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from issue no. 10/11 - 2009

A Church without children is not the Church of Jesus


Christmas and the baptism of children. Paul VI and Benedict XVI. Augustine and Damien of Molokai. An all-encompassing interview with Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Primate of Belgium, as his long tenure leading the archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussel is drawing to an end


Interview with Cardinal Godfried Danneels by Gianni Valente


It’s drizzling a bit and a wind is gusting in Mechelen, while in the stores the decorations and lights announce the Christmas that is arriving. Beyond the gate of the archbishopric the usual laborious, monastic silence reigns. So, doing the usual everyday things, Cardinal Godfried Danneels awaits the feast that – as he often repeats – moves him most from when he was a child. Even his episcopal motto, taken from a verse of Paul’s epistle to Titus, vibrates with the wonder before the manger: Apparuit humanitas Dei nostri. The humanity of our God appeared. This year, also, will be the last time he awaits Christmas as Archbishop of Malines Brussels, Mechelen-Brussel in Flemish, and Primate of the Belgian Church. No drawing up of accounts, God forbid. But to ask some questions about how he sees things from this particular point along his path, that one may do.

Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Archbishop of Malines-Bruxelles, Mechelen-Brussel in Flemish [© Gil Fornet/Ciric]

Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Archbishop of Malines-Bruxelles, Mechelen-Brussel in Flemish [© Gil Fornet/Ciric]

Eminence, we are in Advent. The Church celebrates it as a “strong time”. What makes it different from other times?
GODFRIED DANNEELS: For us Advent is a somewhat special time. We’re always busy doing so many things ourselves, making efforts to live up to expectations, to demonstrate our competence. Advent comes, and it’s the time of grace. The time when we can see that things are from God, that salvation comes to visit us, comes from outside of us, because it’s not already available to our efforts or to human doing. We’re unaccustomed to thinking about this. Then there’s another thing, which for me is the same thing: Advent is the time of hope. I was always impressed that during Advent we put up evergreen trees in our homes, trees that pass the winter without shedding their leaves, while nature sleeps. Like the hope of Israel, waiting for centuries and centuries for the coming of God to happen. That long period of patience that held the promise of the Lord. He comes early. We don’t see Him now, but at Christmas we’ll see Him.
For you it has to do with a particular Advent. You are also awaiting the end of your time as Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussel. How has it gone up to now?
DANNEELS: I don’t know. All the important things in my life just happened. I didn’t produce them. Even my vocation was not a choice, I found it in me, I didn’t create it myself. After secondary school I should have gone to the seminary of Bruges, and instead I went to Louvain, because that year, for the first time, the bishop decided to send those who had finished high school to university immediately. After university I should have returned to Bruges, the major seminary, and instead I was sent to study in Rome. That too was unexpected. Then coming back to Bruges, I found myself being the students’ spiritual director. I was twenty-six. There were students older than me. Coincidentally, many important things have happened to me precisely in the month of December. I was consecrated bishop of Antwerp on 18 December 1977. Two years later, again in December, I came from Antwerp to the primatial see of Mechelen-Brussel. And now, probably, it will be again in December that I change place.
You, as archbishop, have been thirty years in the same place. These days it seems a record. Would you have agreed to change again, perhaps to come to Rome, as many archbishops of major dioceses have done recently?
DANNEELS: If the Pope asks for anything, you do it. That’s not a problem. But I think stability in a diocese is very important. Changing locations every five or ten years, they do it a little in France: they become bishops in a small diocese, then in a larger one, then in an even bigger one... Good heavens, it happened to me too. But I think that staying in one place for a long time is important. Remaining only two years in Antwerp was a little frustrating. For me, and also for the faithful of that diocese.
This year you were able to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the founding of your diocese. Thus your personal story as archbishop has interwoven with the long eras in the life of the Church. In your speeches, at the beginning of the jubilee celebrations, you also spoke positively of the choice of the Council of Trent to establish smaller dioceses.
DANNEELS: From the Council of Trent onwards the choice has been made of reducing the size of dioceses and forming smaller dioceses, to encourage closeness. My archdiocese is still big enough now, but before it was even more so: Antwerp too was part of Malines-Brussels. It seems important to me, especially now, under present circumstances, where the Tradition seems to be dissipating. The pastor must know his flock a little.
What experience of this closeness have you had?
DANNEELS: The most important moments have always been those experienced on Saturday night and Sunday morning going to the parish church, where people go to Mass, in order to celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist with them, do confirmations, and then remain there to speak for an hour or so. I’ve been doing it for thirty years. For me it was the most comforting thing. So I experienced the communion of the bishop with his Church. We pray together, there is the liturgy, the homily, we celebrate the sacraments. In this ordinary reality of the life of the parishes, where the Church is easily reached, is part of the neighborhood, and there is no need to take complicated paths to reach it and take part in the life of faith. Where maybe you go and don’t find the “trained troops”, learned people and subtle debaters, but only the elderly, women and children, some poor people. As happened already to St Paul, who writes to the Christians of Corinth: among you there are not many wise people according to the flesh, many powerful, many noble. But it was God himself who chose the little and the poor, so that “no man may glory himself” before Him. Because of this it is the people who, with their sensus fidelium, carry the Church, and not the clergy.
<I>The Holy Night</I>, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Pinacoteca Civica, Fermo [© Foto Scala, Firenze]

