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

Mettepenningen speaks again. And still understands nothing

Seriously, how did this man ever make it to official spokesman of the archbishop of Brussels? The two are polar opposites in intelligence, intention and willingness to go against the grain.

Yesterday, Archbishop Léonard offered a Mass in the Extraordinary Form in Brussels; the first time a Belgian archbishop has done so in over 40 years. Belgian daily De Standaard reports some 500 people attending the Mass, but plays the number down by saying that these were mostly just “curious”. Sure.

Disgraced spokesman Jürgen Mettepenningen also opened his mouth about it: “I have never known of Cardinal Danneels having done the same. This is not the signal that a Church that wants to be contemporary should send out. It fits within an attitude that falls back on the past, when the liturgy was still something between priest and God.”

Honestly, just about every sentence is rife with errors. Cardinal Danneels not having done anything like this fits within the general trend in the Low Countries, as well as with the cardinal’s own priorities. It says nothing about Archbishop Léonard. This is indeed the signal of a contemporary Church; a Church willing to embrace the complete package of Tradition, liturgy and doctrine, instead of the politically correct bits and pieces in an attempt to speak to the masses by not being too difficult. Acknowledging and making use of Tradition, the 2,000-year development of Church, faith and philosophy could be considered falling back on the past: the past being, in this case, the rich treasure chest from which we draw so much of our identity, knowledge, faith and, yes, knowledge of the Lord. And then, lastly, the liturgy being between priest and God? Ridiculous nonsense. The liturgy is always a matter of God and His people. In that order. God first, people second, in an eternal dialogue of love and teaching. The priest faces the Lord together with the people: all face the same direction, because before God all men and women are equal, be they priest or laity. The liturgy of the Mass is not about ‘having something to do’; it is about prayer, about getting to know God (something with which we are never finished), communicating with Him, and He with us, not according to our own standards, but to His, the standards which were part of His plan for us ever since the Fall.

Abp. Léonard offers Mass in the Extraordinary Form

Mettepenningen’s comments are characteristic of the shallow idea of ‘being Church’ that has spread so heavily in the west in the past decades. Church is not something we make together: it is something given to us by Christ as the prime means of our salvation. It is therefore not a social club, not a self-help centre, not an opportunity to be constructive by being the centre of attention. The liturgy of the Mass is the uniting of the people of God to the heart of Christ, in prayer, as part of the world Church, and thus as something much, much greater than we are.

Photo credit: (2) Bart Dewaele/De Standaard

Stats for November 2011

Last month did not see many stand-out posts, at least not when it comes to the number of visitors. Some old posts continue to be popular, but there are also some current topics visible. The consistory, the prayer vigil for all nascent life, Archbishop Léonard, Bishop Ter Schure… as well as some lighter topics, such as the Catholic Youth Day and the re-consacration of the cathedral in Paramaribo.

Here’s the list:

1: A gentle pope, but rock solid in the execution 69
2: Under the Roman Sky 61
3: Prayer vigil for ‘all nascent life’ – the Dutch response 50
4: I have one or two things to explain to you 44
4: Cardinals according to John Allen 43
5: Impressions from the Catholic Youth Day 39
6: Oh, not again… 35
7: Het probleem Medjugorje 35
8: Let me say once more…, Some personal thoughts about a resignation, “The cathedral has been resurrected” 32
9: A new deacon 29
10: Serious questions about the guilt of Msgr. Ter Schure, The bishop’s other diocese, Pornography or art? 28

All in all, the blog received 3,754 visits this month, which is a contintuation of the slow rise in visits since September.

Archbishop Léonard’s explanations

In a move that perhaps shows that Archbishop Léonard is better off without a spokesman like Jürgen Mettepenningen, the archbishop of Brussels published a letter in which he explained the three points on which he has been the subject of relentless attack in the past weeks. The Dutch text of the letter is available as a PDF file here, and I provide an English translation, as usual, here. It is a serious letter that deserves to be read in its entirety and taking for what it is worth. It requires an objective eye unclouded by the misconceptions and emotion that have prevailed in the media. Msgr. Léonard is both a more challenging author and a more intelligent one than most of the writers of newspaper and website articles. With a topic that is an unpopular one for the unforgiving god of modern liberal secularism, this letter asks us to use our own heads and not simply drift along with the waves of political correctness and blind emotion.

Drifting along leads to shameful sights like in this video, which shows the archbishop being slapped in the face during a liturgical celebration.

Some personal thoughts about a resignation

Is it customary these days to blacken one’s former employer after one has resigned? I would hope not, but that is exactly what Mr. Jürgen Mettepenningen, the former spokesman of Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, seems to have done in a press statement released yesterday.

