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A Roman Catholic priest friend of ours joined us for supper last night. He spoke of a frequent phenomenon he encounters in Belgium: of Catholics who maintain a deep spiritual life (prayer, bible…) but with relatively little interface with the organized church, with which they feel uncomfortable and unable to connect. Is this a specifically Roman Catholic phenomenon….?

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I knew from 50 metres away that I would not like the church. I was with MmeKourdukova on one of our Sunday afternoon exploratory drives, and we were in the Brussels suburb of Tervueren.

The church looked too well cared-for by Belgian standards, and too well integrated into the urban architecture. I smelt money and civic pride – Tervueren become wealthy after the war, and the 14th century church is the only respectable building it has.  The Vredesboom (Peace Tree) in front also suggested that this was a place of 'feel good' rather than hard Christianity.


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The fact that church buildings become unused and are sold off is inevitable, though sad. I have seen a dozen sold to private developers in my twenty-five years in Belgium. Most of them belonged to religious orders which have since died out – for the reasons see my last Sunday's posting 'Memories of pre-contraception Belgium'.  

We spent a couple of hours today in Mechelen (also known as Malines or Mechlen), thirty kilometres north of Brussels, a delightful old town which is home to the principal Roman Catholic bishop of Belgium.

There, too, under the imposing shadow of the archiepiscopal cathedral of St Rombout, used to be a whole cluster of monasteries and seminar buildings, many of which have since become redundant.

Re-uses are varied, but one which made me angry was the conversion of a former Franciscan church into a hotel. It’s not the conversion per se that I object to, but the fact that key features of the old church, like mosaics over the entrance, the stained glass, or the high altar which remains behind a glass screen at the end of the atrium, are actively used a decorative elements and advertised as part of the attractions of the hotel. See:

This should not have happened. Why, I don’t know. But in any case, that is one bar I shall not be drinking at ...

But not all was bad, by a long way. There was the lovely beguinage church, which I will say some more about later.

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This month’s issue of Pastoralia, the glossy subscription magazine of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium, begins with a long article by the new Archbishop, André-Joseph Léonard, on the correct celebration of the liturgy. In it he politely, but firmly, insists:

- that the Bible readings in church services may never be replaced by other readings

- that the Nicean Creed and the Apostles’ Creeds are the only correct creeds, and home-grown versions are to be avoided. I quote “The Church prayed and meditated and fought against heretics for four centuries, to arrive at the profession of faith shared by all Christian communities. It is important not to waste this treasure in favour of compositions without a future”.

- that the intercessory prayers at funeral or marriage services (similar to Orthodox ectenias, but with freedom of wording, and very often spoken by lay people)  “should remain a prayer addressed to God and not turn into a farewell message to the departed or a good wishes telegram to the newly-weds..."

- that, health permitting, one should stand (or in places kneel) during large parts of the liturgy.

 His instructions point to a certain laxity that had crept in. While well-intentioned in the hope of bringing the Church closer to people, it undermined the idea that the Christian life is a disciplined one, and that, in the faith, as in anything serious in life, you have to make an effort.

 Mgr Léonard has wide support in the Orthodox Church here, to which he is known to be more favourable than his predecessor. While we may not all agree with certain aspects of Catholic doctrine, like clerical celibacy, that he insists on, we are glad that our sister church has a strong hand at the helm.  

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On 23 April this year the Roman Catholic Bishop Vangheluwe of Bruges resigned after being denounced for sexual crimes against his nephew, then a minor, 20 years ago.

The new head of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium, Archbishop Léonard, called publicly for people who had been sexually abused by the members of the church to come forward.

A tidal wave of reports came in to the Church Commission on Sexual Crimes, which immediately began an investigation.

On 24 June the Public Prosecutor seized all the Commission's documents. The Commission resigned. The Church complained through the legal system: right now the documents are in limbo and cannot be used by the Public Prosecutor’s office.

Last Friday, the Commission published an 200-page interim report (n Dutch), based on its work until the seizing of its documents. Half of it is victim statements, half is the Commission's analysis and conclusions.

 It is moving reading.  It is the story of a determination to get at the truth, to face the perpetrators with the facts and the need for them to come clean with the victims and themselves, and to limit the spiritual and psychological damage which has been done.

 Most of the deeds have been reported by people in their 50s and 60s and are no longer punishable by law (sexual abuse cannot be prosecuted later than 10 years after the victim turns 18).  To everyone’s surprise, a third of the crimes were against female minors.

Why did the Public Prosecutor’s office seize the documents? The Commission’s report makes clear its intention to turn over to the Justice Department those priests whose were still prosecutable, preferably with their consent, though in some really bad cases it did so without waiting for this. An understanding on responsibilities had also been reached with the Justice Minister. But individual Public Prosecutors have extensive individual power, and there is a strong anti-clerical (Freemasonry ??) sector of Belgian society, which would like nothing more than to discredit the Church.

I fear they have discredited themselves, and do not weep over the fact…

For most of us there is an enormous sigh of relief. There has been a malaise in the Catholic Church for as long as I have been in the country (25 years). It does not solve everything, but we do have a sense of clear leadership in the Roman Catholic Church.

And there is a knock-on effect on the other denominations, which in my view can affect the ROC in Belgium only positively.


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October 2015

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