The Holy Night, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Pinacoteca Civica, Fermo [© Foto Scala, Firenze]

This ordinary closeness, this accessibility of the Church, many experience it when they go to ask baptism for their children. You, recently, explained that in this practice it is not just respect for customs that is at stake.
DANNEELS: When Tertullian said at one point in his life that children would no longer be baptized, that those who wanted baptism had to wait to become adults, Rome replied: no, because it was Jesus himself who said to the apostles “Let the little children come to me”. The fundamental argument in favor of infant baptism is that Jesus himself calls for it. It seems to me most important. The presence of the baptized children in the Church is a treasure that we can never forget. It is a grace and an immense privilege, to live right from early childhood in an atmosphere of prayer, but also of worship, attending Mass. I still carry with me the memory of when I was three, four, five years old before first communion, and went to church with my parents and I saw all these people who prayed and sang. There is a Protestant current, that of the Remonstrants, where there is no baptism of children. I heard a good pastor of this community complain that the church was empty of children, and that there were only adults. He said: it’s something else. It’s not the same thing. A Church without children is not the Church of Jesus
Yet some say that baptizing children has no point, because they still have no awareness. What do you think about that?
DANNEELS: The baptism of children shows the extent to which the Church believes that coming to faith is the work of Christ in us. And at the same time it shows that the Church is the place where children and the poor take first place. The Church is not an assembly of the perfect, all aware and independent. It is not a reserve of the elite. Often, we believe that the work of God in us is measured by the degree of awareness that we have of it: the more we are aware, the more can grace impregnate us. But that’s not how it works. The work of grace is not manifest in a coming to psychological awareness. Grace precedes consciousness, and is not conditioned by it. God loves His creation as it is, conscious or not. He knows how to work souls, even of those who are not aware of this. That of the baby as that of the dying or terminally ill patient who has lost consciousness. Only evil will tries to resist grace. Not innocent unconsciousness. And then, who can resist the hand of God, when He wants to draw us to Himself? Paul, with all his negative will, could not resist, at the gates of Damascus.
Yet many say that, given the crisis of faith of our time, it would be better to close ranks. That requests for baptism and the other sacraments should be evaluated and it is better to reject those who are unsuitable and uncommitted.
DANNEELS: That position always reminds me of the Biblical story of Naaman, the head of the King of Syria’s army, who sick with leprosy, went to the prophet Elisha to ask him for healing. The prophet sent word to him to immerse himself seven times in the waters of the River Jordan if he wanted to be healed. And at that he exploded with fury; it seemed ridiculous to him that for someone as powerful as himself, who had come from Syria to see the prophet, everything should be resolved with a bathe in the river. He was eventually convinced by his servants, threw himself into the Jordan seven times and came out cured. Then he returned to Elisha to reward him with money: he wanted in some way to pay his deliverance. But the prophet refused his money: the grace of God is offered free to all. Naaman to me is the image of all those who are unable to accept that grace is so simple.
Returning to you. From what I know of you, you won’t be drawing up any kind of account or reckoning.
DANNEELS: If I compare the situation now to what it was when I was a child, many things have changed. Then there was still a sociological Catholicism, where people were Christians by tradition, one can almost say that they were born Christians. Now it’s no longer the case. Faith has often become a personal thing, sometimes personalistic. I say nothing bad about that Christianity as a family tradition, because as I’ve already said I’m very grateful to my parents, from whom I learned the faith from when I was a little boy. It is an advantage. But this is what happens, and you have to accept it. Going through times when everything seems to change, the Lord has continued to be close to me. And when things change as they have changed in these times, it becomes increasingly clear that one can hope only in Him. I dedicated my last pastoral letter precisely to the difference between that time and the present. The title of the letter is La petite fille Espérance. The one mentioned by Charles Péguy. Hope as a little girl, who moves forward between her two big sisters, faith and charity. The Christian people believe that it is the big ones who lead the little one along by the hand. But it’s she who draws the other two.
In your opinion, what is now the biggest obstacle to the proclamation of the Gospel? The hostility of the de-Christianized world? The egoism of individuals? Secularism?
DANNEELS: The biggest obstacle is not the resistance of society, or the hostility of the world. The world has always been there. The greatest resistance is the lack of confidence of those who want to evangelize and lack confidence in the power of the Word of God itself. To the disciples who were desperate because of the difficulties they encountered, Jesus recounted the three parables present in the Gospel of Mark: those of the sower, of the seed that grows by itself, of the mustard seed. Thus he tries to make them understand how things go. The buds will not flower because he puts an abundance of seeds in the ground, or by virtue of the commitment of the sower. The seed is strong and bears fruit by itself.
Cardinal Godfried Danneels, during the episcopal ordination of the new bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny, in Antwerp cathedral, 4 January 2009 [© Belga Photo/Ansa]

