Sunday Mass attendance in Belgium rose modestly in 2022 after the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, but attendance remains 40% down from 2017, according to new figures released Wednesday.
The Church’s latest annual report, issued Nov. 15, said that Sunday Mass attendance was 6,183 higher than in 2021, when 166,785 people attended on an average Sunday amid measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
But the Church’s official website noted that Sunday Mass attendance had fallen from 286,393 in 2017 to 172,968 in 2022 — a loss of more than 113,000 Mass-goers in the six-year period.
The “Catholic Church in Belgium 2023” report said that 50% of Belgium’s roughly 12 million population identified as Catholic in 2022 — down from 53% in 2017 — with 8.9% attending Mass at least once a month.
The years 2017 to 2022 saw a deep erosion in the number of baptisms (-15%), confirmations (-21%), Catholic marriages (-12%), diocesan priests (-33%), religious priests (-22%), permanent deacons (-5%), and parishes (-6%).
But the Church stressed that several of the 2022 figures were higher than in 2021.
Baptisms rose from 36,834 in 2021 to 43,327 in 2022 (+18%), while marriages soared from 4,032 to 6,947 (+72%). The number of adult baptisms also increased, from 162 in 2021 to 225 in 2022 (+39%).
Belgium is a country roughly the size of the U.S. state of Maryland, bordered by the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, and France.
The country also saw a resurgence in pilgrimages last year.
Belgium’s four big Marian shrines — Banneux, Beauraing, Oostakker, and Scherpenheuvel — received a total of 1.27 million visitors in 2022. Banneux welcomed 220,000 pilgrims, Beauraing 200,000, Oostakker 250,000, and Scherpenheuvel 600,000.
Meanwhile, the number of “debaptism” requests fell sharply in 2022 after a spike the previous year. There were 5,237 in 2021 and 1,270 in 2022 (-75%).
When a Catholic asks to be “debaptized” in Belgium, the request is noted in the margin of the Church’s baptismal register, but the baptismal entry is not deleted.
The Catholic Church teaches that “baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark of his belonging to Christ.” While a person can lapse in the practice of the faith, or even renounce it altogether, it is impossible to reverse the effects of baptism.
The new figures do not show the impact of the documentary series “Godforsaken,” which caused an outcry when it was aired in Belgium in September this year.
The series, which highlighted clerical abuse and cover-ups, triggered a parliamentary inquiry and reportedly prompted a surge in Catholics leaving the Church.
In an introduction to the new report, Belgian bishops’ conference president Archbishop Luc Terlinden said: “The only appropriate phrase is: zero tolerance. It is more important than ever to pursue the path of recognition and reparation successfully initiated by the 2010 parliamentary commission. Only the truth sets us free.”
Terlinden, who was named the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels in June, was referring to a parliamentary committee established in October 2010, following the resignation of Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe after he admitted to abusing a nephew.
Vangheluwe, who is now 87, remains a bishop despite requests from other Belgian prelates to give up his episcopal title.
The Church said that its contact points had received 47 reports of abuse between July 2022 and June 2023.
Seven cases were referred to the justice system because the statute of limitations for the incidents was unclear or an alleged abuser could pose a risk.
Twenty-three people received financial compensation.
The new report also noted that in September 2022, the bishops of Belgium’s Flanders region established a “homosexuality and faith” contact point.
“In this way, the Flemish bishops wish to give a concrete response to the desire to give explicit attention to the situation of homosexual persons, their parents, and their families in the operation of the Church,” the report said.
The initiative was launched with a three-page document outlining the new pastoral approach, which included a text allowing for a ritual blessing of same-sex couples.
The bishops of Flanders discussed the document with members of the Roman Curia and the pope during their November 2022 ad limina visit, but the Vatican has made no public comment on the Belgian text.
Answering dubia, or doubts, posed by five cardinals in July, Pope Francis said that “pastoral prudence must … properly discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more people, that do not convey a misconception of marriage.”
The new figures show that the number of diocesan priests in Belgium fell from 2,774 in 2017 to 1,859 in 2022 — meaning that the country has 915 (a third) fewer priests.
The number of religious priests also dropped in the same period, from 2,205 to 1,723 (-22%).
The number of parishes has fallen from 3,846 to 3,613.
All eight Belgian dioceses are currently grouping parishes into larger pastoral units.
In 2022, 22 churches were decommissioned and three given to other Christian communions.
Belgium’s federal authorities pay the salaries of people designated as “ministers of religion” — an arrangement that could be revised in the wake of the documentary “Godforsaken.”
In the Catholic Church, the payments cover the salaries not only of priests and deacons but also lay people nominated by bishops.
The Belgian Church has 2,277 “ministers of religion,” including 509 women and 486 people from outside Belgium.
There are 162 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has historic ties to the country, 42 from France, and 22 from Poland.