It’s true that Belgium is known for its waffles – and I made sure to test that acclamation about three times a day – but my journey to the Flemish and French-speaking Kingdom was much more than a week of delighting in such sugary goodness.

I began my trip to Belgium directly after my time spent in Strasbourg.  I took a nice, long train-ride through the French and Belgian countryside and arrived in Brussels in the early afternoon on Thursday.  I must say, I enjoy every minute of a lengthy train-ride through the backroads of Europe.  In a way, the train ride itself is its own vacation – whether listening to music on my IPod or reading a good book, I’m constantly greeted by the beauty of the countryside.  One is bound to see an array of cows, sheep and other livestock grazing on the fields that make up the heartland of the Continent.  Cows and sheep always make a vacation worth while, right? 

After taking the Metro from the station and grabbing a quick bite to eat at the Dominican International Priory, I grabbed a bus to the center of town for my first meeting at the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences to the European Community (COMECE).  I had the opportunity to sit down with Monsignor Piotr Mazurkiewicz, General Secretary of COMECE and Chair of Social and Political Ethics at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw, Poland, who works directly with the European institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg.  Msgr. Piotr is an excellent example of Church-State relations and the interplay of faith in public life. 

Msgr. Piotr Mazurkiewicz, Secretary General of the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences to the European Community

Msgr. Piotr directly represents the Bishops of Europe, but he also works alongside political representatives in the European Parliament and Commission, whose day to day activities affect the EU as a whole, as well as the Member States individually.  Msgr. Piotr and I spoke about the Church’s role in public life and the joys and challenges of offering a religious perspective in a predominately secular milieu.  Msgr. Piotr reminded me that the Church is never a lobby-group.  First and foremost, the Church represents herself – not any ulterior material or political motives.  Msgr. Piotr’s job is not to delve explicitly into the political arena to the point of making the Church a political actor per se.  Rather, he works to share the Church’s moral and social teaching to the political community, insofar as legislation and acts of Parliament are in line with fundamental, and thus non-negotiable, human values.  At the end of the day, the Church’s role is to inform the consciences of people.  When a particular circumstance warrants a voice – and in the twenty first century, it often does – the Church is there to present clearly, and even sometimes forcibly, what remains good and just for a community like the European Union, founded on the principles of law, peace, and the common good.

Religious Leaders, including COMECE Bishops, meet with the President of the European Parliament and other EU officials

Msgr. Piotr also explained that he does not always have to present an explicitly Catholic, or even religious perspective to politicians in the EU to convince them that a certain legislative proposal is wrong.  He mentioned recent debates surrounding same-sex marriage in Europe, and whether or not multi-lateral legislation would foster a pan-European liberalization of marriage.  Msgr. Piotr encourages politicians that children have a natural right to call one parent “father” and another “mother,” and that same-sex marriages destroy society, regardless of religious bans outside of the secular sphere.  Natural law, then, provides one basis for dialoguing with a secular community on fundamental moral issues, without providing a religious justification as such.  All in all, it was a great conversation.  I’m thankful that Msgr. Piotr could meet with me given his busy schedule.

After my meeting with Msgr. Piotr, I headed back to the Priory for Mass and Dinner.  The Priory is unlike most Dominican priories:  rather than housing Dominicans from the Province (a given geographical area), this Priory is international, so Dominicans come from all over the world (as far away as South Africa) to minister in Brussels, which is becoming more and more of a global community due to the growth of the European institutions and recent migration.  I had a great evening with the Friars and attempted to greet some of them in French (although this was a failed attempt for the most part).  After dinner, Fr. Bob Eccles, OP, an English Dominican working as a prison chaplain in Brussels, took me on a guided evening tour of the city.  He also took me to this great pub in the city-center where they also have puppet shows.  Not only is Belgium known for its waffles and fries – it is also known for its speciality brewed beers, each of which has to be served in a particular glass (some looking like wine glasses) in pubs and restaurants.  It is really unique to the Belgian culture and highlights the dignity they afford to their cuisine.  Fr. Bob and I had a great chat and a nice end to the evening.

