Letter from Rome

Godfried Danneels: Intellectual, pastor and man of quiet hope
Letter from Rome

A file image of Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels at St. Peter's basilica on Nov. 20, 2010 at The Vatican. Cardinal Danneels died on March 14. He was 85 years of age. (Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP)

Robert Mickens, Rome
March 18, 2019
"Something that could be the text to describe my life is from St. Francis of Assisi who said to his companions: 'You should never let anyone go away from you in sadness. Everything you say must be an encouragement.'"

Indeed, it was by these words that Cardinal Godfried Danneels strived to be a preacher of the Gospel and friend to all humanity. The cardinal died on March 14 at age 85 after several years of steadily declining health.

As a beloved and unifying figure in his native Belgium, and one of the longest-serving cardinals of the universal Church (outranked only by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray), Danneels was a source of encouragement for reform-minded Catholics and those who would describe themselves as theologically or culturally "progressive."

He was — for me, as well — a voice of reason, hope and patient engagement with the social realities of a rapidly changing and secularized world. Naturally, Catholic traditionalists, doctrinal hardliners and culture warriors saw him in starkly different terms.

They criticized Danneels — as they also complain about Pope Francis — as being weak and capitulating to the forces they see as corroding Catholic faith and morals and destroying the Western world. Danneels was only 44 when Paul VI plucked him from academia and appointed him Bishop of Antwerp in 1977. But he served the greater part of his episcopal ministry under the pontificates of John Paul II (who sent him to Brussels in 1979 and created him cardinal in 1983) and Benedict XVI.

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Though he was often at odds with the way these last two popes interpreted and sought to implement the teachings and vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Danneels remained fiercely loyal to the papacy.

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