Cardinal Joos, a lion in the wintertime of the Church, died after celebrating the second Mass of All Souls on November 2. The papers mockingly called him a Village Cardinal; but we need such Cardinals today. Since the day of his ordination he said Mass every day; we need priests who say Mass every day. What a great number of Churches could be saved if instead of joining pastoral planning committees (dedicated to closing Churches), the priests said Mass every day. The Pope made him a Cardinal because he was such a shining example of a Parish Priest.
Cardinal Joos: »We live in the desert.«
Bart Lauvrijs: »The whole lot went wrong already since 313.«
Since long ago the Church is no more about God or giving meaning. It is about Danneels’s chances on papacy. The man fits in the row between the Henin’s, the Clijsters’s and Everts’s. National celebrities on an international level. One more time we tried to speak about faith the good old fashioned way with Cardinal Joos and Bart Lauvrijs. The first, an 80-year old former university friend of the Pope, the latter a 40-year old university teacher at the Antwerp faculty of comparative religious studies.
Preparing for this interview, I recently went to Mass. It all looked still like I remembered. The priest however was a whole lot younger than the elderly man we used to get at the altar, but that relative youthfulness was amply compensated by the age of the parishioners. The Church of Flanders has become a refuge for senior citizens. The celebration of Mass is a routine bungle of a weekly duty. Cardinal Joos – also parish priest of Landskouter – remembers the time when there were whole families and villages attending Mass. Bart Lauvrijs is half his age and a child of a generation of people who consider believing naive. Time for the question overshadowing all other questions.
Why have the Flemish and the Europeans turned their back on our Holy Mother the Church at topspeed?
JOOS: You may wish to clip my answer to something I did not say – that is what the press usually do if it is not right up their street – but I will give you my answer anyway. First I want to make clear that we in Europe are not in a religious crisis. It is a philosophical crisis. We live in a time in which everyone wants to decide for himself what is good and evil. Even the most simple soul wants to set up his own pattern of values. They all are God in the depth of their minds. But people can’t do it. I can do it because I do it from my faith. From my faith I accept things. People do not accept anything anymore. They know everything better than God. I meet people telling me: You and your Church don’t understand me. Only God understands me. The only answer I have got is: I hope you are right. I am however sure that people cannot do it alone. The guidance of the Church is sorely needed.
At the same time the Church as an institute of power also makes mistakes though.
JOOS: I get angry when people look at the Church as a power. The Church is the human exteriorization of the mystical body of Christ. That means that there come directions from the Church about how to live, but that has nothing to do with power. People suspect directions coming from elsewhere. Whether it concerns the Church or the civil authorities. The people’s first concern is: how can I avoid following that directive? How can I escape this? There is no need escaping the Church. The Church lets her people go if that is what they want. And the people went away. Now we are in the desert. But from that desert again flowers will bloom.
LAUVRIJS: The lack of faith indeed is no catholic-religious problem. Talking with my muslim students from ten years ago I find the same crisis of faith. It is a general philosophical crisis. It is all material. It is all scientific. It is all consumption. The Church does not fit in that story. They don’t immediately see the use of it and so it is thrown overboard.
JOOS: For the salvation of your soul though it is very useful.
LAUVRIJS: The experience of sin for instance disappeared entirely. We cannot experience sin anymore because we made ourselves God. In a climate like this no faith can thrive.
JOOS: And the remaining tiny bit of spirituality is removed from the people by the media and filled up with folly. Since I am a cardinal everybody wants to talk with me. I only went to De Zevende Dag (television talkshow on Sunday) once. I saw that Bracke character in action there (Siegried Bracke, panel chairman). That man hears nobody out. I wonder why they invite people over there? If he would have tried that with me, I would have taught him a lesson! I don’t watch television, but what I have seen is depressing.
LAUVRIJS: The pope runs counter to that consumption- and advert-mass society mentality. He consequently keeps challenging the materialistic society. Our society thinks it just impossible that someone his age still assumes control. John Paul II stays incumbent. However ill he may be. I think that admirable. He teaches us that old people need not to be put off.