Brussels Town Hall

City Center at night

Puppets in the Pub

Freshly Brewed Belgian Beer

Leonidas chocolates

On Friday, I took it upon myself to explore a little around Brussels and get my hands on some fresh Belgian chocolate (which, for those of you who know me as a chocoholic, realize how important this is).  So far, Leonidas is my favorite.  I also saw more of the city center and the inside of the Cathedral of St. Michael. 

Cathedral of St. Michael

During the afternoon, I had a meeting with Fr. Frank Turner, SJ, Director of the Jesuit European Office (OCIPE).  I learned in my meeting that unlike Msgr. Piotr, Fr. Frank does not personally represent the official Church position on behalf of the Bishops.  Rather, Fr. Frank works with policy makers and officials at the EU-level to offer counsel and advice on pieces of legislation, as well as offer a sort of chaplaincy, so to speak, to the EU officials and their families.  According to its mission statement, “OCIPE seeks to accompany the construction of Europe  in serving its personnel in their professional and spiritual discernment, in sustaining critical reflection from the perspective of Christian faith on European values and responsibilities, and in promoting European solidarity internally and with the wider world.”  OCIPE works to foster the continued development of what they call the “European Consciousnes” as well as work for social justice and solidarity.  Fr. Turner tells me that recently the Jesuit office has been working on issues of migration and trans-national relations. 

Fr. Frank Turner, SJ at the European Parliament. Photo courtesy of jesuitvocations.org.uk

Although Fr. Frank offered a different perspective from Msgr. Piotr, the same message seemed to reverberate throughout our discussion:  the Church has a voice in the modern world—so long as it exists, it can never be usurped by any form of secularism—and as history shows, the Church always thrives in times of hardship or in times where membership is abysmally low.  Fr. Frank also keyed me in on the historical situation surrounding the relationship between Church and State in Europe and how modern secularism has played an intriguing role in the debate.  Unlike the pre-Westphalian political system, where the Church had a heighted temporal power in Europe, after the Reformation such a position could no longer stand.  Thus, secularism was envisioned not to discount the Church or ignore her teachings, but to allow for a free environment of discussion among the plurality of religious faiths of the time (most notably, between Protestants and Catholics).  According to Fr. Frank, secularity as a term is not the issue – this, in many ways, is the precondition for a democratic state.  In fact, it was the nineteenth century political philosopher and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, who saw that the Catholic Church especially thrived in the United States because of the freedom of religion which allowed the Church a lasting and equal voice in the public square.  Contemporary secularism, which is often aggressive, is indeed a problem.  What Pope Benedict XVI has called “aggressive secularism” is really the voice of a contingent that wishes to relegate religion to the private sphere in the name of a so-called pluralism, which, in retrospect, is nothing more than an aggravated form of dogmatism.  The Enlightenment claimed to rid society of religion altogether, prophesying about its eventual devise in the modern world.  Unfortunately for the Enlightenment philosophers, this never happened, and from an empirical point of view, this won’t happen anytime soon, for religion is on the rise in the world.  Even if Europe remains the so-called “secular exception,” compared to the more religious Americas and the East and global South, Fr. Turner assures me that Europe also is moving in the right direction.  For instance, in 2009, Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty was enacted, which gives Churches a legal right to dialogue within the EU institutions.  A great improvement for sure!

On Saturday, I took a day-trip to Leuven (or Louvain), about 20 minutes north of Brussels, to meet up with Fr. Christopher Mahar, currently the Vice Rector of the American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain.  Fr. Mahar is a priest of the Diocese of Providence back home, a graduate of Bishop Hendricken High School (my alma mater) and Providence College (my alma mater in one year), and will begin as Rector of Our Lady of Providence Seminary in the Fall.  In addition to being our new rector, Fr. Mahar will also finish his doctoral dissertation in the field of biomedical ethics and moral theology. 

