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.

Cardinal Burke to speak at St. Agnes

As announced before, Raymond Cardinal Burke will be offering Mass in the Extraordinary Form on 17 September at the church of St. Agnes in Amsterdam. That day marks the fifth anniversary of the FSSP apostolate in that church.

But today Catholica announces that the cardinal will also speak at the annual Catholica conference, on the afternoon of that same day. His topic will be Summorum Pontificum and the Church after Vatican II. The high-ranking prelate is known to celebrate Mass in both forms, and is in many circles considered to be a man to be watched. The 62-year-old Burke was made a cardinal during the most recent consistory and serves as prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Roman Signatura, the highest judicial authority in the Church and overseer of the administration of justice in the Church. Before his appointment, Cardinal Burke was bishop of La Crosse (1994-2003) and archbishop of Saint Louis (2003-2008) in the United States.

Catholica is, in the Dutch Catholic media landscape, a voice for orthodoxy, made clear in its advocacy for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass as well as a return to a Catholic practice that has mostly disappeared from the Netherlands. In recent months, it has been a platform for debate about the nature of the Second Vatican Council and how it should be understood and implemented.

Other organisers of the conference are the Benelux region of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter and the Ecclesia Dei foundation in Delft.

Rigid and one-sided?

A somewhat strange definition of orthodoxy on Dutch news site Nu.nl today. A study by the University of Amsterdam into the Salafi school of Islam – the proponents of which favour a fairly strict interpretation of scripture – and its attitudes towards Dutch society, identifies said school as a “‘normal’ orthodox movement”. And what is a normal orthodox movement then? Well, the news report says, one whose followers have a “rigid and one-sided” world view.

I don’t think that’s a fair description of orthodoxy, be it Muslim or Christian orthodoxy. I consider myself orthodox as well, but I don’t think I’m any more rigid and one-sided than other parts of society. I can generally agree with the description that Wikipedia gives of the word:

The word orthodox, from Greek orthodoxos “having the right opinion”, from orthos (“right”, “true”, “straight”) + doxa (“opinion” or “praise”, related to dokein, “to think”), is typically used to mean the adherence to well-researched and well-thought-out accepted norms, especially in religion.

So an orthodox person adheres to well-thought-out norms, which obviously means that some less well-considered norms are not accepted by that person. Is that rigidity and one-sidedness? Is good consideration of things the same as rigidity? Of course not. The only commonality between the two terms is that neither refers to the automatic acceptance of everything that is humanly possible, as much of modern society tends to do. Is orthodoxy one-sided? I would vehemently disagree with that. Perhaps seen from the outside it may look like it is, but from the inside the orthodoxy of, for example, my Catholic faith, has too many facets to ever be one-sided.

Orthodoxy presupposes a set of norms and values, ideally well-considered and developed over the course of centuries, but around that foundation – because of that foundation – the human being flourishes. Like a house or a tree, people also need a solid foundation to bloom. That, in my opinion, is orthodoxy. A positive concept, not negative like rigidity and one-sidedness.

“It’s exciting!”

As Scotty said in last year’s Star Trek: “I like this ship! You know, it’s exciting!” Replace ‘ship’ with ‘Church’ and you’ve arrived at the point I want to make in this post.  

In various blogs I’ve been reading defenses of orthodoxy and explanations of why young people would feel attracted to that. These comments are responses to the more liberal quarters of the Church (in many ways still a majority in the Dutch Church) and their apparent surprise at these young people and their choices: if they choose to go to Church, they often choose the more orthodox parishes and communities, whereas the worldly ones should, by all logic, be more appealing.  

The aforementioned blogs mention the spiritual emptiness of the liberal camp and their hostility towards people who look for honest and through catechesis. I think another good point is that the orthodox position is not only more honest and true to the Church, but it is also challenging. Young people, and I use that term broadly, are not attracted to sedate coziness and empty warmth. That can be fun, but it is hardly a goal in life. Young people are intelligent, well-educated and want to be challenged accordingly.  

'The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew' by Caravaggio (1603-1606)

“Because you do not belong to the world, because my choice of you has drawn you out of the world, that is why the world hates you” (John 15: 19).   

If we do not belong to the world, although we live in it, we can’t let the world dictate our lives. Jesus dictates our lives. He asks us to leave the world behind, to not let it hold us back:  

“If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16: 24-25).  

In return, He says, we will find life. But we are alive already, right? Certainly, but that will end. Christ promises us not only eternal life, but also the fulfillment of our lives here.  

“Everyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or land for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times as much, and also inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29).  

These are challenges, they are difficult, but they come with one important benefit: we have the best coach anyone can hope for.  

“Blessed are you when people hate you, drive you out, abuse you, denounce your name as criminal, on account of the Son of man. Rejoice when that day comes and dance for joy, look!-your reward will be great in heaven” (Luke 6: 22-23a).  

How does this fit a faith community which is solely founded on human needs, focussing on community, on being warm, open, welcoming? Sure, openness and warmth are good. We need the support and brotherhood we find in our parishes and communities. But Christ never took that as the point of His ministry? He took it as read. He callled the Twelve to accompany Him, and later He sent the disciples off in pairs, to spread the Good News. Not alone, but with company. But did he call a group of men, and did he sent pairs off, so they could have some nice conversation, so that they could feel part of a group? No. He called and sent them to become men of God and to make others men of God, to spread the Good News of the incarnation and to follow Him.  

And that is the challenge we have been given. Jesus asks us to work, to give ourselves, to suffer and to hurt sometimes, but we know why we do it: for Him and for eternal life in God. Nothing less than that. And that is the challenge that should be appealing to many: our work, our effort, with the oh-so-necessary guidance and support from the Father through His Son, is how we can and must achieve it. That is a faith that challenges, that promises and to achieve that we must live life to the fullest. That is orthodoxy: not giving up when it seems difficult, keeping your eye on the prize, and not allowing yourself to be distracted by what is temporary.  

The fear of change

American Papist has news that Roger Cardinal Mahoney, archbishop of Los Angeles, has approved a coadjutor bishop to eventuelly succeed him. Interesting news for LA, of course.

What struck me was the following paragraph:

Some of the faculty at St. John’s Seminary – where new priests for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles are trained – have expressed concern that the new coadjutor bishop will lean more “conservative” than his predecessor, and some have even threatened to resign or retire if this turns out to be the case.

What would be the cause of such an enormous fear, which by no means is limited to Los Angeles? We’ve seen the same reactions very recently surrounding the appointment of Msgr. Léonard in Brussels, and here in the Netherlands, bishops like Msgr. van den Hende and Msgr. Eijk have also been cause for similar threats.

A new bishop – or any new ‘boss’, really – will do things differently and employees will notice changes. Some changes will be minor, some perhaps quite major. And sometimes these changes may be countered by such threats as quoted above. But the striking thing in this case is that the mere mention of a new bishop leads to the threats. It is as if people go from square one to square nine or something, missing a few steps in between.

Could the reason to fear conservatism or orthodoxy, which are often treated as the same (they really are not), possibly be an awareness, perhaps subconsciously, that the current situation has no hope to continue for all eternity? That eventually things must return to the condition they are supposed to be in?

For the Church, certainly in this country, that means that the empty churches, lack of priests and associated lack of knowledge about the faith, to mention but a few points, must end. And people know that their liberal course which relativises anything that even smells of faith has no hope of continuing. In the end this approach will kill itself.

So, yes, I fully understand why some people would fear an orthodox boss. He is the personification of the closed road they’re on. Let’s hope and pray that future appointments, in LA and elsewhere, will shows that there is no need for fear, even if there is need for change.