VATICAN CITY, MAY 9, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI expressed his gratitude for the dedication of the vast majority of priests, despite the sins of a few, when receiving the bishops of Belgium on their five-yearly "ad limina" visit.
At the same time, the Pope encouraged the members of the episcopal conference to promote vocations to the priesthood and to consecrated life, amid the difficulties that the Church has gone through in this country in the past weeks.
Last month, Bishop Roger Joseph Vangheluwe of Bruges resigned after admitting to sexually abusing a minor over a period of time during his priesthood and at the beginning of his episcopate.
For the Holy Father, the visit of the Belgian prelates (both Flemish as well as French-speaking) to Rome is an occasion to reinforce "communion in mutual listening, in common prayer and in the charity of Christ above all in this time in which your Church has been tested by sin."
However, the Bishop of Rome asked that the focus not be only on sin but also on the great sons of the Church, as is the case of Father Damien De Veuster (1840-1889), a Belgian missionary of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart.
Father Damien, also known as the apostle of the lepers, went to the island of Molokai, Hawaii, where lepers were sent and lived in isolation. He was canonized by Benedict XVI in 2009.
"This new saint speaks to Belgians' conscience. Has he not been designated the most illustrious son of the nation of all times?" asked the Pope, referring to a popular consultation carried out on Dec. 1, 2005 by Flemish open television (VRT).
"His greatness," the Pontiff continued, "lived in the total gift of himself to his leprous brothers to the point of being infected and dying, lies in his interior wealth, his constant prayer, his union with Christ, whom he saw in his brothers and who, like him, gave himself without reservations."
"In this Year for Priests, it is necessary to propose his priestly and missionary example, in particular to priests and religious. The decrease in the number of priests must not be perceived as an inevitable process," the Holy Father stressed.
Benedict XVI said forcefully "that the Church cannot do without the ministry of priests. Hence, it is necessary and urgent to give them their appropriate place and to acknowledge their irreplaceable sacramental character."
"From this stems the need for an ample and serious pastoral care of vocations, based on the exemplary character of the holiness of priests, in attention to the seeds of vocation present in many young men and in assiduous and confident prayer, in keeping with Jesus' recommendation (cf. Matthew 9:37)," he added.
"May all priests, men and women religious, and laity of Belgium receive my encouragement and gratitude and not forget that only Christ calms every storm and gives strength and courage to lead a holy life in full fidelity to their ministry, to their consecration to God and to their Christian witness," said the Pontiff.
During the audience, Benedict XVI was greeted by Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of Malines-Brussels and president of the Belgian episcopal conference, who presented to the Holy Father a "grieving" Church, "after the serious scandal caused by the forced resignation of one of her bishops."
"Grieving, but determined to address this problem with clarity," the prelate added in reference to the sexual abuse crisis. "A Church determined to continue on her path with transparency, as attested above all by the creation of a commission in charge of examining the denunciations in the matter of sexual abuse that take place in the pastoral context. Determined also to carry out with humility and courage her role in the intensely secularized society in which she carries out her mission."
Archbishop Léonard also mentioned the lack of vocations the Church in Belgium is experiencing: "For the next period we will adopt a series of measure capable of reinforcing the places of formation, in order to re-group a sufficient number of seminarians, so that they are given quality education and project themselves in the world of young people."
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