The reasons he lists for his sudden resignation are perhaps good ones, but the way he publishes them seems unethical and defamatory, they also point at the state of large parts the Church in Belgium, I fear. Mettepenningen’s words do not stand alone. With the customary zeal for hyperbole, Catholic media have declared that the entire middle field of Catholic Belgium (including priests and some bishops) have turned their backs on Msgr. Léonard. All this for his recent statements about AIDS (which have been discussed recently in this blog as well) and his calls to to exact revenge on elderly priests guilty of sexual abuse of minors. The former can well be defended with recourse to some theological and philosophical contexts, while the latter does seem to be in full agreement with civil law. But reasoned debate of topics that are sensitive in modern secular society (and no less so, by the way, in Catholic society) is now severely curtailed. Only the generally accepted opinions are deemed  so. Statements like the ones made by the archbishop are worthy of contempt, attacks and defamation. Or so it now seems. Considered objectively, that is of course complete nonsense.

But Mr. Mennepenningen, who has recently become one of the most heard Catholic voices in Belgium and beyond because of his job as spokesman, seems to have fully embraced that nonsensical attitude.

But even that may be forgiven. No one, after all, is perfect, and we all make mistakes. No, Mr. Mettepenningen’s full embrace of the popular attitude does not end with merely following its beliefs, but extend to the level of defamation. What’s worse is that this seems to be made worse by the strange view that Mr. Mettepenningen has of his former job. He likened himself to the GPS to Msgr. Léonard’s driver. The directions of a GPS, however worthy they may be, are of course not to blindly accepted in all situations. A driver may choose to take a different road. The GPS will then recalculate the route, all in the service of the driver. GPS-Mettepenningen seemed to look to take the role of driver, deciding on where to go and how to get there. That is odd in any situation, but more so when the driver is the primate of a Church province.

The Church is hierarchical. That is not popular in modern society, but it is no less true because of that. When a bishop is appointed he is also assumed to take upon him the office of teacher. Msgr. Léonard has never shunned that. In fact, unlike certain other prelates, he takes it very seriously. Teachers, as I can say from my own experience, are not always popular. But what they teach can and usually is still to our benefit. To say that what a teacher says is not to one’s liking is one thing. To then discard it (and the teacher) out of a misguided belief that we know it better anyway, is wholly irresponsible.

Mr. Mettepenningen’s resignation is probably for the best. If there are serious differences of opinion between employer and employee, a parting of ways is sensible. But to then take the different opinions of one person and ridicule them in the public forum is nothing short of unethical. For what purpose does it serve in this case? I adds fuel to the fire of the popular opinion of Msgr. Léonard as a person, a teacher, and a bishop. All that for the satisfaction of one man who wants to see his opinions validated?

Msgr. André-Jospeh Léonard is the archbishop of Malines-Brussels and chairman of the Belgian bishops’ conference. Simply in light of that role, of his appointment as shepherd of the faithful in his diocese, he must be taken seriously, and we owe it to him, to ourselves and to the Church we claim we are part of (and of which we are objectively part) to take his words seriously, to consider what they mean and why he says them. Dismissing them out of hand is not an option. Disagreement is fine, but not when it is disagreement because we couldn’t be bothered to think for a bit. And like in any discussion with anyone, we should act ethically. Venting before all to see is not very ethical.

Msgr. Léonard’s small mistake?

Despite the ever-present risk of one’s words being taken out of context in today’s media, Arcbishop Léonard of Brussels consciously decided to not change some of the words in a new book of interviews with him. The book in question is titled ‘Mgr. Léonard – gesprekken’ (Msgr. Léonard – conversations), and was written and compiled by two Belgian journalists.

In one of the conversation, Msgr. Léonard speaks about the AIDS epidemic. He says, “So I do not see this epidemic as a punishment, but at the most as a sort of immanent justice, sort of like how, in ecology, we are faced with the consequences of what we are doing to the environment.”

The conclusion made here and there is, predictably, that Msgr. Léonard sees AIDS as a form of justice. But that’s too simple a conclusion. I think, upon reading these words, that the archbishop most of all wanted to say that the epidemic is (at least partly) a result of our own actions. And in that way it can be seen as justified. We made it possible, after all.

Léonard’s spokesman, Jürgen Mettepenningen, was hesitant about these words, as he explained on radio today. “I wouldn’t have said it like this. [The archbishop] left the sentence unchanged because he says that he can’t write anything but what he thinks. […] I shouldn’t be saying what he should think. I am the spokesman, not a decider of words.”

Maybe the exact wording was not wise to use, but they do deserve to be read for what they are: an acknowledgement of our responsibility when it comes to the spread of AIDS and not some divine punishment.