On 14 October 2018, it was suggested that I attend mass at the church of St Catherine in Brussels (Eglise Sainte-Catherine and Sint-Katelijnekerk). A short distance from Brussels Centraal, it is physically the largest church in Brussels, after the cathedral itself. The building has enjoyed fluctuating fortunes. It bears the scars of past closures; none more searing than the open air urinals affixed to the exterior of one of its walls.
In more recent time, times, the Church (and more importantly the parish which it serves as the principal place of worship) has experienced a marked revival. The reason: the work of a the newly created public juridic body (see c116 CIC) known as the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles of Brussels. This work did not go unnoticed. Amongst the lay faithful, the devotion of the members, their liturgical practice and witness in serving the local community, prompted renewed interest in the practice of the faith and generated a number of vocations to the religious life; with numerous young men declaring their wish to pursue a process of vocational discernment.
This work was begun at the invitation of Archbishop Andre Leonard in 2013. Within a couple of years, the Fraternity comprised 6 priests, and numerous seminarians at Namur. The community continued to prosper, introducing initiatives such as nocturnal exposition of the Blessed Sacrament ("Night Fever") rosary missions together with parish activity of a pastoral kind. Each of the devotional practices encouraged were mainstream; utilising the novus ordo. Numbers increased and (as recent attendance confirms) families of all ages followed; with a full church being a regular feature of the principal Sunday morning celebration of the Eucharist. It is not surprising that the Fraternity generated both jealousy and resentment.
In 2015, with the arrival of Mgr Josef De Kesel, there was to be a sea change. It is reported that by June 2016, Mgr De Kesel had signed a Decree of Suppression and so began a process of administrative and hierarchical recourse. Given the volte face on the part of the diocesan hierarchy, one may be forgiven for suspecting the Fraternity of peddling doctrinal error, extremism, or, improper conduct on the part of its founders. In fact, the reason for the decree of suppression was reported to be a concern that the Fraternity was generating vocations from outside of Belgium. A communication from the archdiocese (presumably issued with the consent and approval of its Archbishop) includes the following statement:
“There is a problem with this initiative insofar that most seminarians of the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles come for the moment from France where many regions suffer a cruel lack of priests. It could be that the number of Belgian seminarians, both Dutch and French-speaking, could grow in the course of time. But in that case, they could also come from other Belgian dioceses and would still all find themselves under the authority of the archdiocese. This is not the perspective that should be promoted under the present circumstances for it manifests a serious breach of solidarity between bishops, be it those of our own country or with our French neighbors. This is why the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels has decided no longer to welcome the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles in his diocese, effective from the end of June 2016.”
This 'withdrawal of welcome' resulted in the departure of students from the seminary in Namur. Priestly members of the Fraternity became incardinated within the Archdiocese; with the result that one can reliably infer there was not (and is not) any question over their suitability for ministry. Not surprisingly, recourse was sought from the Congregation for Clergy. Presumably this was advanced upon the basis that there was no 'grave cause' justifying the suppression [see c320 CIC]. The Congregation did not agree; prompting the pursuit of further recourse to the second section of the Signatura. However, before the necessary determination, it was reported (See LifeSite News 23 April 2018) that Pope Francis had himself intervened; affirming the dissolution. Canon Law confirms the absence of any further right of challenge. There have been no reports of a surge in vocations in the dioceses of France, Belgium or elsewhere.
In times past, it was not uncommon for religious fraternities to seek the protection of the Holy See against the intervention of a Local Ordinary in its affairs, mission, or character. The Church has enjoyed the physical labours and undoubted rewards of the spiritual initiatives of many who would, but for such protection, not have prospered. These initiatives were often accompanied by radical sacrifice. But for such a desire for renewal, the contribution of the Franciscan, Dominican and Carmelite Orders would have been an unfilled aspiration. Historically, the Church has declared itself receptive to these movements; subject also to the implicit requirement that they contribute to the common good and serve the Church's mission in a manner which is subject to ecclesial order and the demands of communion. It might be thought that the grant of recognition to such movements, initiatives and associations, is a sign of altruism or benevolence on the part of the Church; in the manner of a favour or privilege. However, such a perspective would not only be incorrect but also contrary to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, as expressed within the Code of Canon Law. In this respect, it is of some significance to keep in mind that the Code articulated not only the obligations of the faithful, but also recorded the rights which they enjoy. Canon 219 is informative:
"Christifideles omnes iure gaudente ut a quacumque coactione sint immunes in statu vitae eligendo"
A decision to suppress an association of persons on account of the provenance or nationality of its actual or prospective members might elsewhere generate the spectre of discrimination. This would - seemingly- contravene the prohibition of less favourable treatment on the grounds of 'race' and be contrary to the EC Equal Treatment Directive; especially given that the protected characteristic of 'race' as there defined includes 'nationality'. Where such a decision is implemented in the city which advocates inter alia the free movement of persons, inclusivity and plurality, the situation becomes even more troublesome. It may be thought that these considerations are of minor importance when the decision of suppression is viewed through the lens of the Church's own self-understanding and teaching. However, in the celebration of the sacrament of unity, we hear the words:
"From age to age you gather a people to yourself, so that from East to West, a perfect offering may be made..."
These words point to the universality of the Church and its mission. Can there be any doubt that this universality is a fundamental feature of the priesthood? Canon 1008 speaks of the reception of orders to nourish the people of God. It may be thought that this is affirmed by the right of clerics to request that they be permitted to exercise their sacerdotal ministry elsewhere (either by excardination or other means): canons 270-271. These principles are not easily reconciled with the notion that those who present themselves for formation should be refused on account of their country of origin. More fundamentally, if the reason for the decree of suppression was in fact a concern for the shortage of priests in France, should the notion of episcopal solidarity be considered adequate justification for preventing others from responding to their own vocation, discerned and fostered within the heart of the Church? Do not all the faithful have both the right and duty to respond to the universal call to holiness? Is not the calling of each unique to him or her?
At a time in the Church's history when Episcopal amnesia is reported to be on the increase, we do well to recall that the Church (like the EC) is founded upon a number of fundamental freedoms. These include the right to form and participate within associations of the faithful [canon 215]. Where, as here, there is no suggestion of ecclesial disobedience or loss of catholicity, this is a freedom deserving of protection. Clearly, the legislator was of the same view. This is an important component of the law which according to St John Paul II was intended to ensure 'justice based on charity, with the rights of individuals guaranteed and well-defined." When other considerations are allowed to eclipse these normative values, we place ourselves at risk of suppressing the memory which is central to the faith: the personal call of Christ to which each individual is required to respond. The dangers of such a position are self-evident. When we suppress our collective memory issues of self-interest and personal loyalties are sure to direct us.