Monday, August 27, 2007

"Big Boys Don't Cry"

For almost 30 years -- the longest reign going of any A-list prelate worldwide -- Cardinal Godfried Danneels has been the lead face and voice of the church in Belgium. And in an age where a red hat behind the wheel is still among the rarest of sights, he wants you to know that he drives a Volkswagen.

Tapped by the newly-elected John Paul II to succeed the famed Cardinal Leo-Josef Suenens as archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels in 1979 and elevated to the cardinalate four years later, the wildly-popular 74 year-old prelate, known for his progressive approach to the church's challenges couched in a common touch, marked his golden jubilee of priesthood last week. But next month, the milestone will be observed with an even bigger splash on the release of Grote Jongens Huilen Niet -- "Big Boys Don't Cry" -- a book-length interview of Danneels by the Belgian journalist Peter-Jan Bogaert.

In advance of its debut, a section of the book was published last week in the leftist daily De Morgen. The excerpt -- featuring the cardinal's musings on Providence, the priesthood, celibacy, obedience, the state of the faith and Benedict XVI, among other things -- is reproduced below in an unedited, exclusive English translation.

Many thanks to Caroline and Gene Foley for providing the translation, and the many other players involved along the way.

* * *

Bogaert: You were ordained a priest 50 years ago, on 17th August 1957. Can you still remember that day vividly?

Danneels: “Sure. It was in the church of Kanegem, there was a feast that day in the village where I was born. Not for me, but for the new town hall, right across from the church, that was being inaugurated that same day. The festivities were disturbed by a terrible thunderstorm, a typical August storm. I presume it was not symbolic”.

Did you realize already, at that moment, what kind of life you had chosen?

“It was certainly a very conscious choice, but at the age of 24 you never know what the implications of it are going to be when you are older. Even now I don’t know. You know the titles of the chapters of your life, but not the exact content”.

Is it difficult to remain true to your vows?

“In itself it is not difficult to remain true. Not when your ideal, your life plan, is clear. If you put God absolutely above yourself and others. Those vows are symbolic. You are really saying that your life for Christ is worth more than money, passion, getting married, children, or power. It becomes more difficult when your ideal fades, when the inner vitality and dynamics are not there anymore.”

You had to promise obedience to your bishop.

“That’s right. It is a little like signing a blank check. You are putting your fate in the hands of the bishop. You don’t know what all the implications of that are going to be. Even though the bishop doesn’t have total authority over a priest. It is only regarding your pastoral task that you have to be obedient. The bishop cannot tell you which suit to wear.”

Were there moments in your life when it was more difficult to remain obedient?

Not many, but there were some. For instance when I was suddenly asked to become bishop of Antwerp. I had been a professor for years, both at the seminary and at the university, and I had planned the rest of my life accordingly. I would live amidst the books and the students. Then I had to say yes, even though I didn’t know what exactly the job would imply. That was a moment of detachment, of the well known letting go, and stepping into the unknown. Even though you know that after a while you can feel at home in your new job too.”

How is such a thing asked, actually?

“It was rather abrupt. I was called into the nuncio’s office, the representative of the Catholic Church in Belgium, and was asked to become bishop. You can ask for a little time to consider, but much time isn’t needed. You know then what you have to do”.

Isn’t that squarely opposite to the spirit of these times?

“Yes, it is more difficult now than 50 years ago, to be obedient. There are many more choices; people are also much more attached to their own desires. In the past people didn’t always get what they wanted. I don’t regret that evolution, I just note it. This new spirit of the age has its advantages too; people try harder when their whole heart is in it.

Now, a bishop tries to take a priest’s wishes and abilities more into account. That is in your own interest as a church leader. It used to be that someone like Cardinal Van Roey would enter, and say: “Hello, pastor of ..”, and he would state the name of a village. And so you knew, as a priest, that you had been appointed there. The times of blind obedience in the church are past by now, even though I doubt they ever existed completely.”

Have there been moments that you thought: I would have done things differently, if I had been in a higher position, hierarchically?

“Yes, but that is all in the conditional. Those trains of thought are very hypothetical. You don’t get far with them. And, as in every job, there are things that go with it that you have to accept.

You also promised, 50 years ago, to lead a sober life.

“Strictly speaking priests do not explicitly have to take a vow of poverty, in contrast to monks and nuns. But it is good that priests also live soberly. You know, as a priest, that you will never be rich. But also that you will never be so poor that you can’t live. Priests in our country earn enough to do their pastoral work. They don’t have too much, nor too little. I also - I have enough to do what is required of me in my position. Personally, I don’t need much. Besides, I don’t have the time to occupy myself with luxuries. I don’t feel the need to take extensive trips, or to go out every weekend.

Yes, we have the assurance that we will never lack in anything. We don’t have any poor priests, that’s right. In that sense we have an easier life, and are more privileged, just like millions of our countrymen. I do give away part of my income. No fixed amount, or percentage. But if there is a need, I will contribute”.

