Reading room > The multicultural Church of Brussels

A challenge for identity and integration
25 Apr 2005

Conference in St.Anthony’s, March 3, 2005


A multicultural society is one of the most controversial issues today. The interpretation of the concept and the opinion about it, are so different, often contradictory, that people who intend to talk about it, have to stipulate in advance what they mean exactly.

A person who defines ‘multicultural’ as the actual situation of a very diverse society, says nothing about its possibilities, its challenges, and its dangers. Indeed, nobody can deny, at least in cities – but not only in cities! – the fact that people from different origins and cultures live together.

But, a person who means by (the concept of) ‘multicultural’ a goal, a direction, in order to build up the society in a time of globalization, directly enters into the debating arena. Those who oppose this vision are the ones shouting louder, often in a speech without any sense of objectivity, but full of generalizations of particular facts and full of unverifiable judgments. The protagonists are mostly playing the part of the underdogs, i.e. the players who can only rely on a few good football passes…

However, people today, in the society as such, have to take a stand when they want to take responsibility for the present and the future.


How can we combine multiculturality and Church?


Undoubtedly, it is in the essence of the Church to influence society in the direction of God’s Kingdom. And whoever speaks of God’s Kingdom, recalls the universality in which cultural diversity is implied by definition. Nevertheless, universality and multiculturality were always a very difficult commitment for the Church: the Church likes more universality and uniformity!

On the other hand, the Church is also influenced by society in the same essential way. It’s true, Christianity made Europe, but it’s also correct to say that the history of Europe, its social, political and cultural evolution made the Church! And this evolution was not only made by the Christians! For example, the ideas of the French Revolution were realized in a new, non-Christian political system. It was not easy to accept that influence, mostly because the Church could no longer hold on a uniform and unchangeable Christian identity.

In the same way, today’s globalization, with migration as its particular expression and multiculturality as its result, certainly has an influence on Church life and identity awareness.



About the migration in Brussels


The Brussels multiculturality is the result of the migration that took place over the last 50 years.

We can distinguish two migration movements, the old one which happened before 1974 (official end of the migration) and the new one.

The migrants came in mass – which is perhaps exaggerated for American ears –: Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, and Polish people. Afterwards, we notice a totally different migration type: refugees, recognized by the Geneva Convention of 1951. But also more and more asylum seekers and quasi refugees who are also called ‘economical refugees’.

Brussels, as the capital of Europe, has furthermore another specificity: ten thousands of functionaries of the European Union.

They are all in Brussels. It creates a big challenge for the Church.

First of all, there is a tremendous diversity in migration, on a psychological, economical and social level. The situation of the refugees is not to be compared with that of the workers who came invited by the Belgian government in times of booming economy. The world of the Italian worker who came to work in the Belgian mines is completely different from that of the Italian functionary.

There is also another difference, i.e. the religious belonging. Among Christians, a lot of them are not Catholics, but they belong to other churches. The most specific migration of other religions is the Muslims’: since the sixties, ten thousands of them, Turkish and Moroccan people, have immigrated into Brussels.

The number of migrants – in the most general sense of the word – is now more than 34 % of all Brussels population. It is one of the highest in European cities. More then 180.000 are Catholics, 140.000 Muslims. 

The Brussels Church had to find out new forms of pastoral work:

-          a Catholic intercultural pastoral care called: ‘Foreign Catholic Communities’ like the one you have.

-          a pastoral for dialogue or at least meeting with Islam and other religions, mostly from the Far East

-          a diaconal pastoral, a church social welfare work, towards and with refugees and asylum seekers. 

Living together between individuals and groups with such diversity and in such big numbers is an enormous challenge. Moreover, this challenge is to be taken on the background – often on the foreground! – of the typical Brussels situation: the diversity of its own population, with French and Dutch-speaking communities! Politically as well as ecclesiastically, this diversity presents a big management problem.


A specific pastoral care for Catholic migrants: the Foreign Catholic Communities


The Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels is divided in three territorial vicariates:

- the North vicariate: Dutch-speaking, also called Vlaams Brabant, with the cities Mechelen and Leuven. It’s a quite homogeneous region, except for the communes surrounding Brussels, with a big number of French-speaking Belgian ‘migrants’, which causes a lot of problems in society as well as in church.

