Belgian Catholic reformers want laypeople to run parishes that have no priests

December 2, 2011

St. Peter's Church in Leuven, Belgium, with the city hall at the left, 2 April 2008/Wouter Hagens)

More than 6,000 Belgian Catholics have signed a manifesto urging their bishops to let lay people celebrate Sunday services in parishes left without priests due to a severe shortage of vocations in the Church. More than 200 priests are among signatories of the manifesto launched two weeks ago in Flanders, the traditionally Catholic Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, one of the organisers told Reuters.

The initiative echoed a grass-roots movement in Austria, where 2,000 Catholics — including 361 priests — called in June  for lay-led Masses and the ordination of married men and women to maintain parishes that no longer have a priest. “We Flemish believers urge our bishops to break through the impasse we have landed in,” declared the Dutch-language manifesto entitled “Believers have their say”.

“It’s time for the Church to open its functions to people who are not only celibate men,”  Mark Deweerdt, a layman among the 12 priests and parishioners who drew up the document, told Reuters.

The steady fall in vocations in recent decades has left the Catholic Church with ever fewer priests in many developed countries, forcing it to merge small parishes into larger districts led by increasingly overworked clerics.

The trend is not linked to the scandals of clerical sexual abuse of children shaming the Church in recent years, but the hierarchy’s clumsy management of that crisis has encouraged some Catholics to speak out on several issues worrying them.  Outside large cities in Europe, many Catholics now drive long distances to attend Mass and rarely see a priest in the village church they have attended since childhood.

“Big parishes are not the solution,” Deweerdt said. “We need people in each local parish to lead it, coordinate activities and be there to speak with people. Parishioners should not have to drive many kilometres to attend Mass.”

The manifesto said religiously trained men or women should be allowed to take over these unstaffed parishes. “We don’t understand why these fellow believers should not be able to preside over Sunday services,” it said. The Vatican opposes ordaining married men or women to the priesthood or allowing trained lay people to celebrate Mass in place of the priest, as the Austrians have suggested. It asks the faithful to pray to God for more vocations.

Deweerdt said the Belgian group had not asked for lay people to celebrate Mass in place of a priest, a reform proposed by Dutch Dominican theologians in 2007 and promptly rejected by the Vatican.

The Belgian Bishops’ Conference has not yet responded to the manifesto, which Dewaardt said would be officially presented to it in about a week or so. A Church official, who asked not to be named, said a reaction was being drawn up. In Austria, Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has met with the reformers and the bishops’ conference he leads has discussed their demands, rejecting their call for disobedience but favouring further dialogue.

Stijn van den Bossche, secretary of the Interdiocesan Catechesis Commission, wrote in the Catholic weekly Tertio that parishioners could not celebrate their own Masses.
“That is not only forbidden in the Catholic and Orthodox understanding, but also results in an invalid sacrament,” he wrote, adding that Catholics should not cling to small parishes if the larger merged units could offer better services.

Posted on the internet with little publicity, the Dutch-language manifesto has quickly won signatures from across Flanders and abroad. “We are quite surprised to have 6,000 supporters aready,” Deweerdt said.

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4 comments

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Posted by RSantos | Report as abusive

The proposal that bishops should authorize lay people to celebrate the Eucharist has been raised in several parts of the Roman Catholic Church. I find it an interesting proposal; historically, priests have been very ill prepared to be pastors or presiders at the Eucharist. [See Moorman's History of the Church in England in the 13th Century.] Talking with some clergy and lay friends about ‘lay people’ presiding at the Eucharist, I pointed out that we call people who are authorized by a bishop to preside at the Eucharist ‘priests’. How much education or other qualifications they have has been different at different times and places.

Posted by Frray | Report as abusive

The Church in its fullest meaning and sense is NOT about a hierarchy, with traditions that have been accrued during later ages, no matter how ancient, but about where two or more people have gathered. Each in their heart and soul carry within them the mystical body, which is THE Church. Yes – its fine to have guides, ie the priest, the bishop etc, but they are guides only. Each individual operates on the same level – in the eyes of God. Plainly – however, these guides, have however to a certain degree, whether as individuals or acting in unison, have been far less than honest etc, either with themselves or with others. The hierarchy has an AWFUL LOT to answer for. Whole nations have been betrayed by the Church hierarchy, trust has evaporated – regarding both to what has happened no doubt for generations, but also with regard to the attempted cover ups and resentful acknowledgement of ownership when forced to comply with justice.

Posted by Ivernios | Report as abusive

The Catholic church is an organized crime unit, where the crime is child rape.

Priests rape children by the thousands in every country (10,000+ in the US, 10,000+ Dutch children, 1 out of 4 in Ireland, etc).

Bishops hide it, lie about it and move them around. Every priest is silent, or will lie if necessary. They are the most gutless gangsters in the world, without the honor of the mafia or a street gang. This is child rape.

The congregation doesn’t have the guts to throw the criminals out, so every country should use their law enforcement to break up this deviant gang of satanic punks.

Posted by JesusChrist2 | Report as abusive