Modern Devotion*

The numbers are in: although 55% of Belgians consider themselves religious, fewer than 10% of Belgians attend church on Sundays. According to a Eurobarometer poll taken in 2005 (coincidentally, only a few months before Pope John Paul II died), 27% of Belgian citizens claimed that "they do not believe that there is any sort of spirit, God or life-force." On the other hand, some 29% were willing to admit that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life-force," while 43% answered "I believe there is a God."* Presumably, it is this latter 72% that makes up the purportedly seven million plus Catholics in Belgium, some three quarters of the country's 10 million or so inhabitants.

All I can say at the moment is, "It's a good thing I'm a medievalist, otherwise I might actually believe most of these numbers." To be fair, I've only been here two weeks, so who am I to say what Belgians believe? But there are certain anomalies in this picture that I can't quite square with the numbers. Okay, so Belgians don't go to church on Sundays. But, curiously enough, they do pray at other moments during the week, even taking time off from their shopping in the middle of Saturday afternoon to visit their saints. I don't have pictures of these shrines to show you because, well, I didn't feel it was appropriate to take them. What I can show you are the votive tablets that their devotees have left at their shrines, for example, at the little Lady Chapel in Antwerp, just off the main shopping street and across from the central bank. Even taking this picture earned me a glare from one of the men who had just entered the chapel. I did not at the time take a seat myself because all the seats were full. And how to describe the reverence and affection with which the people of Hasselt visited their own Father Valentin Paquay (1828-1905), himself only newly beatified by, yes, Pope John Paul II? Father Paquay's tomb effigy has already been worn shiny by the fingers of those who come to pray in the little chapel at the Minderbroeders church. In the few minutes during which I sat there, I saw a whole family, mother, father, and two little boys touch head, breast and shoulders of the figure one after the other. At no point was I able to take a photo of the shrine because, as I have said, I couldn't without giving offense. The chapel was never empty.

Nor does the Belgians' purported lack of piety square with what I saw yesterday, at the great baroque shrine of Scherpenheuvel in Brabant. Out of hundreds of people visiting the church, I was only one of two holding a camera. Everyone else was there to offer prayers, light candles, join in services and revere the miracle-working statue of the Virgin. It is true that many of the people sitting in the chapel were older than I am, but some had clearly brought their grandchildren. I did not get the sense that these were foreigners to the region, pilgrims, as it were, from everywhere other than Belgium. Perhaps the building is being restored (as you can see from the picture) only because it is a great monument to the Catholic Counter Reformation, but the fact that the shrine has had to set up additional buildings where pilgrims may light their candles rather suggests otherwise, if I may be permitted to judge.

Perhaps I am overly inclined to see religion where there is none, but this past week in Belgium has left me thoughtful. What do you make of a country whose Cardinal Godfried Danneels was voted "the most remarkable personality of the year" by its television viewers in 2003 (at least, its Flemish ones) and yet whose people tell you over and over that their country is wholly secularized? It's strange, because (from what the article on Wikipedia says), Danneels himself is remarkably (from an American Catholic perspective) liberal, even going so far as to allow condoms for the prevention of AIDS and to go on record as saying that "to be homosexual is a natural disposition, just as being heterosexual." Nor would Danneels refuse a place for women in the hierarchy of the church, if not (yet, if ever) the priesthood itself: both of his vicars are women and he himself has argued, "I see no reason why a woman should not head a Roman congregation."

Is it that Danneels has been too open to change, not only socially but also, perhaps even more significantly given the statistics on church attendance, liturgically? One of the things that is most striking about many of the churches I have visited is the great simplicity of their contemporary altars, like this one in Mechelen, which simplicity, as I have already noted, I find rather appealing.
But when I asked the guide who was taking my sister-in-law, son and me around Antwerp this Saturday on a tour of the city's Madonnas what Belgian Catholics thought of these plainer forms, she was, shall we say, rather less than enthusiastic. The Concilium Vaticanum of the 1960s had moved too fast, she insisted. What I saw, from my Protestant (if not my medievalist) perspective, as an effort to reach out to the people--through the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, the priest's facing the people as he consecrated the elements, the movement of the altar towards the center of the church--she described as disruptions that even today, over forty years later, people could still not accept. As an historian, it is impossible for me not to note at this point that Cardinal Danneels is a liturgical scholar who was directly involved in the composition of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican council's constitution on the reform of the contemporary Catholic liturgy. Can it be that Belgian Catholics don't go to church because, well, it's not Catholic enough?

In contrast, however, our guide was delighted when I asked her about a poster I had seen advertizing a great gathering of young people to be held at the end of the year in Brussels, organized by the community from Taize. "Oh, Taize," she said, her eyes lighting up. "That's what gave me hope in my youth. But I don't know how popular it is now." Ironically, it seems, she had not seen the posters, despite the fact that they are up on more or less every church. Either this is a last ditch effort at encouraging more young people to participate in the spiritual life or--and here I'm guessing, but what if I'm right?--the organizers at Taize know something about Belgians that even most Belgians don't.** Inspired by the posters, I bought a CD of the chants from the nuns at the old beguinage in Bruges.

Which, if you think about it, is wholly appropriate. One of the reasons that I am here in Belgium studying devotion to the Virgin Mary is because it was here that so many of the books of Hours supporting that devotion were made. But it was also here that many lay people, like the beguines and often with the help of their books of Hours, sought to live a religious life without the direct supervision of the clergy. If there is one thing that I have learned looking at all the paintings that I have these past two weeks, it is that Belgians have been remarkably consistent over the centuries, if not in the ostensible subjects of their work, then in their method, particularly their attention to detail. It occurs to me that perhaps it is not so very surprising that the same people whose ancestors embraced so enthusiastically the devotional works of Van Eyck and Matsys should have produced works such as this one, by Hieronymous Franken II (1578-1623) now in the Brussels Museum of Ancient Art:

It is, to all intents and purposes, apparently a wholly secular painting. The "amateur" has collected his paintings simply as works of show, and there they are, all jumbled together, with no purpose other than to be admired as possessions. And yet, if you look more closely, many of the paintings are of religious subjects, including, at the very center of the display on the back wall, the temptation of Adam and Eve. In the foreground, however, there is hope: the Virgin and Child in a beautiful garland of flowers and the coming of an angel in a great shower of light from heaven.

Whereas a week ago I was ready to go home and give up on Belgium, at least as a place where I might discover something about prayer, now I am starting to make lists of books about the history of Belgium that I am eager to (re-)read, starting, of course, with the great classic of Johann Huizinga on the so-called (at least in the original English translation) "waning" of the Middle Ages. Just as in Franken's painting the mystery only deepens the closer you look, so, I am now convinced, with the role of devotion both historically and at present in Belgian life. Of course, I could be wrong. But then it wouldn't be the first time a Protestant (e.g Huizinga) has been confused about the core of Catholic devotion.

*See pp. 9-11 of the report.
**Belgium, after all, is Belgium because it is Catholic: it fought for its independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830 so as to be able to live under a Catholic, not Calvinist, king.


  1. What would it mean to be Calvinist?


    thought you might be interested in this. It relates to your "Reproduction" post. The site is in German, but I thought maybe you'd still be interested.


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