Leuven was a great place, full of history and quintessential Belgian life.  Fr. Mahar took me to the University Library on the Ladeuzeplein, which was a gift from the American people to the Belgians after its destruction during World War I.  The library is a great testament to the University’s prestige, as well as to the relationship between the Untied States and Belgium.  As you can see from some of the pictures, many American organizations and universities donated to help re-construct the building.  Providence College was one of those universities!

University Library

PROVIDENCE. (Not sure if this refers to PC, but PC does have a block somewhere, so this could be it)

After the library visit, we took a tour of the city center.  We saw the grandiose Town Hall, which is a testament, interestingly, to the link between the sacred and the secular in the Middle Ages, as it was built to imitate a medieval reliquary (where a holy relic would be held), indicating that the temporal building of law and adjudication is a sacred place.  Fr. Mahar explained that many of the statues on the façade of the building represent God’s justice.  We also visited St. Peter’s Church, a large Gothic church in the center market square.  The Church was magnificent, as you can see below.

Leuven Town Hall to the left

Former Residence of Archbishop Fulton Sheen

Inside St. Peter's Church

Most Rev. Russell J. McVinney, Fifth Bishop of Providence

Fr. Mahar then took me to the Catholic University of Leven as well as to the American College, where he served as Vice-Rector for the past three years.  The Diocese of Providence has a special relationship with the American College, dating back to the mid-twentieth century when Fr. Francis Maloney, a Providence alumnus of the College, became Rector.  Bishop Russell McVinney, the fifth Bishop of Providence, was instrumental in the College’s reopening following the Second World War in the early 1950s.  There is a large picture and plaque in the College’s foyer to commemorate the generosity and leadership of Bishop McVinney.  Unfortunately, the College will close its doors this month, but it was a great opportunity to visit a seminary which has educated many priests in Providence, including my pastor at home, Fr. Richard Friedrichs. 

After we toured the American College, Fr. Mahar took me to this great restaurant called the Domus near the city-center.  The restaurant brews its own beer, which filters from the brewery through a pipe to the bar in the restaurant.  I had roasted chicken and mushrooms with a side of famous Flemish frites.  The meal was delicious to say the least.

Chicken and frites at the Domus

After the meal, we took an afternoon walk through more of the city, visiting the shopping center, sports center, and university parks.  I also had what will go down in history as the BEST waffle ever.  I could never explain over a blogpost the luxury I received in tasting this most glorious, sugary, soft and gooey piece of paradise, but I will tell you that it far surpasses any “Belgian waffle” back home.  Sugar is actually baked into the dough of the waffle, which is softer than back home, and when they are warm, the sugar practically melts outside the dough.  This waffle is traditionally called the Liege waffle (or Suikerwaffle), distinct from the Brussels waffle, which is a little firmer in texture and less sweet. 
 

The one and only

After eating our glorious waffles, Fr. Mahar and I visited the tomb of St. Damien of Molokai, who spent the majority of his life ministering to the lepers in Hawaii in the late 1800s.  The church and tomb were testaments to St. Damien’s life of service to some of the most vulnerable members of society.  This man’s life was extraordinary, and bears reading more into. 

Tomb of St. Damien of Molokai

We then visited the Grand Beguinage, founded in the 13th century to house religious lay women who did not enter religious orders, but lived in community outside of the hustle and bustle of everyday life in the city.  Many beguniages in Flanders have been listed as world heritage sights by the United Nations.      

Grand Beguinage

Many thanks to Fr. Mahar for showing me around Leuven.  We had a great day, and I was able to see a handful of interesting sights throughout the city.  After I said my final goodbyes to Father at the American College, I made sure to get another waffle and then headed back to Brussels by train.

My journeys around Belgium did not end with Leuven.  I took a personal “adventure” to the famous Belgian city of Bruges on Sunday, which is known for the up-keep of its medieval atmosphere and for the canals which run through town.  It is often called the “Venice of the North” due to all the waterways surrounding it.  This was a great day to walk around and enjoy every bit of Flemish architecture, culture, and food that I could.