- the South vicariate: French-speaking, also called Brabant Wallon. Also a homogeneous region, but with a crowd of foreign people who are not migrant workers but people from a higher social level.

- the Brussels vicariate: a mix of French, Dutch and so many other languages.

I compare the Brussels church with a sandwich: on top Flemish community, on the bottom French community, and the filling: all the foreign communities: salad, tomatoes, gherkins, cheese and other kind of food…


All together, there are thirty-five recognized communities. Recognized means ‘with a pastoral guidance appointed by the local bishop’. As a principle, all Christian life in a territory is under the responsibility of the local bishop. For example, this community is part of the Archdiocese, and following the guidelines of Cura Migratorum, a document of the Holy See from 1969, the cardinal has to look over his pastoral care. But, according to this document, agreements are to be made between one or several dioceses, even a whole bishop conference of the country of origin and the church which receives. If its is possible, those dioceses send a priest who is appointed by our bishop, on the same level as local priests, which means he is paid by the Belgian government with the salary of all parish priests.

The system as such already gives a large possibility for sharing. There is a serious identity guarantee for the community, and at the same time a link to a certain integration within the local church.


I would like to give a short overview of the communities present in Brussels.


·                     From European countries:

-          East and Middle Europe: small communities such as Hungarians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Rumanians, Croatians, Albanians, Slovenians. Prior immigration and also recent. But also very big communities: 2 Polish parishes with thousands of people on Sunday masses!

-          Mediterranean area: 35.000 Italians, 30.000 Spaniards, both older immigration, today on the third generation; 20.000 Portuguese, more recent.


·                     From Asia:

-          Middle East: the communities coming from there do not belong to the Latin rite, but are united with Rome: Maronites, mostly Lebanese from the period of civil war. Melkites, mostly Syrians. Chaldeans, refugees from the mountains in South-East Turkey. Two complete villages moved to Brussels.

A big effort has to be made in order to preserve their own rite because it is, more than for other migrants, a real identity factor.

-          Far East: in Belgium, especially in Brussels, like in all big cities over the world, there is an important immigration of Filipinos, mostly undocumented house workers. In the Brussels area, their number has increased to six thousand, in five to ten years.

The number of Catholic Vietnamese in Brussels is about two thousand. They are mostly boatpeople whose number was increased by family unification after the war.  


·                     From Africa:

-          The presence of Black Africa is considerable in Brussels, certainly due to the Belgian colonial past: at least 15.000 Congolese people and 5.000 Rwandese. In those communities, you really find the poorest. What happens today is tragic: the undeclared work they could do before is now taken over by many undocumented people from East Europe who are disposed to do this work on an even lower salary. The so famous African life optimism became in many cases a tragic discouragement. Suicide,  which is normally inconceivable in African culture, happens many times. In the area around Porte de Namur, also called ‘Matonge’, gangs of young African criminals – people without any perspective for the future – operate daily.

(Lower class areas which were inhabited by Spaniards first, afterwards by Moroccans connected with degradation, are now inhabited by Rwandese people. Life conditions are very tragic.)

In spite of this situation, the vitality of Faith with its enthusiastic expression often gives a real stimulus to our old European Christianity!

-          Four years ago, an English-speaking African community started very discretely. It is composed mostly by Nigerians, Ghanese and Camerunese people, in the area around Gare du Midi. This community is growing in number and vitality.


·                     From America:

Over the last decade, thousands of people have come from South America, Colombia in the beginning, Ecuador over the last years. Our option was to join them to the five Spanish-speaking communities in Brussels. These people are mostly undocumented and have a lot of social needs. Lately, an exclusively Latino-American community has been   building up and growing every Sunday!


·                     A completely different type of ‘migration’: industrials, functionaries, lobby people, business people…

-          There is a very old German-speaking community in Brussels, since the 19th century.

-          Five different English-speaking communities (I am only talking about Catholic communities): Our Lady of Mercy (Uccle), Saint Anthony’s Parish (Kraainem), Saint Joseph’s Community (Brussels), Saint Nicolas (Brussels) and Sacré-Coeur (Brussels).

-          The Catholic European Foyer takes care of the pastoral work among functionaries of different European countries.


It is not possible to count the number of potential members in all foreign communities, but it certainly is about two hundred thousand people.


What does the Church mean by ‘pastoral work among migrants’?


