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A Popular Temperament

Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels is in a moderate minority favoring less concentration of power in the Vatican. But his upbeat attitude attracts conservatives too.


MECHELEN, Belgium — When Cardinal Godfried Danneels has had a rough day, his eminence repairs to his apartment, turns on the stereo and puts on a CD of Dixieland jazz.

In the bouncy, raucous tunes of old New Orleans, he finds constant, reinvigorating proof that "there are some people who are really enjoying themselves."

Danneels, Belgium's leading Roman Catholic cleric and archbishop of its largest diocese, is an eminent theologian and a visible, effective and beloved pastor. Catholics who speak of a progressive candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II often mention this son of a Belgian elementary school teacher, who at age 7 felt the first stirrings of the calling to become a priest.

As a youngster, he recalls, two things drew him to religion: the beauty of the liturgy as he saw a priest officiate at the altar, and the feeling of satisfaction he got when he took bread and sandwiches to a needy family in his village.

The archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels speaks six languages fluently, including English, and he is 67--an age many Vatican handicappers believe about right for the next pope: young enough to assume the reins of the church, but old enough to guarantee a shorter pontificate than John Paul's.

"Clearly he is one of the cardinals that the other cardinals will be looking at," said Father Tom Reese, editor of America, a leading Jesuit magazine. "The other cardinals know who he is, academic theologians know who he is, and certainly they would have a great amount of respect for him as a bishop and a scholar."

In a College of Cardinals dominated by doctrinal conservatives, Danneels is part of a small but articulate group of moderate-to-progressive clerics, along with Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, Carlo Maria Martini of Italy and Roger Etchegaray of France. They favor reform in the direction of shared decision-making in the church, as opposed to a heavy concentration of power in the Vatican.

But the Belgian's hopeful temperament makes him popular with conservative Catholics as well and is perhaps most crucial in establishing him as one of the papabili, or top-rated candidates to become the next pope.

At a synod of European bishops in October 1999 at the Vatican, an optimistic Danneels impressed his peers by arguing that, instead of condemning hedonism, the church should recall that Jesus Christ came to bring fullness of life.

Even in today's multiple challenges to the church--the declining number of men who want to be priests, dwindling attendance at Mass, increasing secularization of Western society--there are hidden benefits, he believes.

"I think that every problem in the church obliges us to put the right questions, and then to clarify the solutions," Danneels said in an interview in this picturesque market town north of Brussels, site of his see. "It helps us, by suffering."

It is this upbeat faith, undaunted by adversity, that is cited as Danneels' most alluring trait by some who know him. "People are looking for what he provides: spiritual leadership," said Doris K. Donnelly, professor of theology at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio. "It draws people like a magnet."

An average of three times a year, Belgium's prelate attends conferences sponsored by a transatlantic program, which Donnelly directs, on continuing the reform agenda launched at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

"He is able to galvanize people," the American professor said. "He's at home with the king [Belgium's Albert II] and with the peasants."

In increasingly multicultural Belgium, now home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants from North Africa, Turkey and other countries, Danneels is also conscious of the needs of non-Catholics. In his New Year's homily, he called on Christians to do more for the newcomers.

The archbishop hardly minimized the difficulties confronting the church, and Christianity in general, in many Western nations. He reminisced, for example, about growing up as the eldest of six children in the Flemish hamlet of Kanegam, where only one of the 900 people in the parish didn't attend Sunday services.

"In a few years, 20 or 30 years maximum, we have passed from a totally Christian society, public Catholicism, to a kind of minority, a diaspora situation," he said. Europe now requires missionaries as much as Africa, he said. "In Africa, the problem is that they have too many gods. We have nothing, not one."

To revive the faith in his bishopric of 2.4 million people, of whom about half are believed to be Catholic to some degree, Danneels has begun evening catechism classes. He has also collaborated on a book, which has become a Belgian bestseller, on religion's interaction with politics, economics, science, culture and philosophy.

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