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from issue no. 09 - 2008

A humble and poor people survives


“I was impressed that there was still a people in France to await the Pope. People who went on their own, not because someone had organized them. They are the poor, the little ones of the Gospel”. An interview with Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Primate of Belgium. On the Synod and other matters


Interview with Cardinal Godfried Danneels by Gianni Valente


Godfried Danneels appears serenely busy. In his diocese of Mechelen-Brussels, the Cardinal Primate of Belgium continues to work with his northern rhythms. In recent months, Benedict XVI named him on several occasions as papal envoy to celebrations at popular Belgian and French shrines. Next year it falls to his primatial diocese to celebrate the 450 years of its foundation. He, meanwhile, reached 75 at the beginning of June. Some few weeks earlier he had mailed the letter of resignation that every bishop must send to the Pope when he reaches retirement age: “Because with the Italian mail you never know”. And on 5 October he went to Rome to take part in the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God convened by the Pope. He is a veteran of synod sessions: since 1980 he has participated in all the ordinary meetings of these “States General” of Catholicism. He, one knows, is not the sort of man for cliques: “So-called ‘Church politics’”, he says, “are really of little interest at the moment”. The subject covered by the Synod, however, is very close to his heart.

Cardinal Godfried Danneels

Cardinal Godfried Danneels

So, finally, you were able to participate in the Synod on the Word of God.
GODFRIED DANNEELS: I’m pleased. At each Synod, toward the end of the sessions, the synod fathers are asked to make proposals to help the Pope in the choice of the theme for the next Synod. I remember that Cardinal Martini, as early as the ’eighties, at the first Synods I attended with him, always asked for a Synod to be devoted to Holy Scripture. Finally, after more than twenty years, and after dealing with all the other possible and imaginable topics, we’ve got there. It seems very important to me.
So you, too, were waiting for a Synod on this topic for a long while. Nostalgia for your youth?
DANNEELS: In fact, in my life, the rediscovery of the Word of God and its centrality in the life of the Church coincided with the Second Vatican Council, especially with the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, the Council document on Divine Revelation. A document that was somewhat set aside. But it’s the most important thing. What is described in the first few lines, with a quotation from the First Epistle of John: “We announce to you the eternal life, which was present to the Father and has been revealed to us. We are declaring to you what we have seen and heard, so that you too may share our life. Our life is shared with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ”.
You mentioned the fact that this text was somewhat shelved.
DANNEELS: Those who speak of the Council always mention the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, in which the Church spoke of itself, or Gaudium et Spes, which dealt with relations between the Church and the world. But Dei Verbum is probably the document in which the Church’s reflection on its status and its nature was most acute. The Church is an instrument. “We write you these things”, John points out, again in his First Epistle, “so our joy be perfect”.
How to present the Bible today? Is it the “code” of our civilization, inscribed in our DNA, as some say?
DANNEELS: Of course Holy Scripture, the Bible, is also a very important cultural, social and human phenomenon. That’s true, but it’s secondary. It’s not the heart, the ‘core business’ of Sacred Scripture. Because the Bible, Holy Scripture, is not a text. It is the living Word that was spoken in Jesus, and that continues to be uttered in Jesus by God. So it’s the contact, the encounter with a person who is alive, who continues to be present and to reveal Himself in operating. This is the proprium of reading the Bible, also compared to the sacred texts of other religions. One is not reading a book, one is hearing and listening to a living voice.
How would you define it?
DANNEELS: Holy Scripture is the story of the history of God with mankind. It reveals what God wants from mankind. And this, God does not express through concepts, through philosophies, through thoughts, but through facts. The revelation of God is in these events. This is the method by which God enters into human history with all the imperfections, the adventures, tragedies, but also the good things that are in the hearts of mankind. It is the immense humiliation of God to adapt to us. God, with Christ, descended to earth to live with us. Scripture is perhaps the place where it is possible for all to perceive and set oneself with simplicity before the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God. It represents the simplest manifestation.
St. Augustine said: “Scripture comes from the Lord. But it has no human interest, if one does not recognize Christ there”. Instead, at times, it seems that the reading of Holy Scripture is itself the source of the beginning of faith.
DANNEELS: It is not the source. But contact with the Word living and especially preached can normally be the occasion for the beginning of faith. There something passes between God and me. The Word not written, but preached and confessed. Precisely quoting Augustine, the Dei Verbum proposed to set out the doctrine on Divine Revelation and its transmission, “so that through the message of salvation the whole world by listening may believe, by believing hope, by hoping love”.
<I>Christ in glory</I>, stained-glass window in the Cathedral of Chartres, France [© Ciric]

