Last year we reported on an intiative for church reform led by a group of Belgian Catholics, Werkgroep Kerkenwerk (Church Work Working Group). The group was circulating a petition/manifesto titled Gelovigen nemen het woord ("Believers Speak Out").
Last Thursday, leaders of Kerkenwerk handed over the petition with 8,235 signatures to a group of Flemish bishops. The signatories included 304 priests (approximately 10% of all Belgian priests), 41 deacons, 184 pastoral workers and parish assistants, and 89 religious. The Manifesto was presented to the bishops of Bruges (Jozef De Kesel), Ghent (Luc Van Looy), Hasselt (Patrick Hoogmartens) and Mechelen-Brussels (André-Joseph Léonard), and the auxiliary bishops of Brussels (Jean Kockerols) and Flemish Brabant and Mechelen (Leon Lemmens). The Bishop of Antwerp (Johan Bonny) was absent due to an overseas assignment.
The group is calling for several reforms aimed at countering the growing priest shortage in their country, including ordaining women and married men and allowing laymen to lead church services. An English language summary of the group's demands can be found on the previous post.
Brussels Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, head of the Belgian bishops conference, accepted the petition along with the Flemish bishops and thanked the group for its "truly faithful but critical initiative." The bishops went on to issue their own statement in which they affirmed that they weren't indifferent to the concerns of the petitioners, acknowledging that a lot is being demanded right now of pastoral leaders. They attempted to distinguish between factors that they viewed as being within their power to change (the holding of liturgies of the Word in the absence of a priest) and factors they said would have to be changed at the level of the universal church (admission of women and married men to the priesthood). The bishops concluded: "Let us work together to create a church community that cares for its identity, loyal to the mission she has received, a church that is open and accessible for everyone, with a generous heart for all people."
The group said its petition "is not an end, but only a beginning." It said it wanted to work with the bishops to solve problems that increasingly frustrate practising Catholics.
Commenting on the petition, the Flemish Catholic weekly Tertio wrote that the priest shortage threatened the future of the Catholic faith. "Not only are the institutions in crisis – the ground on which they’ve been built is sinking under our feet," it wrote this week.
Photo: A representative from Kerkenwerk delivers the group's manifesto with signatures to the Belgian bishops.