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