past is striking.

The Belgian priests in the Netherlands are generally considered to be more orthodox, or true to the Catholic faith, than many of their brother priests and pastoral workers in Belgium. That is why their possible future return is no reason for joy for many. They fear the spectres of orthodoxy and conservatism which will threaten their lukewarm version of Catholicism. The opposing party’s feelings sound rather spiteful; “once chosen for the Netherlands, they’d better stay there,” and “Some of these priests were not good enough for Belgian seminaries.” But on the other hand, a poll among lay faithful in Mechelen-Brussels also revealed another sound. A catechist from Mechelen said, “There is a shortage of priests here. We should be thankful to the Lord if Flemish priests from the Netherland want to come and help us out here.” And a prayer group leader, “People call them conservative but they merely proclaim what the Church says. We shouldn’t all be making our own little churches.”

For Archbishop Léonard these priests may turn out to be valuable coworkers in the vineyard.

And, finally, the parishes left behind by Father Penne will be the new home for another Belgian priest who made headlines early last year: Father Luc Buyens.

A letter of support to the faithful of Bruges

Via Father Andy Penne and the website of his parishes comes the letter that newly appointed diocesan administrator Fr. Koen Vanhoutte has sent to the faithful of the diocese of Bruges. Now that once-highly popular Bishop Vangheluwe has resigned and has taken refuge in a monastery, and now that civilian authorities are looking into the possibility of prosecuting him 25 years after his crimes, the diocese he left behind is still reeling from the shock. I can only imagine what the effect of such a sudden-decapitation is, not simply for the day-to-day running of the diocese, but for your average Churchgoing Catholic.

Let’s see what Administrator Vanhoutte has to say in the letter that will be read out in all parishes in the diocese of Bruges:

Sisters and brothers,

Our faith community is going through a serious crisis. The unimaginable has happened. The shepherd of our diocese has misbehaved. Or trust has been violated. We experience disillusionment and pain, anger and deep sorrow, and are sympathetic with the victims. We are defeated and lost. We can’t find the right words to express what has happened to us.

How do we process this? How do we deal with all of this?

In the first place I invite you to allow one another time and space to process this, each in our own way. It is also good to organise meetings to listen to each other’s stories. To be able to express yourself can be liberating. Words and insights from others help you to control your own attitude. The seriousness of what happened is discussed. The care for the victims of sexual abuse and for all who suffer from it will get the necessary attention. Conversation can purify us to a Church which also recognises the evil in her own ranks.

The readings of the fifth Sunday of Easter also show us a way to be a support for one another in these days. In the young Church’s diary we read the continuing urging of Paul and Barnabas to persevere in the FAITH. The crisis of trust in the Church leads to doubts about the faith for many. Others keep their faith in the Lord. In the grave times we are going through our faith can grow. More than before do we now desire the signs of Christ’s presence. We want to hear His voice and be strengthened by Him at His table. We hope that He will stay with us in good and bad times. I invite you to loyally live your faith even if it comes under pressure now and then.

Amidst our pain and disillusionment we also look forward to people who sing a song of HOPE, people who in difficult times still speak of better days. We are grateful for those we keep their eye on the vision of the Kingdom Of God. The do not give up. They look forward to a Church that renews itself, atuning itself ever more to the Gospel and is open to the questions that many Christians have. We keep the dream alive when we pray, like the Lord, “Make your Church into a house of liberating truth, of righteous justice, of hope that dispels all fair” (based on the Dutch Eucharistic Prayer XI C). I invite you all to not lose courage and remain hopeful Christians.

In the Gospel reading the Lord Jesus invites us Himself to love each other after His example. It is best to keep gathering to remember He who brought God’s grace into the world. He did this with respect, attention and care for every man on his road of life. In every Eucharist we recall how Jesus forgot and gave Himself for that, until the end. He calls us to follow Him. We recoil from that question. We consider ourselves unable to do what He did. This can;t succeed with our own strength. But the Lord assures us that we can love each other with the LOVE that He ahs for us. His Spirit makes us able to love. I invite you to grow in mutual love. That is how the world will recognise that we are Jesus’ disciples.

Sisters and brothers, the current crisis in the Church asks us to be attentive to the three core attitudes of or Christian identity. We pray for the divine gifts of faith, hope and love. Prayer got an important place in the early Church. On the way to Pentecost I invite you to seek out the Upper Room often and eagerly, to pray there in unity with Mary and the saints. Amidst the powerlessness we experience in the current crisis we look forward to the tender power of God’s Spirit and we pray: “Merciful Father, grant us the Spirit of love that was in Jesus, so that Church, encouraged and strengthened, may bloom to new life” (based on the Dutch Eucharistic Prayer XI D). We pray for each other, for all who have pastoral responsibilities: teachers, pastoral workers, parish assistants, religious, deacons, priests and the many volunteers of our faith community. We pray for the Spirit who can renew and strengthen our faith, our hope and our love.

I thank you all for bravely carrying the cross of our church community. I wish for you the light of Easter, a spark of hope, on your way. Dare to trust that the living Lord will not simply abandon us but will work with is. He will give strength to all that we do in His name.

Bruges, 28 April, 2010.

Koen Vanhoutte
Diocesan administrator