For at least half a century, the revival of Catholicism in its traditional heartlands has been a pastoral priority for the Church. In this regard, Belgium is an instructive case study. For decades, it was famed for theological adventurousness while parishes and seminaries emptied at a dizzying pace. However, during the primacy of Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard since 2010, priestly vocations there have surged and the Church has emerged out of the catacombs. He has drastically broken with recent Catholic history in his country. Now some ask: Is his style of leadership the remedy for Western de-Christianization?
Once one of the world’s most ardently Catholic nations, Belgium gained independence from the Dutch in 1830, with the French language and Catholicism being the main designators of the Belgian national identity. For a long time, Belgium was among the world’s most Catholic societies, producing such figures as St. Damian of Molokai, the missionary priest who died while caring for lepers, and Rev. Georges Lemaître, the priest and physicist who invented the Big Bang theory.
This Catholic legacy eroded after World War II. Growing prosperity competed with faith. Meanwhile, as in much of Western Europe, Belgian churchmen misinterpreted Vatican II, incorrectly suggesting that Pope St. John XXIII’s aggiornamento meant that traditional notions of morality were mutable. This led to chaos, confusion, and doctrinal error. For example, after Pope Paul VI defended the Church’s teachings on sexuality in 1968’s Humanae Vitae, the Belgian bishops proclaimed that a person’s conscience could lead to contrary conclusions. Meanwhile, traditional practices such as Eucharistic processions and the rosary were scrapped as relics of the past.
Cardinal Godfried Danneels, primate of Belgium (1979-2010), aggravated the decline. He publicly questioned the Church’s teachings on the ordination of women, homosexuality, and contraception. During the 2005 conclave, Danneels was the top papabile “progressive” Catholics dreamed of seeing in white on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. However, a couple years later his reputation declined as it was revealed that he knew of the sexual abuse of children by priests in his diocese, yet did nothing.
In this period, Belgian Mass attendance fell to between 5 and 10 percent. Belgium was among the first nations to legalize abortion on demand, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage—with little Catholic opposition. Priest shortages became endemic. Once a world capital of Catholic learning, the Catholic University of Leuven today makes Georgetown look like Ave Maria.
When Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard succeeded Danneels as primate of Belgium in 2010, he made immediate changes. Not since the 1960s has the Belgian Church been so vocal. When Belgium recently legalized child euthanasia, the archbishop implored his faithful to pray and fast against the measure. On February 6th, the day Belgian’s Parliament voted on the measure, Léonard organized prayer vigils on the streets of every city in the nation, hoping that the sight of thousands praying against this travesty would move the deputies’ consciences.
Léonard revived traditional Catholic piety, too, quickly introducing the first Eucharistic procession on Corpus Christi in Liège since 1970. He celebrates the Latin Mass regularly, offering it as a remedy to the liturgical abuses of recent history.
He has formed the Community of the Holy Apostles, which consists of three priests and seven seminarians who base their philosophy on the spirituality of Rev. Michel-Marie Zanotti-Sorkine, a French luminary of the new evangelization. They wear cassocks (a rare sight in the post-Conciliar Belgian Church) while talking to Belgians about God. Last month, the community saved from deconsecration St. Catherine’s parish in central Brussels that was closed three years ago due to a lack of priests. Not long ago, St. Catherine’s was to become a fish market; now, it is the seat of one of contemporary Europe’s most dynamic groups of evangelists.
Many remain unenthusiastic about Léonard. When he became the country’s primate, Belgium’s health minister contrasted him with “open” and “tolerant” Danneels, claiming that his election threatens the separation of Church and state. (Ironically, the fact that a government official wants to impose what kind of bishops should be elected smacks of Josephinism). In 2011, homosexual activists threw pies at Léonard during a lecture. When Léonard gave a pro-life lecture at the University of Brussels last year, radical feminists doused him with water. Léonard started to pray and blessed his attackers.
Despite such attacks, Belgian Catholicism has started to show signs of growth for the first time in many decades. The numbers speak for themselves: in the 2012/2013 academic year, the number of Belgian seminarians has grown from sixty-seven to eighty-nine. When Léonard was bishop of Namur, the number of vocations mushroomed there, too.
It is unfortunate that Pope Francis did not make Archbishop Léonard a cardinal at this year’s consistory. Given the state of disrepair into which Belgian Catholicism has fallen, Brussels mustn’t be an automatic cardinalate see, but the remarkable turnaround Léonard has made should have earned him the red hat. He is just one year short of the retirement age for bishops, so there won’t be many more opportunities to make him a cardinal.
Unfortunately, Francis has favored Cardinal Danneels, appointing him a synod father to the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, a curious choice, given that, at eighty-one, Danneels not only has long exceeded the retirement age for bishops, but he can no longer participate in conclaves. (Léonard participated in the synod only because he was the head of the Belgian bishops’ conference; his equivalent in every other country in the world did so automatically).
Despite this omission, however, André-Joseph Léonard merits serious study by Catholic leaders wondering how to reignite the faith in the West.
Image credit: Infovaticana.com.
Filip Mazurczak has an MA in international relations from the George Washington University. He has published in a variety of magazines, including The European Conservative, Visegrad Insight, and Tygodnik Powszechny.