Cardinal Godfried Danneels, during the episcopal ordination of the new bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny, in Antwerp cathedral, 4 January 2009 [© Belga Photo/Ansa]

In one of the parables you mentioned, the man, who after having sown goes to sleep tranquilly, is spoken about, because “whether he be asleep or awake, the seed germinates and grows; how, he himself does not know”. Many times you have been criticized for not standing on the barricades in the name of Christian values. Or for not having covered your priests and your parishioners with instructions and directives. Is it just a matter of character?
DANNEELS: Certainly, my temperament has got something to do with it. But also in the Bible it says that the servant of God did not raise his voice in the streets. They never speak of this, they never remember it. I’m convinced of the silent, mysterious force of the Word of God. Not that you shouldn’t do anything. I’ve worked from morning to night. But I didn’t shout. For yelling there are the screamers. I’m not one. And then there’s Paul’s method, who begins to prophesy in the squares. Fine. But there is also Mary’s method. That is like that of the stove, which heats up all who are around without saying anything.
I would like to read a phrase of Paul VI. It comes from 1968. Even in the Church storm was in the air. Pope Montini went to visit the Lombard Seminary, and said: “Many expect dramatic gestures from the Pope, energetic and decisive interventions. The Pope does not believe that he must follow any other line than that of trust in Jesus Christ, who is concerned for His Church more than any other. It will be He who will calm the storm”. It is not a matter, he added later, “of a barren or inert awaiting; but rather of watchful waiting in prayer. This is the condition that Jesus Himself has chosen for us, so that He can operate fully”.
DANNEELS: I might have written it myself. It’s true that the Pope with whom I have personally felt most affinity was Paul VI. He appointed me bishop. With Paul VI I feel at home.
Pope Benedict XVI also quoted it, during his visit to Brescia.
DANNEELS: Benedict XVI also has the same attitude of not shouting, of saying things and suggesting them with a little trust. It’s not the athletic mode of John Paul II, who was a different kind of pope. He too important. But unlike Paul VI.
Benedict XVI recently seems to be insisting on the point. Opening the African Synod, he cited the apostles and recalled that they too waited for the action of the Holy Spirit, for they knew that “the Church can not be made, is not the product of our organizing”. Does the church now need to be reminded of that fact?
DANNEELS: The Church needs Saint Augustine. Who says that grace does everything. We also must cooperate. But it is God who works, and we cooperate. Instead we are too much inclined toward a certain Pelagianism, we think that things basically depend on us, and we need only a little help from God. And thus we deny the omnipotence of grace. Just as happened at the time of Augustine.
Where have you seen this temptation emerge in the Church?
DANNEELS: In the ’sixties and ’seventies, this trend took on a more political coloring. Many aimed to bring about the Kingdom of God understood as social revolution. Now, some of the spokesmen of Liberation Theology have gone on to do ecology. They’re the same militants, they just changed weaponry... Then, in the ’eighties and ’nineties a certain way prevailed of interpreting evangelization as an undertaking of the Church, as the fruit of its leading position in society. Today, the same somewhat Pelagian trend has assumed more restorative forms. There are those who say: after the Council there was a certain bewilderment, many good things got lost, but now it’s up to us to set things right, to straighten out the path. They always call into question the essential things: the liturgy, doctrine, Eucharistic worship... But sometimes, in their speeches, these things seem only watchwords of a new direction, used as banners. They change the slogan, but the bottom line remains the same.
Which is?
DANNEELS: We are always tempted to act by ourselves. First in Catholic Action, and after in the movements. First in conciliar renewal, and now in restoration. The actors are always us. We always refer to ourselves: look at me, how well I do things. Whereas it’s no use being a great preacher, if the world’s attention is fixed on the preacher. Seeing the man of the Church counts for nothing, in fact, the man of the Church acts as a shield if Jesus is not glimpsed behind him. St Paul says, you can also have countless pedagogues in Christ, but certainly not many fathers. This is indeed a time when there are many pedagogues who speak in the name of Christ, give lessons to all in the name of Christ, but do not give their lives. They are not fathers in Christ, because they are not children.
I would like to ask you a few questions about specific issues. How did you experience in Belgium the liberalization of the use of the Missal of St Pius V?
DANNEELS: All rites are good when they are Catholic rites. I’ve always thought that through the provisions of liturgical tolerance contained in the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, the Pope wanted to show his willingness for all traditionalists to return to the bosom of the Catholic Church. I’m not sure that it will be sufficient to resolve the issue, because the problem with the Lefebvrians is not the ritual, the problem is the Second Vatican Council. The question of the liturgy is like the locomotive. One has to see what’s inside the wagons it pulls.
Father Damien de Veuster