Beware! In his mind he is still fit as a fiddle.
PROUD OF THE HABIT
Remains the question whether or not it would be a good thing that blind faith in a Church and her leaders is disappearing.
LAUVRIJS: The Bible does not breathe a word about a Church. It is about a flock and shepherds. Contrary to that Jesus never offered resistance against rules. One could say He was an example of a serving authority. So there were rules. The Church strives for that same serving authority. I am not saying that she always succeeds in that today. No one still denies that some things went wrong.
Although there is a difference between adopting a critical attitude towards a certain authority and what we are doing. The latter has nothing to do anymore with being critical. It is ridiculing the Catholics. What we do is befouling our own nest. We live in a society that justly tries to respect jews and muslims, but we mercilessly tread down Catholicism, our own roots.
You could see it as a form of self-mockery and emancipation of a totalitarian institution. We have renounced dictatorship, and therefor also the dictatorial way of thinking of institutions like the Vatican.
JOOS: Nonsense. The secular authorities and the press are against the Church. She is the victim of a smear campaign. Every word the Pope says is conveyed in a false way, aiming to harm the Church. A recent example is the fuss about the ban on altar girls. This text was prepared by the lower echelons of the Vatican. Long before those thesis reached the pope, that text was launched. In other words: the Pope did not even know that text existed. And what about the screaming headlines? They read: Pope wants no girls on altar! That is a damaging action. Concerning the Church reports don’t have to be correct anymore. It is even so bad, that young priests shy away from wearing the symbols of their faith. They want to look like ordinary citizens, they absolutely don’t want to be conspicuous. Maybe they don’t dare to show themselves. It does not bother me. You will not often see me without my Roman collar. I am proud to be a priest and there is nothing smear campaigns can do about it.
LAUVRIJS: I can hardly accept what you say about the emancipation of dictatorial thinking. Maybe it is true for a very small group of people who experience their faith in a different way. It is impossible that it squares with the majority of people. They like it a lot to be told how to live by commercials. That indoctrination is far stronger than what the Church does. It is brainwashing with means Rome never had at its disposal. The thesis that we have casted off the ecclesiastical yoke because we have so much freedom is just false.
Maybe we have chosen a new yoke ourselves.
LAUVRIJS: You stretch it a bit. If people don’t go to Church anymore, then it is because the values handled there are no longer in. The Church is dealing with things which became almost taboo. Being human for instance. We completely lost sight of our final goal. We are occupied by the means that enable us to be human. To formulate it easier: we are busy with food, no longer with life, but with food. Being busy with the means is easy and therefor attractive. The Church is occupied with our final goal. She is looking for the meaning of it all. That is difficult and that is why the Church is rejected. That is why we ridicule ecclesiastical institutions. They make life difficult and we are afraid of that. We push it aside to avoid confrontation.
JOOS: Now you make it very difficult for the reporter, Mister Lauvrijs. I’ll tell it in another way. What is life all about? There is an old Flemish folksong that goes like (sings): “And when we are dead the grass grows on our belly” (En als we dood zijn groeit er gras op onze buik). Which means that when we are dead it is all over. It also says: have as much fun as you can during your life. Don’t look so much to others, think about yourself. From my religion I know this is wrong. Almost all religions teach us death is not the end. Only after death we can reach the highest state of happiness. That is what it is about in the Church. She wants to guide people from this life to the next. It happens that I bury people who died in their sleep. I hear common people usually say: “He has been lucky, father; he never felt he was dying”. I don’t call that luck. I hope to be very conscious at the moment of my death. I will take the crucifix in my hands and pray. I trust I don’t simply disappear, just like that. I have that faith thanks to God and the Curch.
Do you find it hard to take that so many people go astray? Would you consider that a personal failure?
JOOS: Men are free to choose. I cannot force anyone. It is a pity less and less people believe. More than anything else I feel compassion with them. People living outside the truth and outside reality deserve my compassion. It is all I can give them.
Are they lost for eternity?
JOOS: I don’t know. That is God’s decision. Who am I to answer that?
