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Cardinal Danneels dies aged 85

Cardinal Godfried Danneels, at the 2015 family synod (CNS)

For decades, he was one of the dominant figures in European Catholicism

Cardinal Godfried Danneels, for years one of the dominant figures in European Catholicism, has died aged 85.

A statement on the website of the Belgian Church said: “Cardinal Jozef De Kesel, archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and chairman of the Belgian bishops’ conference, has the sad duty to inform you that Cardinal Godfried Danneels, emeritus archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, died this morning, Thursday March 14 2019, in his hometown in Mechelen.”

Pope Francis expressed his “deepest condolences”, describing Danneels as a “zealous pastor” who “served the Church with dedication”.

Cardinal De Kesel, who will officiate at the funeral in St Rombouts Cathedral, Mechelen, said the Belgian Church was “very grateful” for Cardinal Danneels’s service.

Danneels rose quickly through the Church hierarchy, becoming a bishop in 1977 aged 44 and a cardinal six years later. As the most senior Catholic prelate in Belgium, Danneels had to respond to the country’s rapid secularisation. He was particularly alarmed by the rise of euthanasia, which he said suggested a “cancerous growth” of post-Christian consciousness. On the other hand, he approved of legal same-sex unions, as long as they were not defined as marriage.

A prominent figure in Belgian public life, he was voted one of the 100 greatest Belgians of all time by viewers of a French-speaking TV show.

However, Danneels’s later years were also marked by the abuse crisis. He was secretly recorded telling a man who had been abused by his uncle, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, that it would be better to remain silent until the bishop had retired.

A champion of liberal Catholicism, Danneels was a prominent member of the “St Gallen Group” of churchmen, who reportedly campaigned for Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to become Pope at the 2005 conclave. After Pope Francis’s election in 2013, Cardinal Danneels appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica at Francis’s first appearance after the conclave. According to Danneels’s biographer, he called the election of Francis “a personal Resurrection experience”. The Pope invited him to participate in the 2014-15 family synods.

The theologian Roger Mettepenningen described him today as “a monument in the history of the Belgian Church”.