Father Damien de Veuster

Right here in Malines, in the ’twenties, the first ecumenical contacts between Catholics and Anglicans began, encouraged by Cardinal Joseph Mercier, your predecessor. How do you judge the recent institution of ordinariates to take in the Anglican communities that want to establish full communion with the Bishop of Rome?
DANNEELS: This too was a sign of the Pope’s willingness to receive those who want to come into the Catholic Church. And there, too, we must wait some years to see whether the position taken was the best solution. We will see from the results. In general, I think that in relations between Catholicism and Anglicans there is a certain distrust. Rowan Williams’s visit to the Pope was important, but I read the speech by Rowan at the Gregorian, and there I found a certain note of disillusionment. It was certainly not enthusiastic.
On 15 November last, at the Te Deum for the King’s anniversary, you renewed the invitation to pray for rulers. Something unusual at a time when many bishops make efforts to keep politicians away from the Eucharist.
DANNEELS: I reminded people that it’s a good thing from time to time to thank those who take the responsibility for politics, because we’re always criticizing but there are some politicians who are dedicated to their work with a great sense of generosity. St Paul says: even if our rulers are against us, we must pray for them. At that time, governments certainly did not ensure privileges for Christians, indeed quite the opposite happened. But St Paul nevertheless says: pray and give thanks for the judges and all those who are in power, so that we may live a calm and peaceful life. Because power depends on God and transcends the individuality of the person who bears the responsibility. The responsibility is much greater than the man who bears it.
By the way, you know Herman Van Rompuy well, and publicly congratulated him on his appointment as President of the European Council...
DANNEELS: He’s a very capable man. Someone who never maneuvered to get to where he is. And that is a position of strength. A few weeks ago he spoke in Liege on the social encyclical Caritas in veritate, and said explicitly that it is the doctrine which inspires him in his political activities. It’s an honor for him and for us that he has been called to the office of President of the European Council. But for Belgium it’s also a problem. As prime minister he demonstrated his ability to conduct relations between north and south of the country with expertise and historical knowledge. Now we have to start over with someone else.
In recent weeks you have been very involved in the celebrations for the canonization of Father Damien de Veuster. You even flew to the island of Molokai, Hawaii, where Father Damien lived and died caring for lepers. What did you bring back with you from that remote spot?
DANNEELS: Damien is a saint of my diocese. The first after four centuries, after the Jesuit St John Berchmans, who lived in the early seventeenth century. The thing that impressed me most in Molokai was the lushness of nature, the flowers, trees, the sun, the ocean, all that blue, all so beautiful, and that was precisely the scenario where the lepers lived, the most disfigured of men. The paradoxical contrast between beauty and human misery. On that island, among the most beautiful in the world, there were the most repulsive of men. You go about the island, and there are graves everywhere, more than eight thousand. In a place where life seems so exuberant, death reigns. And in that very place it was startling to imagine Father Damien, and the immense faith he had, living and witnessing to hope in such a situation.