NET PROFIT OF SOULS
Can’t the Curch, provided some adjustments in her policy, help and guide more people?
JOOS: Must the Church adjust? Why? Have we found another Gospel all of the sudden?
LAUVRIJS: In this time the final goal of the Church will never be accepted by the masses. Whatever the Church does, she will remain in an impasse. The message of the Church is black and white. Society wants to see all colours, except black and white. We live in a time of devaluation of values. You cannot ask the Church to follow the people to keep them in. Then she belies her own nature. The Church must stick to the message of the Gospel.
But also in the past the Church has adjusted herself to social evoluations. Maybe now Masses are celebrated in Dutch and not in Latin anymore because she doesn’t want to lose the faithful. Is it possible today to reject female priests or to abolish celibacy for the same reason?
JOOS: All those changes may not be necessary. I see traces of repair. Slowly but surely. Lay movements. That is a branch within the Church, blossoming and flourishing. Its members are no priests, but people who want to do something for their fellow men. Even if some people want it to make it appear this way, the Church is not dead.
LAUVRIJS: The Church is universal. You cannot prescribe remedies for western Europe being valid for the whole world. In Africa and Asia many people still are willing to make do with celibacy. There the Church is still in full expansion. We must see things in a broader perspective than what happens around our own church tower.
In other words: there is a net profit of souls and it is very good this way?
JOOS: That is a very wrong way of looking at it. The Church adjusts. Only she does it well thought-out and not from one day to the next.
LAUVRIJS: I don’t want to make the impression that I am against changes. The first task of the Church is to stand next to the people. That is why the crisis can also be therapeutic. Never before the Church has had such a fundamental problem as she has today. But let her calmly sink a bit farther down. The answers will come from the misery. And if it turns out that female priests are necessary to conduct the Mass in a shirt of F.C. Anderlecht, then that’s just the way it is. Rites can be easily adjusted. Whether a Mass is said in Latin or in Dutch does not alter the message a bit.
Moreover there is a difference in quantity and quality. In France they guard the message more than here. Before French parents can have their child baptized they have to take catechism lessons. So there are small, strong communities of faith. Here they baptize ceaselessly. Masse’s of faithful who actually don’t know what it is all about. The average Belgian catholic does not know his faith. And how can you love something you don’t know? Not knowing the rules you cannot enjoy a soccer game. Thinking consequently it went wrong already since 313. That year the emperor Constantine made catholicism a state religion. All of the sudden it was an obligation for political reasons. From the moment on that catholicism was no longer a free choice the whole thing became diluted. Now we reached a turning point.
DEMOCRACY IS A JOKE
Cardinal, do you refuse baptisms?
JOOS: No. The guidelines are different. I don’t always like it just as much, but I never refuse. I take the necessary time to convince people and I even say to them that it is not an obligation to have their child baptized. In Brussels only 50% of the children is baptized. Here, in the countryside, children are traditionally baptized. For one or another reason they don’t dare to do it otherwise. They simply let me talk. They think me a sympathetic old man doing his job. But what I tell them slides off over their backs just like that. They don’t know what it is all about, and they don’t want to know. Ideally young parents themselves should first live as christians for two years before having their child baptized.
LAUVRIJS: Where should they learn it? Religious instruction at school became experiental catechese. They capitalize on the experiences of the young, but juveniles have no religious experiences. This policy has failed. My secondary school pupils once wanted to discuss the Church with me. I think that always a good idea. So I invited them to write everything they associate with “Church” on the blackboard. After fifteen minutes they only wrote down one word: “rich”. That – incorrect – fact is no basis for a discussion. How can I speak about the Church with juveniles who don’t even know the basics? This ignorance can easily be translated to the civil authorities, too. Some years ago Opus Dei was put on the list of sects. If you would know that movement you won’t do that. This is a branch within the Church, existing out of intellectuals who speak out. I don’t want to defend Opus Dei, but I think calling it a sect is taking it too far.
