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Pope Francis John-Henry Westen/LifeSiteNews


April 23, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – If Italian Vaticanist Marco Tosatti had not told the story of the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles of Brussels, no one would have known that Pope Francis personally intervened to dissolve this recently-created order last November.

It was a personal decision made, it seems, on the insistence of the recently-named Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Beniamino Stella. It thus short-circuited the judgment of the Apostolic Signatura, where appeals against the dissolution of this young Fraternity had reached their final stage.

The former members of the Fraternity – six priests who are now plain diocesan priests in Belgium – had high hopes of these appeals, which many thought would be in the Fraternity’s favor.

Much depended on it: because of the dissolution, a new priestly order where fraternal life was central to its charism and which attracted many seminarians may now no longer function as such.

Fraternity of the Holy Apostles began under Archbishop André Léonard

Two years ago, the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles was a flourishing priestly community in Brussels. With six young priests – and a seventh ordination on the way – it had become something of an attraction for young Catholic men in search of a place to live out their priestly vocation.

Called to the Belgian capital by the will of the then Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Archbishop André Léonard, the Fraternity included over 20 seminarians who worked in the parish that had been attributed to its apostolate. They would travel to Brussels in between courses at the French-speaking inter-diocesan seminary of Namur (which Archbishop Léonard had revived when he was the bishop of that diocese) to help the priests’ work every weekend, being especially present during Sunday celebrations.

Archbishop Léonard established the Fraternity in 2013 according to the spirituality of a popular French priest, Father Michel-Marie Zanotti-Sorkine (more about him later).

The first ordinations took place in 2014 and vocations kept coming in – often a sign, for Catholics, that an initiative is indeed willed and blessed by God. While not attached to the traditional form of the Catholic liturgy, the Fraternity was known for upholding the truths and teachings of the Church. It attracted large numbers of faithful in secularized Belgium, where regular religious practice has fallen to less than 10 percent of Catholics and where less than half the population still calls itself Catholic. Not even four out of ten Belgians actually believe in a God of any kind.

Cardinal Danneels protégé takes over, starts dismantling Fraternity 

Archbishop Léonard’s successor at the head of the diocese of Mechelen-Brussels, Mgr Josef De Kesel – now a cardinal, himself a protégé of Cardinal Danneels – lost no time in undoing the work of his predecessor.

De Kesel arrived in December 2015; by June 2016, he had summoned the priests of the Fraternity to inform them of his decision to dismantle their community, which had the form of a canonically recognized clerical public association of the faithful. A decree of dissolution signed by De Kesel and dated July 15, 2016, only gave one reason for this decision: the fact that “most” of the seminarians were of French origin.

No other reason was ever given to the priests themselves or to the public, one of the former members of the Fraternity told LifeSiteNews.

In a communiqué published in June 2016, the archdiocese stated:

 “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.”

In the past, it would have been normal for a young man with a priestly vocation to join the seminary of his own diocese. But in the present state of liturgical and doctrinal confusion it has become customary, if not the norm, for young men to instead choose an orthodox diocese, society, or fraternity.

In metropolitan France, out of a total of 853 seminarians registered in April 2017, no less than 98 were enrolled in the traditionally-minded Communauté Saint-Martin. 160 others were in one of several traditional seminaries in Switzerland, Germany, or Italy, including the seminary of the Society of Saint Pius X. 495 French seminarians, plus another 100 of foreign origin, were in diocesan seminaries, with about half of them concentrated in just 13 of the 94 French dioceses: 70 in Paris, 42 in the traditionally-minded diocese of Toulon, and very few or none in the more progressive dioceses.

To imply that all vocations should respect the “rule” that young men must join their own diocesan or inter-diocesan seminary amounts to wanting to force them to accept subpar formations and to negate their liturgical preferences.