Christ in glory, stained-glass window in the Cathedral of Chartres, France [© Ciric]

Recently you used an original definition when you said during a sermon that faith is an “emotional relationship”.
DANNEELS: It isn’t in the first place a cognitive relationship. It is a relationship of falling in love, not of knowledge. There is also knowledge, because you can’t love what you don’t encounter and isn’t recognized. But one isn’t a Christian because of the conclusions of a cogent argument, because of a demonstration of truth. This also applies to the Bible. The purpose of the Bible is not primarily to provide instructions and information. But to recount the continuing rebeginnings, the continuing restarts of the patience of God with us.
In some reminders of the importance of Sacred Scripture, isn’t there the ambition to turn all Christians into professionals in exegesis?
DANNEELS: Not professionals, but amateurs. Or as they say: dilettantes, in the sense of those who take delight. There are two things that I hope are encouraged by the Synod. First, that the Christian people read the Bible. In this, we Catholics are behind the Protestants. Second, we must be able to pray with the Bible. Reading a passage from the Gospel can be equal to reciting a prayer. In the Lectio divina there are three stages: reading, reflection and praying. That’s what Martini did for years in Milan, in the Cathedral of Milan.
Holy Scripture suggests to Christians also how to stand towards the world.
DANNEELS: I’ve always been struck by the images used by Jesus to indicate the manner in which Christians live in the world. Jesus never talks about something rocklike and unmoving, but the yeast that raises the dough almost imperceptibly, or the light of the lamp that passes through all the cracks of doors and windows to light up everywhere. They are familiar and peaceful images. They are the opposite of the fear and self-closure, typical of many identity groups. The Word of God is all wrapped in sweetness, tenderness, humility. If it weren’t so, people wouldn’t “browse” it and wouldn’t discover the promise it contains. They’d leave it there, closed in on itself.
That also applies to the relationship with power. You yourself, during the mass on the Day of the King celebrated in Belgium, suggested a passage taken from Holy Scripture as paradigm of the relationship between Christians and the civil authorities.
DANNEELS: I read the passage in which St. Paul makes his recommendations to Timothy: “I therefore recommend, first of all, that requests, supplications, prayers and thanks be made for all men, for kings and all those who are in power, so we may pass a calm and quiet life with all piety and dignity”. Paul says that we must pray for all the authorities, the good ones, but also the others. In the same sermon, I also quoted what Paul suggests in his Epistle to the Philippians: “Do nothing for rivalry, nothing for the glory, but with humility, always esteem others as superior to yourselves”. These are not my ideas. They are passages in the New Testament. This is the first duty of the Church and Christians: praying. We believe in the power of prayer of the righteous.
In the same sermon, you also said things not very fashionable on the relationship between Church and politics.
DANNEELS: I said that the Church must avoid interfering in political life. The organization of society and institutions belongs to politicians. Not everybody accepts that. In some countries there is an increasing tendency to tell politicians what to do. Certainly, the civil authorities are not always going in the right direction. But there are those who think that by vigorously brandishing the truth other people will bow down. And that’s not what happens.
Even when the Pope went to France there were those who were hoping for a “Regensburg number two”...
DANNEELS: On secularism...
A child at the foot of the altar of the chapel of St. Bernadette, Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, Lourdes, France [© Ciric]

A child at the foot of the altar of the chapel of St. Bernadette, Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, Lourdes, France [© Ciric]