JOOS: The authorities deliberately attack those people. It is part of the fight against the Church. Just like they would much rather see army chaplains disappear and do away with crucifixes. From their lodges they crucify the Church. And with this government the masonic lodges came to power. (Ed note: one of the principal universities in Brussels announces its connection with freemasonry on its website).
LAUVRIJS: That is also my conlusion, seeing the anti-religious policy of this government. It is the will of 4 to 5% of the population, forced upon society. You cannot even call it democratic, because – even if they don’t understand it – the great majority of the people still calls itself catholic. How many people call themselves humanist? That number is negligible.
JOOS: Politics, democracy, don’t make me laugh! Allez! Universal right to vote. What is the meaning of this?
Sorry, I lost you just now.
JOOS: It is all just magnificent, but it is a joke. On what basis do people vote? Not on the basis of contents. It is on the media value! In politics not the wisest, but the nicest guy is the boss. It makes no difference whether that man is a fool or sensible. As a consequence there are many featherbrains in politics. That, too, is a consequence of secularization. We are stuck with an electorate that has no values anymore. They are an amorphous mass, easy to manipulate by politicians. Do you think I pitch it a bit too strong? Well, in that case you might like to learn that those are not my words, but Professor Mark Elchardus’s words, a convinced humanist from Gent university. I respect the man. He considers secularization not a victory, rather a social pauperization. A proper conclusion.
As a matter of fact I think it odd that a brat of eightteen has just as much to say as a father of seven children. The first has no responsability whatsoever, whereas the second is delivering the citizens of tomorrow. I think that odd. But, all right, that is politics and that is another discussion.
HUGO CLAUS AND OTHER .....
LAUVRIJS: People are peculiar beings. Once youth is persuaded of the emptiness of the society they live in, they may start looking for the Church again. A continuous state of numbness is not pleasant. That is not where people are looking for.
JOOS: In Russia this is happening in abundance. After the emptiness of communism the hunger for spirituality is enormous. There they tried to exterminate the Church. A whole generation came forth not knowing the Church and still the Church is reliving an new youth there. The plain commerce of the West will collapse, too. It is from that desert that flowers will bloom.
LAUVRIJS: I agree with that. Once the emptiness of our society persuades, people get into a crisis. Then it is left to the Church to receive them.
It sounds a bit like the Church runs off with souls at the very moment mankind is weak. Mental and emotional weak people are ideal victims for sects.
LAUVRIJS: The Church will give the young their souls back. Opposite to what many people think the Church is no unworldly organization. I even would go further. Religious sisters - people whom we don’t understand – know society around them better than the people living in it. They stand by it and observe. In the meantime they stick to the values we have forgotten during the rat race. People wanting to discover them once more only have to ask for them. That is something entirely different from making converts.
Let us look once more through the eyes of a stray youngster. What is the image the Church offers him? It is the image of an institution ceaselessly canonizing people on the basis of dubious miracles. How can any rational human being take that seriously?
LAUVRIJS: Why do you emphasize that miracle? You should look at the person behind the miracle. What has he or she done or written? How did the saints live? This is so typical for the press. Overestimating the miracle without looking at the person.
The press is not the party asking for a miracle. The Church needs that to raise one person above the other.
JOOS: My dear friend. What is wrong with having examples? When I was young we read in our colleges about christian hero’s. We respected great authors like Guido Gezelle. Those people had something to say. What do they read now? Jef Geeraerts, Hugo Claus and other skunks. Excuse me for that word. I mean: those are writings not worth for people to waste their time on, but the press praise them to the skies.
LAUVRIJS: I don’t entirely agree with that. With all due respect, Cardinal: there is a generation gap in the Church. Nobody is to blame for that. It just is there.
JOOS: I cannot deny that.
LAUVRIJS: Some more recent phenomenons are being shot off by the older leaders of the Church, because they come across like a threat, which they are not. To overcome the generation gap is one of the most important challenges to the Church. The average age of Flemish priests is 67. So the gap is not easy to bridge. Also in that sphere time has to bring on a way out.
NE DEVIENS PAS GAY, TU FINIRAS TRISTE
You won’t span a bridge by lying to young people about the use of condoms. Cardinal, how do you judge the situation when a fellow-cardinal tells people in third world countries a condom is of no use to prevent Aids?
