Belgian prelate says vocations crisis is wall against church’s future

By Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Viewed by some as a strong potential candidate for the papacy, Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels has voiced concern over the vocations crisis, saying it stands like a wall against the church's future development.

He said the effect of the crisis can be seen in fewer Sunday Masses, more priestless parishes and a reduction in pastoral services such as catechesis and ministry to the sick. During a 2003 visit to Rome, the cardinal said "a pastoral plan for vocations is therefore urgently needed."

Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels attends a session at the U.S. bishops' meeting in Washington in November. (CNS photo by Bob Roller)

The 71-year-old archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels has also called for a modern style of evangelization that focuses more on the joy of the faith than on doctrinal rules.

Many people are searching for spiritual values, but are attracted more by a well-lived Christianity than by church teachings or a "dried-up, scholastic theology," he said in an interview in late 1999.

In recent years, Cardinal Danneels has urged a decentralized approach to church governance, one that relies more on consultation with the world's bishops.

Fluent in several languages, he has preached many retreats, including one for U.S. bishops in 1990, and has served as president of Pax Christi International.

Cardinal Danneels has been president of the Belgian bishops' conference and a member of the first All-European Religious Council, founded in 2002 to work to end conflicts and promote a peaceful coexistence among all faiths in Europe.

At the 1999 European Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Danneels prompted the applause of Pope John Paul when he said the church should not despair about the decline in practice on the continent. Instead, pastors need to convince people that the Gospel can indeed make them happy and bring hope to their lives, he said.

The cardinal often has suggested a more flexible approach to pastoral and doctrinal problems. At the synod, he endorsed a suggestion to convene a council or universal church encounter to look at issues ranging from the shortage of priests to the status of divorced and remarried Catholics.

Such a council should also examine the church's way of evangelizing, ecumenism, collegiality and the possibility of ordaining married men, as well as social issues like world peace, ecological responsibility and the relationship between rich and poor countries, he said.

The cardinal said that while Vatican officials may not be eager to review current policies on thorny pastoral issues, the church has a responsibility to do so.

"If the questions are real, the Roman Curia will not be able to avoid them eternally. They will keep coming up at certain moments," he said.

For instance, in discussing the papacy, Cardinal Danneels was among the first to say that he believed Pope John Paul II would resign for the good of the church if he were unable to bear the burdens of the papacy.

Cardinal Danneels gained wide attention in the 1990s when he called for more consultation and dialogue within the church and more effective ways to combat disbelief in the industrialized world.

The basic problem, he said in 1998, is that people no longer have an almost natural perception of the existence and presence of God.

"It is not a willful and voluntary atheism, but more an indifference," he said. When people do not believe God exists, their perception of humanity changes, and the individual becomes the final arbiter of good and bad, he said.

Catholic Church leaders must admit they may be part of the problem, Cardinal Danneels said. The church "must defend the truth, but it also must be aware that defending the truth is not the same thing as never being wrong," he said.

The church must take its proper place in society "with its witness, its message and its commitment to the poor. Everything else is decorative," he said.

"We have transformed the Sermon on the Mount into a mountain of sermons," the cardinal said.

He spoke out on social issues, challenging a 2002 parliamentary vote in Belgium that led to the legalization of euthanasia in the predominantly Catholic country.

In 2004, he said that while condoms could be used to prevent exposure to HIV/AIDS, they could not be used as a method of birth control.

"If a person infected with HIV has decided to not respect abstinence, then he has to protect his partner and he can do that, in this case, by using a condom," he told a Dutch television station.

Responding to Pope John Paul's 1995 call for an ecumenical discussion on the role of the papacy, he said the key change he would like to see would be greater consultation with the world's bishops.

"It is my opinion that a wide process of decentralization should be stimulated, since this is what is already happening in practice," he said.

Given changes in cultures and communications in the modern world, he said, it is logical that the way a pope governs would change as well.

Only one thing about the papacy cannot change, the cardinal said: The pope is the successor of St. Peter and holds primacy in the church.

But the pope should hold consultations with bishops on important moral, theological and ecclesial issues, he said, and bishops should have the pope's ear when it is time to nominate a new bishop in their country or region.

"I think it would be very dangerous not to listen to the advice of bishops," he said. "If the bishops say unanimously that a certain candidate is not suitable in their view, I think it would be better not to entrust him with that diocese."

Cardinal Danneels also said the Roman Curia must "remain in its own place: as an instrument of the pope and nothing else. The curia cannot be allowed to change from an instrument to a command structure, which assumes part of the pope's authority."

The cardinal, who for 18 years was a professor of sacramental theology and liturgy, also has spoken widely on the need for creativity in celebrating the Mass, but always with the aim of leading people deeper into prayer.

Without giving priority to the sacredness of the Mass, he said, the gathering is trivialized into a human community "celebrating itself."

Godfried Danneels was born June 4, 1933, in Kanegem, Belgium.

He studied philosophy and theology at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1957. He earned another theology degree in 1961 from Gregorian University, Rome.

After teaching at the university and at the Brugge diocesan seminary, he was named bishop of Antwerp in 1977.

Pope John Paul appointed him to the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels in 1979 and named him a cardinal in 1983, when he was just 49 years old.


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