In an interview with a Mexican broadcaster aired Tuesday, Pope Francis announced that he intends to visit Belgium in 2024.
The announcement was surprising, given that since his election Francis has shown a preference for visiting nations on Europe’s “peripheries,” beginning with Albania in 2014.
He has avoided what he calls the “big” countries of Europe, such as Spain and Germany, favoring the continent’s smaller nations. When he traveled to France in September, the Vatican pedantically insisted that he was visiting Marseilles, not the French Republic, to keep this notion intact.
Admittedly, Belgium is a small country, with a population of under 12 million people. It’s slightly bigger than the U.S. state of Vermont, and is squeezed between its much larger French and German neighbors.
Today, it has the world’s 26th largest economy and Europe’s second-largest port. It also has a glamorous royal family, whose activities are carefully chronicled by Hello! magazine, and its main city, Brussels, is the de facto capital of the European Union.
So, why is the pope eager to go there? And what are the potential pitfalls of the trip? Let’s take a look.
Pope Francis was reportedly invited to visit during a Sept. 14 private audience at the Vatican with King Philippe and Queen Mathilde, who are discreet but committed supporters of the Church in Belgium.
The trip, said to be penciled in for late September 2024, is intended to mark the 600th anniversary of the Catholic universities of KU Leuven and UCLouvain, which falls in 2025.
Francis’ connections to Belgium go all the way back to Argentina, according to the Vaticanist Emmanuel Van Lierde.
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio joined the Jesuits, he became friends with a fellow novice from the Belgian Steverlynck family, which owned a textile company in Argentina. Francis has spoken admiringly of the company’s thoughtful approach toward its employees.
As provincial superior of the Argentine Jesuits, Fr. Bergoglio was chancellor of a Jesuit-run university in Córdoba, which was supported financially by a Belgian association led by Jean Sonet, S.J. The future pope traveled to Belgium to show his appreciation. He was reportedly enthralled by the atmospheric city of Bruges and the work of the painter Hans Memling.
When he first appeared on the loggia overlooking St. Peter’s Square after his election, Pope Francis was flanked by the Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels.
He personally appointed Danneels as a delegate to the 2015 family synod. That same year, he named Danneels’ protégé, Bishop Jozef De Kesel, as the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, restoring the progressivist continuity in Belgium’s most prominent diocese, which was disrupted under Benedict XVI.
De Kesel quickly received a cardinal’s red hat. Francis sought to raise another Belgian to the College of Cardinals in 2022: Bishop Luc Van Looy, who had met the future pope when he visited Buenos Aires as a Salesian priest. But Van Looy withdrew from consideration following criticism of his handling of abuse cases as Bishop of Ghent.
In addition to these biographical ties, Pope Francis may also have an affinity for the Belgian Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens, who influenced Vatican II and strongly advocated the co-responsibility of the laity, arguably foreshadowing Francis’ push for synodality in the Catholic Church.
According to Emmanuel Van Lierde, Francis would be certain to visit both Belgium’s predominantly French-speaking Walloon Region and the primarily Flemish-speaking region of Flanders. He could accomplish this by trips to UCLouvain, in the town of Louvain-la-Neuve, in the province of Walloon Brabant, and KU Leuven, in the city of Leuven, in the province of Flemish Brabant.
Francis may also preside at a Mass in Brussels, where he would no doubt be joined by Archbishop Luc Terlinden, who he named as the new Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels in June.
In addition to his customary encounters with young people and local Jesuits, the pope could also have a private meeting with abuse survivors and, depending whether he stayed for one day or two, visit a new Jesuit school in Molenbeek, one of Belgium’s poorest areas.
A big pitfall
Undoubtedly the visit’s biggest potential pitfall is that the Church in Belgium has just been shaken to its foundations by a new exposé of clerical abuse.
The exposé came in the form of a documentary series called “Godforsaken,” which provoked a huge outcry when it was aired in Belgium in September this year.
The series, which highlighted both abuse and cover-ups, triggered a parliamentary inquiry and reportedly prompted a surge in Catholics leaving the Church. It also inspired calls for Belgium’s federal authorities to cease paying the salaries of people designated as “ministers of religion,” who include not only the country’s Catholic priests and deacons but also lay people nominated by bishops.
The series has stirred up debate about previous high-profile abuse cases, notably that of Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges, who resigned in 2010 after admitting to molesting his nephew.
The scandal also tarnished Danneels’ reputation after an audio recording was leaked in which the cardinal urged the young man not to publicly accuse his uncle — and led to controversy when Francis included Danneels in his list of personal invitees to the 2015 family synod.
As the crisis deepened, police launched surprise raids on church premises, straining relations between the Belgian authorities and the Vatican.
Following Vangheluwe’s resignation, an independent report recorded 475 abuse complaints against clergy and church workers from the 1950s to the 1980s.
But the Vangheluwe case overshadows the Belgian Church to this day because the now 87-year-old prelate continues to have the title of bishop.
According to Belgian Catholic media, two bishops visited Vangheluwe in September this year at the monastery where he is obliged to live in anonymity. They asked him to present his resignation as a bishop to Pope Francis.
Vangheluwe reportedly later told one of the visitors, Antwerp’s Bishop Johan Bonny, that he had written to the pope. Bonny believes that the pope will answer the letter, whose contents are unknown, by the end of the year.
With a papal visit on the horizon, the pressure to resolve the Vangheluwe case will increase, to the frustration of Belgium’s bishops, who say they’ve been asking the Vatican to take further action for years.
Perhaps the abuse crisis will subside by the time Pope Francis arrives in the country, but it’s unlikely to recede into the background given its depth and intensity. The trip could therefore be similar to Francis’ visit to Ireland in 2018, which was marked by protests by abuse survivor advocates.
Another, lesser pitfall is that the trip may reopen a debate about the identities of the two Catholic universities whose 600th anniversaries the pope will be marking.
Both KU Leuven and UCLouvain trace their origins to the Old University of Leuven, established in 1425 and abolished in 1797. The mantle was taken up by the Catholic University of Leuven in 1834, which split along linguistic lines in 1968 into the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) and the Université catholique de Louvain (UCLouvain).
As in the neighboring Netherlands, a highly secularized society poses challenges to the universities’ Catholic identities. Both KU Leuven and UCLouvain are keen to stress their inclusive credentials. UCLouvain’s website, for example, says that “while the ‘C’ stands for ‘Catholic.’ UCLouvain, with its more than 120 nationalities, includes just about every creed, secular or religious, practicing or not.”
Another pitfall is that a papal visit could supercharge an already heated debate within the Catholic Church over the possibility of the ritual blessing of same-sex couples. The bishops of Flanders issued a text allowing precisely that in September 2022, despite a declaration the year before by the Vatican’s doctrine office that the Church had no power to bless same-sex unions.
The Vatican has not responded publicly to the bishops’ initiative. But the topic was discussed during the Belgian bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome in November 2022. The Vatican seems to be quietly allowing the initiative to go ahead on an experimental basis, possibly for reasons that Pope Francis outlined in his July response to a dubium, or doubt, about same-sex blessings presented by five cardinals
But the glaring spotlight of a papal visit could turn the Belgian line on same-sex blessings into a global Church controversy on the eve of the final session of the synod on synodality, adding to an already combustible atmosphere.