Friday 29 March 2024

Belgian church with lay-led liturgies loses parish status

Belgium’s Mechelen-Brussels archdiocese has stripped a community of its parish status, amid a disagreement over its lay-led liturgies, while specifying that the community will retain some ongoing and unspecified connection to the Church, which the archdiocese analogized to an ecclesial movement.

In a March 20 statement, Church authorities said that Don Bosco Church in Buizingen, about 10 miles southwest of the capital Brussels, would “no longer continue to exist as a parish,” though it will have some continuing connection to the Catholic Church.

But while the move was meant to provide clarity, an archdiocesan announcement leaves several key questions unanswered.

The Vicariate of Flemish Brabant and Mechelen — a region of the Brussels archdiocese entrusted to an auxiliary bishop as vicar — said it took the step after a year and a half of talks, which “established that major differences remain, mainly in the vision of celebrating and presiding over the sacraments.”

Due to “the fundamental nature of the divergent positions,” the parish will “now function as an independent religious community or organization,” it said.

The official website of the Catholic Church in Flanders noted that Don Bosco parish in Buizingen was “known for far-reaching innovations in the field of liturgy and sacraments.” 

“For example, the Eucharist is led by lay women, among others,” the archdiocese said, though it did not specify how a woman or any lay person could “lead” the Eucharist, which can only be celebrated by an ordained priest.

The Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels’ decision to disassociate from the Don Bosco community comes six months before Pope Francis is due to visit Belgium and six months after Archbishop Luc Terlinden took the helm of the archdiocese, succeeding Cardinal Jozef De Kesel.

While the archdiocese has not offered details, the move would seem to have required the suppression of the juridic person of the parish, and — because the archdiocese has stressed that the church has some ongoing relationship to the Church — the possible creation of a new juridic entity, with a newly defined relationship to the Catholic Church.

It is not clear which canonical entity now owns the church itself.

Don Bosco Church, which dates to 1951, was led by the priest and activist Rik Devillé from 1981 until his retirement in 2009. He is the author of the 1992 book “The Last Dictatorship: A plea for a parish without a pope,” criticizing existing Church’s structures, and a prominent advocate for abuse survivors. 

When Devillé left the parish, he was succeeded by a team of 19 lay people who took turns leading the Sunday liturgy.

The church’s website says that “each weekend a Eucharist is worked out by someone from the ‘liturgical working group.’”

The parish has also provided a range of activities on other days, including Christian meditation and “sacred dance.” According to Belgian media, it has also hosted book sales and yoga classes.

The Vicariate of Flemish Brabant and Mechelen has not specified the precise nature of its concerns about the church’s liturgical practices. Belgium’s VRT NWS suggested March 26 that baptisms had been performed without authorization by lay people, while lay-led services were incorrectly described as the Eucharist.

Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest are increasingly common in northern Europe amid a decline in priestly vocations. 

In England and Wales, for example, the services are known as Celebrations of the Word and Communion. Following the Liturgy of the Word, a lay person distributes Holy Communion consecrated at a previous Eucharist. 

Underlining that the service is not a Mass, the leader says: “As our priest cannot be with us, we are unable to celebrate the Eucharist. Let us reflect on the word and pray together and then share Christ’s Body and Blood consecrated for us at a previous Eucharist.”

The liturgy section of Don Bosco Buizingen’s website contains scores of sample celebrations, suggesting it takes an experimental approach to liturgies.

The website says that members of the “liturgical working group” are “free to choose a theme” for celebrations. 

“In the strong liturgical periods such as Advent and Lent, the same theme is explored several Sundays in succession,” it says.

It adds: “Anyone who wishes, even if he or she is not a member of the liturgical working group, can plan a celebration.”

The Vicariate of Flemish Brabant and Mechelen pushed back Wednesday against Belgian media reports that Don Bosco Buizingen had been expelled from the Catholic Church.

In a March 26 statement, it underlined that the church “cannot continue to function as a parish, among other things because of the differences in vision on the celebration of the sacraments, as indicated in our communication of March 20, 2024.”

“By allowing its operations to evolve from a parish to an independent religious community, it is given space to continue its activities, like other movements or organizations in the Church.”

A statement on Don Bosco Buizingen’s website addressed its loss of parish status.

It said: “Some had seen this coming, even though everyone had still hoped that there would be room in the diocese for the proposal to continue to exist as a form of a ‘lab church’ within the synodal process of renewal.” 

“However, the water between the two parties proved too deep, and our vision of celebrating and presiding over the sacraments a bridge too far.”

“We could remain an independent religious community, but working out the financial and legal details will require time and consultation. A Don Bosco group will be formed to go through that process with someone from the vicariate.”

In its March 20 statement, the vicariate said that it would “continue to discuss the practical effects of this decision” with representatives of  Don Bosco Buizingen.

“We hope that this will give a future to the operation of both the Don Bosco Buizingen religious community and the Halle pastoral zone, and that new opportunities for collaboration may arise,” it said.

“To ensure that the upcoming discussions between the vicariate and Don Bosco Buizingen take place in complete serenity, we will only communicate further about this theme when all details about the new structure have been worked out together.”

Around half of Belgium’s roughly 12 million population identified as Catholic in 2022, the last year for which figures are available, with 8.9% attending Mass at least once a month.

Sunday Mass attendance in Belgium rose modestly in 2022 after the lifting of coronavirus restrictions, but attendance remained 40% down from 2017.

Although the Catholic Church in Belgium is comparatively small, it has exerted considerable influence on the global Church in the decades since the Second Vatican Council.

Belgian bishops published a text allowing for a ritual blessing of same-sex couples in September 2022, more than a year before the Vatican issued the declaration Fiducia supplicans, on “the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples.”

Pope Francis said in December 2023 that he intended to visit Belgium this year. The trip is thought to be scheduled for September, but the Vatican has not officially confirmed the visit.

Belgium’s apostolic nunciature announced last week that Pope Francis had laicized Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, almost 14 years after the Bishop of Bruges resigned after admitting that he had abused a nephew.

A Church official had said in January that it would “be difficult for Pope Francis to make a peaceful visit to our country in September until there is clarity on this matter.”