Belgian Catholics secure right to worship, barely, against bishops’ resistance
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December 21, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — The story of how Belgian Catholics regained the possibility to assist at Mass under the country’s new partial deconfinement rules is a strange one. Belgian bishops did not budge beyond a perfunctory communiqué when it was decided on November 29 that all religious celebrations would continue to be banned, except for funerals and weddings, and even these could take place only with a maximum of 15 persons present at a funeral, five at a wedding. Not a single public Mass would be allowed until January 15 at the earliest, the authorities decided, in a COVID-19 measure that aimed to deprive Belgian subjects even of Christmas.
And the Belgian bishops did not protest.
If it hadn’t been for a number of Belgian Jewish organizations, such as Thora Vejirah from Anvers, things would probably have stayed that way. As it was, these observing Jews marched to the Council of State and complained that shops and public swimming pools are allowed to function under the present lockdown rules, but not places of worship — all places of worship: synagogues, temples, mosques, and churches...
They obtained from the Council of State the first victory over a COVID-19 measure since the start of the first lockdown back in March. On December 8, the highest administrative authority in Belgium tasked with assessing the legality of executive decisions decided that imposing a general ban on religious ceremonies is going too far. It slammed a “disproportionate restriction” of freedom of worship, in which the authorities had not even made room for “collective worship to go ahead under certain circumstances, for instance only on demand with an agreement on time and place.”
The administrative court added that by the following Sunday, December 13, existing measures would need to be replaced by new “ones that would not “unreasonably restrict the collective expression of public worship.”
The Belgian government had no choice but to follow this command. But it came up with a 15-person rule for all celebrations (not including children under 12) that left lay Catholics angry. The new rule includes a disposition under which no more than one person per 10 square meters is allowed to assist at Mass in a church or chapel, with a distance of at least 1.5 meters between persons who do not belong to a “family bubble,” and obligatory hand disinfection and face masks.
The Belgian Bishops’ Conference reacted with a statement of satisfaction, hailing the fact that “parishes can now welcome more faithful for prayer, a moment of meditation, lighting a candle, visiting the Nativity scene or giving an offering for the destitute.” “This Sunday, we can celebrate a moment of prayer or the liturgy, in particular the Eucharist, with 15 people present[.] ... Local parishes and pastoral units will decide regarding this possibility, taking into account possible directives from their diocese.”
Remember we are talking about Sunday, the day when all Catholics are in principle required to go to Mass in order to sanctify the day of the Lord, and about the Eucharist...which appears not to be a priority on the agenda of the Belgian bishops.
Their statement added: “On ordinary Sundays and even more on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many faithful will unfortunately be denied access. Midnight Masses will not take place because of the curfew[.] ... During the coming weeks of lockdown, dominical celebrations broadcast on radio and television will remain for most faithful the means ‘par excellence’ of uniting themselves to the Eucharist.”
They concluded: “The bishops stress that this slight relaxation of lockdown should in no way give the impression that the severity of the pandemic is diminishing. Once again, they express their solidarity with the government, the health care sector, and all those who are tirelessly fighting the virus. They deserve our full support. Together, we will overcome the pandemic.”
The statement did not contain a single word about God, Jesus, the meaning of Christmas, individuals’ and society’s obligation to worship the true God, or even the suffering of the faithful who have already been deprived of the Eucharist since the beginning of November.
In the same way, their previous November 29 communiqué started by a proclamation of “solidarity” with government measures “in order to counter the pandemic, avoid as many victims as possible, and relieve the pressure” on the Belgian health sector. They called the ban on public celebrations something that the bishops and “many faithful” were “sensing” to be a “limitation to their experience of the faith” and announced that they wanted to “resume dialogue” with the authorities over the issue. They also encouraged all churches to remain open to the faithful, who are allowed to pray there individually. But they fell short of seizing the courts in order to proclaim and demand the rights of worship in a historically Catholic country.
A few days earlier, the spokesman for the Belgian bishops, Geert De Kerpel, indeed told a group of “concerned Catholics” asking for mobilization in favor of public worship: “We have every respect and understanding for believers who want to make Masses accessible once more to the public, but we are giving our total cooperation to what the government deems necessary.”
They themselves did not appear to be concerned about the incoherence of the “corona rules”: shops are open to preserve the commercial interests linked to the Christmas season, but static religious ceremonies, which do not appear to favor the spread of COVID-19, are not.
In guidelines published for the coming celebrations, the Belgian Bishops’ Conference made clear that celebrants and faithful should stay as far apart as possible and that the distribution of Holy Communion should take place in the hand. The celebrant, masked, and communicant should stretch out their arms as far as possible, and the celebrant should “drop” the host into the communicant’s outstretched hand, the guidelines say.
In fact, the Belgian bishops seemingly would prefer that their flock remain at home. Shortly before the severely restrictive 15-person rule went into effect last Sunday, spokesman Geert De Kerpel said: “We will not encourage the faithful to go to Mass.”
Following this incredible statement, an independent Catholic news site, Belgicatho.be, published an open letter by a parish council member, “Y.W.,” who observed: “Religious practice will no doubt never recover from those months of lockdown during which we have become accustomed to not going to our churches. The measures imposed by the political authorities with the acquiescence of docile and passive bishops are a real quencher for the flickering flame of a faith that is in constant retreat in our de-Christianized society.”
Angrily criticizing the bishops’ ready agreement to the “ridiculous” 15-person rule that applies for tiny chapels and for immense cathedrals alike, the writer noted that the absence of episcopal consideration for the “spiritual good of those entrusted to them” was “simply disgusting.”
A group of lay faithful has now decided to seize the Belgian Council of State to demand that the 15-person rule to be overturned.
In neighboring France, it was a similar action on the part of Catholic lay associations such as the AGRIF (a Christian defense league) and traditional priestly and religious institutes that obtained the recognition last May that a ban on public worship violates some of the most important fundamental liberties.
When restrictions were again imposed last November, their example probably played a role in leading the French Bishops’ Conference to join an even wider group of traditional institutes, Benedictine monasteries, and lay associations to seize the Council of State anew. This time, success was less complete, but the French government was obliged to change a no less ridiculous “30-person rule” under the pressure of the Catholic hierarchy and repeated demonstrations by the faithful, Sunday after Sunday.
The decision to lift the current curfew in France on Christmas Eve will also allow Midnight Masses to be celebrated. Perhaps the government feared another lawsuit before the Council if State if that had not been the case.
Importantly, a number of French bishops clearly stated under the 30-person rule that they would certainly not be policing entries into churches, and indeed many churches welcomed a great deal more worshipers on the one Sunday when the measure remained applicable. Under present rules (6 square meters per participant, roughly a third of churches’ total capacity), many parishes are organizing multiple Masses for all the faithful to be able to join.
Even so, a 30- to 40-percent fall in dominical practice, which was already desperately low, has been mentioned by a number of parish priests — a tragedy, considering that before COVID-19, only 4.5 percent of French Catholics went to church every Sunday. Belgian Catholicism is even more disaster-stricken, with a steady increase of former Catholics now calling themselves atheists and only 3 percent of regular practice, according to the French daily La Croix.
The casual way in which the Belgian bishops are treating the Mass and encouraging Catholics to stay at home for virtual celebrations is not a sign of hope.