I began the day with Pentecost Mass at the Basilica of the Holy Blood in the center of Bruges.  The basilica was built in the 12th century as the chapel for the personal residence of the Count of Flanders.  The church contains a venerated relic of the Holy Blood collected by Joseph of Arimathea and brought from the Holy Land to Bruges by Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders.  The church was built between 1134 and 1157 and eventually became a minor basilica, through appointment by Rome, in 1923.  Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (who would later become Pope John Paul II) processed with the relic of the Precious Blood throughout Bruges in their annual procession on a visit to Belgium. 

Shrine of the Relic of the Holy Blood

Basilica of the Holy Blood

Karol Cardinal Wojtyla in Bruges (future Bl. Pope John Paul II)

After Mass at the Basilica, I roamed around Bruges, looking for chocolate, more waffles, and the famous frites.  I saw some great sights along the way.  As you can tell from the pictures, Bruges still feels like a quintessentially medieval town.  Whether taking a canal ride or hopping onto a horse-drawn carriage, you’re constantly greeted by the medieval architecture and narrow passageways that make Bruges so distinct and a favorite visiting spot for many tourists.  After visiting the famous Beginauge of Bruges, I snuck into a little café and had a traditional Belgian meal – mussels and frites, along with beer-braised beef and a vanilla ice cream. 

Bruges City CenterCanal and bridge

Canal and bridge

(At this point, I had hoped to provide you with an array of photos from Bruges and Antwerp.  Unfortunately, WordPress is giving me a handful of difficulties in terms of uploading photos, so I’ll try and post them at some point soon).

After Bruges, I made my way back to Brussels to check in with the friars again.  I had a nice conversation with Fr. Alain, chaplain to the artists in Brussels, and Fr. Mark, who is the Bishops Secretary on Migration in Brussels.  Fr. Mark told me that the recent influx of migrants in Brussels is beginning to have a big impact on the predominately secular culture, since many immigrants come from religious backgrounds.  The Dominican Fathers were great to talk to, as always.  We also talked about some of the Dominicans the Fathers knew back home in Providence.  There are connections everywhere!

On Tuesday I met up with Dr. Richard Steenvoorde in Antwerp (the home of famous artist Peter Paul Rubens).  Richard is currently a Fellow at the Las Casas Institute here at Blackfriars Hall and is currently the legal adviser to the Bishops of Holland.  Richard wrote his dissertation (which, to my surprise, he gave to me) on economics in international law.  We had some very interesting discussions on secular trends in Europe and spoke about the differences between American and European jurisprudence.  We also spoke about the Church’s role in the modern world, and how the Church can attract youth movements.  Richard is another great example of how law and politics can work in harmony with religious principles; the two do not have to be completely separated. 

Richard took me to a little café in the city center and then we toured the Cathedral, where the works of Peter Paul Rubens are currently on display.

After Antwerp, I headed back to Brussels to buy a few more waffles, chocolate, and frites, and tour a little more of the City.  I also took a run in the park and met up with Fr. Bob for a final drink and goodbye-meal.  I am immensely grateful to the Dominicans for letting me stay in their Priory and for the great opportunities I had while in Belgium.  It was an experience which will very much affect the focus of my study, helping to bring real-life encounters to the more abstract concepts I’ve been attempting to come to terms with during my tutorials. 

***

Soon I’ll be updating about more events going around here at Oxford and some of the fun we’ve been having exploring the City – punting for the second time, exploring the covered market, and going to a final lecture or two.  I’ll also update you on my final tutorial meeting with Kieran and a Conference I’ll be attending on Poverty and Asylumn Seekers in Birmingham.  I’ll also be picking up my pal Robert Bucci (Iona College ’12) from the bus station, who is visiting Michael and I in Oxford from his study-abroad program in Rome.

As always, stay tuned.