(Cathedral of Our Lady -- Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal -- in Antwerp/Ad Meskens)

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.

(Saint Bavo Cathedral -- Sint-Baafskathedraal -- in Ghent, 13 July 2009/Mylius)

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.