The most talked about issue is still the vow of chastity. Does celibacy add extra value for you personally?

“Yes, of course. It is the expression of your putting God above everything. That you can dedicate yourself totally to him. That is a point of principle. There is also a practical element. Because by being celibate you have much more time to dedicate to your pastoral task. I’m not saying it is never possible to combine - doctors, for instance, also combine their family and a very demanding job, and there are good ministers who are also able to do that - but it does make everything more difficult”.

Do you know what you are missing?

“Yes, of course. I cannot say it does not affect me, to miss a wife and children. If a man says he doesn’t care about those, I question that. I knew it in advance, and I had been informed beforehand. Yes, I miss that. But there are so many other things in life that you might have to miss. People always talk as though celibacy is the worst of the worst, but that is not true”.

Have you never, in your naughtiest dreams, longed to love a woman?

“In my dreams yes, but not while awake”


Besides missing a partner, you also have to do without physical affection. Do you ever cuddle?

“At times I may give a big hug to a friend, or cuddle my nieces and nephews. That is something I do. Other than that, you have to know who or what you are hugging. I have, in view of my function, to show a certain restraint. You, yourself, can’t hug everybody, do you?”

You have a large family, with many nieces and nephews, which are very important to you. But you will never be able to cherish any offspring of your own.

“Yes, during my funeral the first row will be empty. Behind that will be a number of canons and some bishops. That will be it. No direct family. I realize that. That remains open, something that will never be filled”.

Do you sympathize with priests that have problems with celibacy?

“Yes, I know it isn’t necessarily bad intentions. It is hard to imagine, when you are 24, how you will feel when you are 40. But when your life’s project is clear enough, that nothing is too difficult. That is why a crisis of celibacy in priests often has to do with the crumbling away of their own faith. (pause). And there exists something like a midlife crisis. Why would we [be able to] escape that?

Have you yourself experienced such a midlife crisis? A period in which you asked yourself if the path you had chosen was the right one after all?

“If this was the confessional, I would tell you, but it isn’t, right? You ask yourself those questions every day. Is it good? Will I ever miss children? Is this worth it all? It is logical that one poses those questions. You can’t fulfill your priesthood on automatic pilot. In the meantime I am past the midlife now. I have now reached an age where I am above suspicion, but you are never out of the danger zone. It can always storm”.

You have been working for the same employer for 50 years now. That is exceptional.

“I have never seen the church as my employer. It is something that I am a member of, that I am connected to by love, and that I share my ideals with. It is my life’s project, so then 50 years is not so exceptional”.

Are you faithful to the pope or to Jesus Christ?

“I am in the first instance faithful to Christ, because the pope is 'only' a representative of Christ. If I am faithful to the pope, it is because he asks that which Christ says in the gospel. Faithfulness to Christ and the church is not only a human accomplishment. It is not only effort and austerity, you get a lot in return. Much more than you are giving. We call that grace, it is given to us to be faithful. That is often difficult to explain to people who do not believe. If we give something, it is because we also receive much. Strength and insight, among other things. We see things more clearly, and so we are getting captivated, and that gives us more vitality to follow our faith.

Could you think of circumstances in which you could not remain faithful to the pope?

“The obedience to the pope implicates also the frankness to say what you are thinking. And he is happy with that. Inside the church there is room for dialogue, more than you would think. I feel confident in that, and that is the reason I confide in him from time too time. Or ask: is that really necessary? Especially this pope, Benedict XVI, will respond to that. It is easy to have a conversation with him, man to man. But when he, after thinking it over, says that he wants to do things a certain way, than I accept that. Often I realize afterwards that he is right, that he has made me see things in a different way. It is therefore certainly not blind obedience”.

Have you ever had to defend something that, in your innermost heart, you didn’t agree with?

“Not really. At times I have been disturbed by the way in which a certain text or directive was being communicated. When the pope could have said the same thing in a more accessible or sympathetic way. But then we’re talking about form, really. Even if that (form) does say something about the content too. In some encyclical letters – Humanae Vitae, for instance - the same things could have been said, but in a less abrupt and frigid tone.

I have told pope John Paul II that there was a need for a warmer, and more open tone. And he agreed - only that was our task, he said. In Rome the general rule is drawn up. The bishops have to make the texts clearer, warmer, and explain the practical applications.

That’s what you are good at: in the softening of the hard message from Rome – isn’t it?

“The bishop is always a pontifex, a bridge builder, a go between. That is his task, but the essence of the case must not be blurred by an explanation or compromise. You look for the best way in which people can be brought to understanding. There is a difference between the law itself, and the application of it”.

Some people call that typical Catholic hypocrisy. It really isn’t allowed, but we permit it anyway?

“The law has to be clear, but the judge considers within the confines of that law. That happens in each human court with a good judge. The law can be strict, but the application gentle. That is what God is. The law tells you what to do, the law pulls you up, but the priest says: if you cannot reach the ideal, then at least you have done your best, if you have reached it half-way or 75%. We don’t judge you, but we cannot say it is good either. That is not Catholic compromising, that is having understanding of what the law is, and what man is. That attitude is not always easy, because you are being attacked from two sides. By those that want to interpret the law in a stricter way, and those that call you a hypocrite, a compromiser.