All seminarians leave Namur, some give up their vocations

Another problem with De Kesel’s decision to dissolve the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles is that his predecessor, Archbishop Léonard, had made clear, weeks before he offered his resignation as Archbishop of Brussels on his 75th birthday in May 2015, that he hoped to join the Fraternity. He planned to spend at least the first years of his retirement there in the Abbey of Marche-les-Dames, near where a group of seminarians was already living, going up and down to Namur for courses as a group of Neocatechumenal seminarians still does from another location.

Archbishop Léonard’s interview was published on April 23, 2015 by the Belgian Catholic magazine Tertio. In it he made clear that he hoped to find “competent people” who would be “able to take responsibility for this seminary” after him. It is hard to believe that his successor was unaware of that wish.

With the dissolution came the decision that the priests who were at that time members of the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles would stay on as diocesan priests in the parish of Saint Catherine of Brussels. They still carry out their ministry and live a fraternal life there today.

But in a telephone conversation with LifeSiteNews, one of the present priests of Saint Catherine made clear that all of the seminarians had left Namur: a number of French young men, in particular, have returned to French diocesan seminaries, while some have even given up on their vocations.

The priest who spoke with LifeSite about the painful situation said an appeal was made against the decision to dissolve the Fraternity insofar as in canon law, a Public association of the faithful can only be dissolved for a “grave cause” (canon 320): in this case, invoking the “lack of solidarity” between bishops appeared to many as very inadequate, and even “insincere.”

The appeals to the Diocese of Mechelen-Brussels and then to the Congregation for the Clergy did not produce the desired result. It is precisely at the moment when the Apostolic Signatura, where the case was then pending, was about to render its judgment – and several “signs” indicated that it would invalidate the dissolution, according to our interlocutor at Saint Catherine’s – that Cardinal Stella went to see the Pope and asked him to act on his own account to confirm the dissolution of the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles. Pope Francis did.

“When the Holy Father makes a personal intervention, the case is closed and there is no further resort,” the priest from Saint Catherine told LifeSiteNews. The only course that is left open is to present a “supplication” to the Holy Father, he said, in order to ask respectfully for the Pope to change his position.

As things stand, the Fraternity no longer exists.

“But we have been supported and encouraged by the faithful,” the priest said. “Our role is still to love the Lord and to serve Him.”

Locals miss the seminarians, who visited the elderly and helped the community

In Saint Catherine itself, things have not changed very visibly for the faithful. But the absence of the seminarians has created a void: they would visit local families, go to the homes of the elderly, and help out with the Missionaries of Charity in Brussels. These are things for which the priests there have no time.

As well, it is obvious that what remains of Archbishop Léonard’s initiative cannot perpetuate itself as there is no longer a community of seminarians that shares the Fraternity’s spirituality.

That spirituality was deeply marked by Father Michel-Marie Zanotti-Sorkine, who was born into a French family of Jewish, Russian, and Corsican origins. Before answering his vocation, he was a singer and composer.

At age 29, he joined the Dominican order, and after that the Franciscans, having been deeply moved by the story of Saint Maximilian Kolbe. But he was eventually ordained as a secular priest in the Diocese of Marseille in 1999. He worked in several parishes before being named at the head of the church of the “Réformés” (nothing to do with Protestantism), which was practically in ruins at the time. Under his ministry, the parish bloomed and Sunday masses were soon overflowing, thanks to his striking sermons.

In 2014, Father Zanotti-Sorkine asked to be named as a confessor at the Parisian Marian shrine of the Rue du Bac, where Our Lady appeared to ask Catholics to wear her Miraculous Medal “with faith.” But those responsible for the chapel of the Rue du Bac refused his nomination at the last moment because of his popular appeal.

Father Zanotti-Sorkine is now chaplain of the Sanctuary of Notre-Dame du Laus, another Marian pilgrimage site where Benoîte Rencurel saw Our Lady, the Crucified Jesus, and many saints from 1664 over a period of more than 50 years. Our Lady wanted it to be “a place of mercy” and it has become known and promoted by the Church as a “refuge for sinners.”

As for Archbishop Léonard, he joined Notre-Dame du Laus in November of 2015 upon his retirement and became its auxiliary chaplain.