Belgian Catholics urge bishops to empower laymen to counter priest shortage
Belgian Catholics have petitioned their bishops for reforms including ordaining women and married men and allowing laymen to lead church services as ways to counter their growing shortage of priests. The petition, handed over on Thursday, represented yet another challenge to the Belgian Church, deeply shaken by revelations of clerical sexual abuse that prompted police to raid its offices across the country for evidence of crimes last month.
The 8,235 signatories in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking half of the bilingual country, included politicians and intellectuals as well as about a 10th of all Flemish priests, deacons and lay Church workers. Their reform call echoes similar initiatives in Austria, Germany and Ireland. “The concerns and laments of Flemish believers exist in most if not all Western European countries,” the group Kerkenwerk (Work of the Churches) said in a statement about the petition entitled “Believers have their say”.
A steep decline in vocations in recent decades has left the Catholic Church in many Western countries with a mostly aged clergy and few young priests available to replace them. The Church’s response has been to close little-used churches and merge small parishes into larger ones, creating a regional staff of priests who minister to scattered congregations. These overworked priests cannot always visit villages every week to celebrate Sunday Mass or lead the baptisms, funerals and other ceremonies that used to be a regular part of parish life.
The Vatican has refused to scrap clerical celibacy or ordain women. Under Pope Benedict, it has begun limiting the role of lay people in the liturgy, especially women and girls, in the hope this will make the priesthood more attractive to young men.
“We do not understand why leadership of our local communities (for example, parishes) is not entrusted to a man or a woman, married or unmarried, employee or volunteer who has received the necessary training,” the petition declared. “We do not understand why these fellow believers should not preside at Sunday services,” it said, adding that lay people should be able to preach and distribute Communion and divorced and remarried people should be readmitted to the Eucharist.
“We also argue that both married men and women should be admitted to the priesthood within the shortest time. We believers now need them desperately,” it concluded.
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 “quite critical but still churchly initiative”.
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 the institutions are in crisis – the ground on which they’ve been built is sinking away under our feet,” it wrote this week.
A similar reform initiative launched last summer in Austria has led to consultations with senior Church leaders there and a closed-door meeting of Austrian bishops with Vatican officials concerned that it could lead to a schism in the Church.