Some people seem attached to the cliché of the Pope “challenging”, launching cultural battles...
DANNEELS: But that wouldn’t have worked in France. The Pope knew that, and did things very well. Even the most engaged speech, the one at the Bernardines, was not a manifesto. Help came also from the civil authorities, because Sarkozy now claims he’s convinced of the utility of religions, especially Catholicism, for society and civil life. He’s not a secular “anti”. As there are some in France.
The French Church, and also the Belgian Church, are often accused of passivity in the face of secularization. Preparations are going ahead for the celebration of the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the death of Jean Marie Vianney, the saintly Curé d’Ars, patron saint of parish priests. What might this saint suggest for the Church today?
DANNEELS: That witnessing to the faith in itself is the only weapon we have. And the only one that can win. We don’t need auxiliary constructions. Faith and the Word of God are strong enough in themselves to penetrate hearts, win the freedom of people living in society. We always lack trust in the strength of faith and the Word of God in itself. We always forget that our faith, as Saint Paul says, is not based on wise persuasive argument, but on the manifestation of the Spirit and His power. It’s not something magical.
What struck you about the welcome the Pope received in France?
DANNEELS: That there was still a people to welcome him. People who went on their own, not because someone had organized them. Especially in Lourdes. Where there is Mary, there are the people. They weren’t special groups. There were also some special groups, but within a crowd of the people.
You mean to say “generic” Christians, simple faithful, not organized under banners...
DANNEELS: Christianity may be “generic” or it may not. Special groups may arise which at a certain moment highlight something, but faith is rooted in the simple people who have no ideology, have no plans, strategies, have nothing ... are simply themselves. They are the poor, the little ones of the Gospel. And the prayer of the poor is the Rosary. Even in medieval monasteries, where the lay brothers didn’t know how to pray the psalms in Latin with the monks, they prayed one hundred and fifty Hail Marys instead of one hundred and fifty psalms. Even then the Rosary was like the Psalter of the poor. Jesus in the Garden of Olives also prayed somewhat in the same way. “Repeating the same words”, says Matthew’s Gospel.
In recent times the Pope has sent you as papal representative to the jubilee celebrations of various shrines.
DANNEELS: I was in Banneux, at the sanctuary of La Vierge des pauvres, then Valenciennes, and it was the same thing, really impressive: five thousand people at mass in the public square, at nine on Sunday morning. And then to Rheims for Saint Remy, and in Luxembourg for St. Willibrord. It’s been a year in which I’ve found myself immersed in popular devotion. With great solace. That there is fertile soil. Everything else in the Church lives only if it is planted in that humus. These are the crowds mentioned in the Gospel.
Faithful in procession with the relics 
of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus 
in Lisieux, France [© Corbis]

Faithful in procession with the relics of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus in Lisieux, France [© Corbis]

The only pastoral indication that you gave, also in the diocesan newsletter, was to go on pilgrimage to Marian shrines, including the nearby. As bishop, you are not one who covers his faithful with directives. Some people criticize you for it.
DANNEELS: When I was professor of theology, I was working above all in a register that demanded clarity and methodological rigor in intellectual work. Since I became a bishop, it’s pastoral charity that has taken the upper hand. The theologian has the right and the duty to express his ideas on any subject. For the bishop it’s another thing. It’s not so important that he express his theological thinking with intellectual acumen. As bishop, you notice that in the world, far from libraries and books, many things happen. You see the miseries of mankind. You see the social and cultural mix in which we live immersed. It’s all different. The theologian is settled in a certain well-defined status. Whereas the pastor must live a sort of “bilocation”: he must walk in front, to lead his people. But he must also stay at the back, to close the rank, because if some lamb hurts itself or breaks a leg, it’s up to him to take it on his shoulders. Imitating, if possible, what Jesus does, the only shepherd of the flock.
Speaking of bishops, the Council meant to upgrade the role of the bishop. Forty years later, some people note a sort of leveling, of “homologization” in the episcopate.
DANNEELS: In the recent Synods I’ve attended, I’ve seen many fine people, but the level is not that of the bishops of the Council. Everyone is friendly and full of good intentions, but there seems to be a little lack of intelligence, which never hurts. Intelligence of the heart.
The same goes for the way in which roles are established in the Church...
DANNEELS: To be more elastic, the distinction between the power of ordination and of jurisdiction should be taken up again. Now, the two powers are inseparable. The power of jurisdiction can only be entrusted to someone who is ordained. The theology of Vatican II has made that tie even stronger. Yet in the Middle Ages it was the abbesses of the great abbeys who gave jurisdiction to priests to hear confessions. Who knows now if a practice of the kind would be permitted.


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