You aim at that television documentary, which I did not see – I don’t watch television – but the people from my village told me about it. As a matter of fact it doesn’t interest me, but I will answer you. Scientific publications say condoms don’t offer 100% protection against aids. I take that as true. That Cardinal probably wanted to emphasize that. Opposite I know a method offering 100% protection against that virus. It is called being chaste. Do you have to lead a chaste life in order not to get aids? No, you have to lead a chaste life to be happy. And for good measure you won’t get aids. And if you can’t help it, if you have to cheat on your wife or want sex before marriage, use your brains!
Use a condom.
JOOS: If a man thinks he is going to explode if he cannot have sex, he should rather go to a prostitute than seduce or rape a girl. If he goes to a prostitute he at least doesn’t involve innocent people in his doing.
LAUVRIJS: The Church celebrates life. Science celebrates sterility. In time there will be no more need to speak about sex. It all will happen in test tubes. I understand the usefulness of condoms and other contraceptives. The explosive growth of the world population and aids are very real problems. The Church finds it hard to cope with the condom because it detaches sex and love from each other or at least it offers the possibility of having sex without any responsability. Sex becomes purely a stimulant, whereas the Church believes that this belongs within the boundaries of a deep relationship. That is not an easy discussion. Although everyone is free to put aside the guidelines of the Church, that message is not without danger. The message of science however is neither without danger. Science diminishes sex to something technical and loveless. I also think that a detestable position.
A condom gives people time to repent and makes sure that mistakes don’t get fatal in the end.
JOOS: Repent? Absolutely not. A condom makes sure that one – unjustly – feels safe and will be ready to do more beasty things. Why are we confronted with aids? In bygone days aids did not even exist. Aids exists because we handle sex so loosely.
This kind of message is unsaleable to homosexual faithful, struggling with who they are, being shown the door by the Church.
LAUVRIJS: The Church is against homosexuality, but she is mild. Other religions are much harder.
Then it is all right.
JOOS: I am willing to sign with my blood here, that of all people who call themselves lesbian or gay, to the most five to ten percent really are gay and lesbian. All the rest just are sexually perverted people. Don’t hesitate to write that down. I demand you to write that down. And if they all come to my door to protest, I don’t care. I will not open the door. That is my conviction and I have books about that. Ne deviens pas gay, tu finiras triste (don't become gay, you end sad). That is the golden advice from a so-called homosexual who repented. Real homosexuals don’t walk about in the streets in colourful ensembles. They are people with a severe problem. And they have to learn to live with that. And if they make a mistake they will be forgiven. We should help those people, not condemn them.
Being gay and catholic is obviously impossible.
JOOS: That is not impossible, but they have to observe the decencies. As a priest I have to do that too, haven’t I? Sex must be experienced within an indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman. And nothing else. Period. Full stop. Amen and out. That is not so hard to understand, is it?
LAUVRIJS: The Church pleas for purely natural man - woman relationships. She renounces homosexuality, not the gay person.
Why does an institution which declared itself a-sexual want so badly to impose a sexual moral?
JOOS: The Church imposes nothing. She is obedient to the words of Christ and passes those words on to the people.
LAUVRIJS: The Church is neither a-sexual. For her servants she chooses an a-sexual way of living to optimize their availability for the faithful. A very honourable standpoint.
JOOS: It differs from diocese to diocese. Many catholic priests are married and have a family. You will not find them in Europe, but in countries like Egypt. So who is called to the priesthood and yet wants to marry, should try his luck there. I have no problem with married priests. I have a problem with blaming the lack of vocations to celibacy. You don’t solve anything by abolishing celibacy. Protestants have just as many problems and they have no celibacy. It is not all that easy, my young friend. We must trust in God, in the wisdom of the Church and the Gospel.
Now ye all, go in peace
JOOS: I now really have said everything. I am going to work a little.
LAUVRIJS: In the end we could talk about this for ages.
2358 The number of men & women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfil God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.