We have to distinguish two fundamentally different situations. On the one hand, the situation of migrant workers who intend to settle in the new country, and on the other hand, migrants –in the most general sense of the word – who intend to stay for a while and go back to their own country or another one. I guess this is the situation of your parish. It’s also the reason why I call it a parish, for others in general I use the word ‘community’.


The temporary migrants need a specific pastoral care in an autonomous community, even when contacts with the local church are suitable: it’s a richness for all to share Faith and Faith Life. Contacts are also necessary. As I said before, the local bishop is responsible for Christian Life on his territory. He is also the one who appoints the parish priest and forges a bond of brotherhood with him, without being personally responsible for him. The parish priest is not what is called in terms of cannon law incardinated in this diocese but in his own. Fortunately, the relationship between the priest here and me, as the delegate of the cardinal, was always excellent!


And what kind of pastoral care is our church providing for migrant workers who intend to settle here?

The church does not intend to assimilate them completely within the local church, and make them give up their culture and ways of religious expression. This assimilation is typical for France and French speaking countries. It’s certainly not our objective.  

Integration into this church, but by way of respect for their own identity, by giving the migrant the possibility to integrate, at his own rhythm, aspects of the local church life.

In this concept, the local people and the immigrants are partners facing the same challenge. Of course, the native community has its history, its culture and it cannot leave those values. But Christian spirituality obliges us to welcome the foreigner as a brother and a partner. Together, we have to build a common church project and seek ways to realize it. This needs real reciprocity! To the migrant you have to say: ‘the more you are integrating the culture of the host country, the more you can mingle it with yours’. To the natives, you have to say: ‘the more the migrant feels respected in his culture, the more he will open up to the culture of the host country’!  The point is to accept that integration is a challenge and a mission for both.

This integration supposes participation in the decision-making structures: parish council, liturgical, spiritual, social work groups, economic committees… An impossible challenge for the first generations of migrants! Therefore, it’s necessary to build our own communities exactly like those meant for temporary migrants.

As experience shows, (the) foreign communities have a long life, till the third, or even fourth generation!

Is it a sign that the integration process failed? Not necessarily. For many reasons, the immigrant can keep on living in his ethnic community. (For example, the immigrant shares the infrastructure of the church with the local people. But this church may not be very lively. Therefore, maybe he should not go to that church, for that would be a loss. Maybe that’s the reason why local parishioners have left and gone to another neighbouring parish. Why force the immigrant to integrate?)

Exactly like every human being, the immigrant is the subject of his own history, not the object. He has to make a decision, and the church has to hear him, and only help him make a correct evaluation.

Of course, a ghetto is absolutely to be avoided. And there is a real danger for many reasons.

The first and most important: priests are sent by the diocese of the country of origin. Coming from their own pastoral surroundings, they enter in a community of compatriots, indeed, but these are migrants who have been living for a long time in another social and cultural context. They arrive like missionaries, in the colonialist sense of the word, into a completely different reality. It’s typical that some countries still call their migrant community ‘mission’.

The National Commission for Pastoral care among migrants wrote a statute which intends to become bilateral when priests or other pastoral workers are asked in foreign countries. It is seen as a normal requirement that they are able to speak one of our national languages before coming to Belgium, with option to perfect once in Belgium. An initiation course in the Belgian social, cultural and ecclesiastical situation is to be followed during the time of practical training. Sessions on that level are being organized. The pastoral worker can practice his full responsibility, but after one year his involvement will be evaluated.


Dream with wisdom, hope with reservation


Living together with many cultures is an irreversible fact in Brussels. In that sense, the church is also multicultural. But what it dreams is to become one unique pluricultural reality by organizing intercultural initiatives and actions. It needs a real partnership.  Foreign communities can only become real partners when they can go towards the others, with open arms and head upright, which means if they are recognized in their own identity, which gives them the possibility to an open meeting without any complexes.

It means having their own consultation structures: a vicarial team, meetings for all appointed pastoral workers on the following themes: spiritual issues, training courses and recreation, several times a year. And having outside initiatives: international cribs exhibition and choirs festival during Christmastime at the cathedral.

But it also requires building bridges between the foreign communities and the local church! On the very local level with the parish or deanery: common celebrations for Christmas, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Pentecost… In some parishes, there is also a participation in parish feasts or excursions… Participation in the financial structures of parishes is exceptional.