Are there points of religious doctrine that you have had difficulty with yet?

“No. Certainly not about the fundamentals of the faith, even if there are some things that could be refined or adjusted. But faith itself is not a matter of adjustment. Some matters of religion can evolve with the times, others can not”.

Like female priests, for instance. Do you think we will ever reach that point?

That is a very important point, and one that touches the essence of the church. I’m not so sure there will ever be female priests within the Catholic Church. Not now, and also not in 50 or 100 years. In other Christian churches it is possible –and I don’t deny that there are good female priests there - but it remains, also in those churches, a big point of contention. There are many arguments one can give for that, and I know it is not explainable in our society, but yet I sense that it isn’t possible. But that isn’t the biggest problem in the church today”.

What is?

“Faith itself. People ask themselves if the invisible world and God still are relevant. Christ was the Son of God, but did he really rise from the dead? Those are questions that occupy my mind, too.”

Do you have sympathy for believers who look carefully at the many religions offered, and only are true to the choices they make themselves?

“That is today’s man, you have to have understanding for that. We are people of choice. We are not happy anymore with the 'plat du jour', but we want to eat 'a la carte'. Whether we are totally right in that, is another question. Are we right? May we make absolute our image of man? Are we the most perfect people ever? I don’t know”.

You have a large family. Have you been confronted yet with a divorce?

“Who hasn’t? I think you have to distinguish between the facts and the people. What has happened, I cannot applaud, and the people themselves are not happy about that either. But on the other hand you should not identify the people with their divorce. You can never identify anyone totally with his deeds. You can only adopt a pastoral attitude of understanding and of offering help. People that are divorced are often the first ones to say they would rather not have, but that there was no other way”.

Do you feel disappointed then?

“Each time somebody does not reach the ideal, it is a disappointment. I cannot applaud people that do not succeed in their intentions. That is, for them, a human drama. And that tragedy in almost not perceived anymore. As if it is 'normal' that people split up. While that is not so. But it is more difficult to remain faithful than say 50 years ago. We live longer; there are many more choices. Much more can happen. The cards are dealt differently, and you have to have an understanding for that. The only things I regret is that the lawmakers do not use enough the pedagogic force of the ideal. A law should pull a person 'higher'. Right now the law is too much a thermometer that just registers, and too little a thermostat that you can set a degree higher”.

Are there people that have disappointed you personally, that have not been loyal to you?

“Who has never been disappointed? That is inherent to mankind. You have to remind yourself then that you may have disappointed people too”.

And, have you ever violated other people’s trust?

“Not consciously in any case. Perhaps I have been clumsy, unthinking. At times gone too rapidly over a file. I am in a difficult position anyway; there is the criticism that I have to be stricter, more orthodox. Others then feel that I should take a more liberal position. Thus I disappoint different people. My greatest problem is not the question if I am disappointing other people, but if I have not disappointed God. Has he not expected more of me?


“Sometimes I think so. Have I not fallen short? Has my prayer life been deep enough? Have I been sympathetic enough towards other people? Is there enough love for my neighbor? Is there care for the poor? Do I have the courage to preach the gospel, and not to live for my own interests? Those are the questions I ask myself.

Do you make up a balance before going too sleep?

“Yes. It is good to look in one’s own heart. I don’t analyze everything into the smallest details, but I do have a good view in the evening on what went well and what went less well. And then I give it to God and ask him: now you make up the account. And in the morning I then take over again”.

How would you judge your own management as a church leader?

“ Historians will have to do that, even if I think I have not taken any decisions that were fundamentally wrong. We are not perfect- and fortunately the media do not know everything that didn’t go too well. You may not understand it, but I do ask myself if I am holy enough. When people look at me, do they then see the gospel, or the person Godfried Danneels? That is a big, serious, question”.

You are admired, even by non-believers, because you can explain well, and always find a positive way to look at things.

“Those are the good points, but there are perhaps also some weak points. Some people probably think that I showed too little action at times”.

You were too little like Leonard, the ultraconservative bishop of Namur.

“Yes, maybe I didn’t stand enough on the barricades. But that is not in my character. I am no Marianne from the French Revolution who storms the Bastille. And then of another one, who does act like that, they say he doesn’t show enough tact”.

Something totally different now. Are you true to certain brands?

“I don’t really think much about that, except with regard to cars. I have been driving a Volkswagen for many years. I am happy with that, why change?”

Are you also that faithful in your political preference?

“The vote is secret. But I have always been steadfast. Only the party changed its name at times (smiles). My world lies totally outside the political world, on purpose. I have my mandate, the politicians have theirs. It is not good to mix the two. I am not emperor-sextant. I am Cardinal Danneels.

[The book will be released on 15 September in Belgium, ostensibly in the Low Country's twin tongues of Flemish and French.]