Yet you said that we should not look at him as a hero.
DANNEELS: He is a hero, so much so that he also has a statue set up to him in the Capitol in Washington. But he’s also much more. He’s a saint. And that we had almost forgotten. Many people ask me why Damien waited a century to perform his first miracle. My answer is always the same: it’s our fault for not asking his intercession. We admired him, but we didn’t turn to him in prayer. Among us, he had no work, he had nothing to do. He will have thought: if you don’t ask anything, I won’t do anything.
The tomb of Father Damien in Kalawao, Hawaii islands; the saint's body remained buried here until 1936, when it was transferred to Belgium

The tomb of Father Damien in Kalawao, Hawaii islands; the saint's body remained buried here until 1936, when it was transferred to Belgium

Regarding the processes of beatification, what do you think of the speed with which the cause of John Paul II is going forward?
DANNEELS: I think the normal procedure should have been respected. If the process moves quickly in itself, okay. But holiness does not need to go through preferential channels. The process should take as long as needed, without exceptions. The Pope is a baptized person like everyone else. So the process of beatification should be the same as that in place for all the baptized. I certainly didn’t like the cries of “saint immediately!” which were heard at the funeral service in Saint Peter’s Square. That shouldn’t be done. Some time ago they also said that it was an organized initiative, and that is unacceptable. To create a beatification by acclamation, but not spontaneous acclamation, is something unacceptable.
Do you have some concern about the succession to your leadership of the diocese? Do you fear that they may make a wrong choice?
DANNEELS: I think that whoever is appointed will be the pastor of the diocese. That’s it. I never think about who it will be. It will be who it will be. Probably, and fortunately, he will be different from me. No need to be a clone of your predecessor. Neither was I. If I were to give advice, I would say to him: stay who you are. You can’t do a good job when you have the problem of comparing yourself to and being like somebody else. We must be what we are, and work with the charisms we have, which are not what others have, because everyone has their own. And then it’s a good thing that from time to time we change the temperament of the person responsible for the diocese. If the same style always remained in force, it would even become boring.
What will you do afterwards?
DANNEELS: I hope to be able to do what I have not had time to do in the last years of my episcopate. For example, prayer, which as bishop it is really a daily battle to win the time to pray. Then I would like to take up studying the Bible a little again. With a not too scientific exegesis, but a rather spiritual one. At the Gregorian I remember we had a good course of New Testament Exegesis... And then, also to rest a little. Have time to look at the trees, flowers, nature. And listen to a little music. I like everything that starts with B: Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles.
Coming here, I saw that they are renovating the cathedral. Do you want to leave things neat and proper.
DANNEELS: But no, the cathedral is under the superintendence of the State. And the cathedral has always been under construction, for centuries ... There will always be work to be done, maybe even for another thirty years. Probably not even my successor will see the end.


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