We have a dream: the Brussels Church as a rainbow church. And we are already dreaming together. A project has started, based on a unique vision of the church. Since 1969, three pastoral networks have been co-existing: the French and Flemish communities, and the foreign community. Each of them has a very clear autonomy. It should go on that way, for this is a real need. But we noticed that autonomy led to a quasi separation. It was also reflected in the old management structure: each network had its own general vicar or episcopal vicar, all three had the same level of responsibility. Indeed, there was a single, common, decision-making structure, i.e. the ‘bureau vicarial’ (the vicarial office), but nobody was the spokesperson of the whole Church of Brussels. In some ways, we became foreigners for each other, certainly on the basic level of parishes and deaneries! That’s the result of too much autonomy! We apologised last year by having one general vicar, auxiliary bishop who can speak for the whole Brussels church, assisted by three vice-general vicars. Our first dream became true by the nomination, a month ago, of Monsignor De Kesel.

(Our second dream - the most important! – was to build bridges between the autonomous communities. Therefore a team of six people – two from each network – started the study of a common project for a Brussels rainbow church.

The Belgian bishops have written a programme for the next three years:

* the year of diacony, which means all kind of services in the church, starting next September,

* the year of proclamation of the Gospel, which means all forms of catechese, to begin in September 2003,

* and the year of celebration and worship, to begin in September 2004.

It’s a chance for us to start the rainbow project in the year of diacony, there is an openness of the church to all actual realities, among them multiculturality.)


A multicultural church and a church for a multi-religious society


All preceding issues concern the multicultural composition of the church. But there is more multicultural challenge in Brussels!

Our times are times of ‘People on the move’ (it’s the name of the bulletin of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerants). In that multitude, many are not Catholics or Christians! The Brussels church has to face the interreligious dialogue. It happens in several ways.

Structures and centres were founded and became active meeting places, mostly for the relationship between Muslims and Christians, but also for meetings with Eastern religious. Conferences, help by educational programs in schools and groups, library, meetings, help by Islamic-Christian marriages…

Last year, we organized for the first time the ‘Interfaith Pilgrimage’, an idea which has been developed in London for many years. The initiative is led by an interreligious team: Protestants, Muslims, Jewish, Catholics, Buddhists.   Interreligiously composed groups walked (half a day) through an area of the city where different religious centres were visited. In each place, members of the specific community welcomed the group and gave a short explanation. It was very successful and we decided to repeat it every year.

On January 24th, the day John Paul II invited all religious leaders of the world in Assisi, we organized a similar meeting on the ‘Place de la Monnaie’, in the heart of Brussels: ‘Religions for peace’. The national leaders of all religions were present. As a result of that meeting, other contacts are being taken, for instance a declaration of peace in the Israel and Palestinian crisis!

There is so much more to say about all the interreligious activities within the Brussels Catholic church, or in partnership with other religions. But this is not the main goal of my speech today.

If there are questions about this matter, we can treat them during the sharing time.




It would be inaccurate if I ended my speech with the word ‘conclusion’!

With sincere hope I would like to say: may all that becomes Life and gives Life go on! The most important thing in the Church is not what exists, but what sets things in motion. The multicultural composition of the Brussels church can stimulate us for the renovation of the old Western church. Especially the foreign communities practising the same Faith and church belonging, but in a big diversity, are a challenge for the local hierarchy and all people who take a responsibility in church. They are quite normally forced to discharge their first mission: to discover what is going on in the community, then together make the discernment of what really comes from God’s Spirit, then confirm it with a spiritual but also manual applause, and finally grow in the direction of God’s unique Kingdom in an incredibly great diversity!

The Church of Brussels, even poor in manpower and in means, is a fascinating church. Taking the foreigner into account is a normal attitude. Is it not one of the most important themes in the Bible? Is it not in the heart of the Gospel? Doing so, the church can really become the realization of the city which John describes in the Book of Revelation: ‘the gates of the city will stand open all day; they will never be closed, because there will be no night there’. This image is connected with my greatest joy: this is exactly the idea used by our new general vicar in his Episcopal coat of arms. I seized the opportunity to say to him: make sure the artist paints the gates open!

Canon Lode Vermeir - Assistant of the bishop for Brussels