Faith in Flanders

Antwerp is home to glorious churches, but it’s difficult to pray in them. At the cathedral dedicated to Our Lady, a large section at the base of the nave, with a glorious view of the whole church under its superb gothic arches, is set aside for prayer. But it feels bleak. The Blessed Sacrament is not here. As in most Flemish churches today, it is tucked away somewhere remote, as if an embarrassment.

Outside, the insistent beat of a drum and a loud rhythmic chant emerges from a huge crowd in the cathedral square, where a stage and various display stands have been erected. A Hindu festival is being celebrated, with a large carnival-style float on a great decorated lorry taking the message to the thronging people. Elsewhere in the crowded shopping center, parades and dancers indicate the presence of further celebrations among the Saturday shoppers, this time with an African and Latin-American theme. And all around, crowds pack the shops and flood into the cafes and restaurants.

This is modern Flanders. All the current modern orthodoxies are here — multi-culturalism, an emphasis on food fads, an obsession with shopping. Mingling with all of this — and likely one day to dominate, although of course it is opposed to much of what is currently fashionable — is Islam, Belgium‘s fastest-growing religion.

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The visitor to Belgium is immediately aware of the tension of language — in Brussels, French and Flemish sit side-by-side on notice-boards and street-signs. In Flanders, Flemish predominates, with English as the second language — spoken extremely well by virtually everyone, with a style, fluency, and grace noticeably better than among the young in London (there is a glorious absence of that ubiquitous “like” and “yeah”).

There is another tension: religion. What was once a deeply Catholic country now faces a completely different future, and one that will be divorced from its past. Mass attendance figures are low, and still falling. Vocations to the priesthood are few. Catholic marriages are dropping in number, and the birth-rate is low.

Flanders is a lush country — rich soil, well-watered. It has excellent road and rail connections and prosperous towns and cities. Its heritage is bound up with its Catholic faith. Rubens is buried in St. Jacobus church, surrounded by great beauty, which his own work helped hugely to enhance — the baroque of the church’s interior is a feast of marble, with his paintings alongside those of other great masters.

But I liked the church for another, more prosaic, reason — here I was able to kneel down to pray. In no other church that I visited was I able to do this. In church after church neat rows of modern chairs, set close together, ensure that those attending Mass must sit; it is physically impossible to kneel except by making everyone else in the row stand up so that you can squeeze past and walk out into the aisle to kneel on the flagstones. At St. Jacobus, pews and kneelers are still the norm.

Unsurprisingly, it was at St. Jacobus church that members of Opus Dei chose to have their annual Mass honouring their founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá. Here, for the first time, one was able to sense the presence of a faith that was living, vigorous, and capable of inspiring practical activity. Here, at a wine-and-nibbles reception in a student center after the Mass, I met people involved with youth work, community activities, and various schemes of support for Catholic social and moral teachings. Elsewhere, the mood among practicing Catholics was, well, bleak.

“Things here are in freefall,” a Catholic teacher told me, bluntly but without relish. “What the Netherlands had in the 1970s — you know, opposition to the pope at all costs, poor liturgies, shrugging at all traditional teachings — we are now getting.”

In Brussels‘ cathedral, a photographic display near the entrance shows scenes from cathedral life in recent years, including royal weddings and papal visits. Among the Flemish, some republican sentiment is fanned by sneers at the known genuine and deep Catholicism of the younger royals. What would once have been cause for admiration and support is now seen as something rather embarrassing.

But this is not to say that passions are aroused: There is no open anti-Catholicism of the sort seen in, for instance, neighbouring Holland. Flanders was embarrassed by the open hostility shown toward Pope John Paul II when he visited Holland, and was determined to show courtesy and friendship to him when he visited Belgium. And there is genuine enthusiasm for the achievements of a Flemish past that is nothing if not Catholic: The paintings are not just masterpieces of art but evidence of a culture rooted in a deep faith.

Church events are not interrupted by shouting mobs, and gay-rights demonstrations do not march past processions of the Blessed Sacrament. Rather, there is a bleakness, an absence of anything resembling an active Catholic life. “Even those who think of themselves as quite keen — maybe send their children to some youth group which is Catholic-sponsored — do not attend Mass every week, and would think it excessive to do so,” one practicing Catholic sighed. “It becomes second-nature to become rather private about your faith, not to be regarded as a fanatic.”

Most liturgy is dreary — crumpled vestments, much bossy interruption by middle-aged to elderly ladies doing readings and singing songs and making announcements. There is an emphasis on the “social gospel.” There is much talk of a harsh and Jansenistic past, and the necessity of never returning to it.

“People like to stress how nasty and strict things once were — back in the 1940s and 50s,” a younger Catholic woman said. “All true, of course. Things were narrow and rigid. And Catholicism seemed to be something imposed, something consisting of rules. The memories of all that are now used again and again to oppose any sort of Catholicism — so young people who have discovered the Faith for themselves as something fresh and new are discouraged from feeling joy about it.”

The shortage of clergy means that one priest may typically have responsibility for three churches. “It becomes a job — simply getting from one meeting to the next, and taking charge of the administration,” I was told. “You get a nine-to-five mentality. It becomes difficult to respond to people’s real needs, take an interest in their lives.”

A particular problem is the “sacristanas” — the ladies who, in the absence of a priest, tend to take over parishes. They tend to be middle-class, 60-something women with not much else to do, and the prejudices of a generation still trapped in a 1970s mentality. To the young, it is an image of the Church that is off-putting and unappealing. It sends out a message that the Catholic Faith has little to say to the 21st century.

The New Movements — apart from Opus Dei, as witnessed in Antwerp — are not much in evidence. Among French speakers, the Emmanuel community is having some influence. There is a pro-life movement, but it is not large.

In Ghent cathedral I asked about the Blessed Sacrament and was finally directed to the crypt. It doubles as a museum, so people were walking about and admiring vestments in glass cases and chatting. No one else went near the Blessed Sacrament chapel.

As I came up the stairs again, a student choral group came out and stood in front of the main altar. Their glorious singing filled the great cathedral — it was magnificent. People settled into chairs to enjoy it. The setting was perfect, the sound a joy. And it was inspiring, lifting the heart and mind to the things of God. But for all that, it was a concert and not a service — a wonderful, free, and joyful gift of music to the visitors and tourists, not an act of worship for God in which we were expected to participate.

But all beauty — Rubens’s paintings, young people’s voices raised in song, exquisite gothic tracery — gives glory to God. And it is a strong part of Catholic tradition that God breathes fire into ashes, that Resurrection follows death, that a Second Spring can follow what appears to be winter. The story of the Church in Flanders, and in Belgium generally, isn’t over yet. To this visitor, the signs in this particular chapter didn’t look too promising. How good it will be to be proved wrong.


  • Joanna Bogle

    Joanna Bogle is a writer, biographer, and historian. She relishes the new translation of the Mass, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, her own excellent local Catholic parish, traditional hymns (especially, perhaps, Anglican ones) rain, good literature, sleep, the English coast, Autumn, buttered toast, and a number of other things too precious and important to list here. Visit her blog.

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