Lode Van Hecke (70) has been bishop of Ghent for more than six months. He started his office in full corona lockdown, but as a monk and former abbot of Orval, he says he is used to ‘staying in his room’. Just because he spent much of his life inside monastery walls doesn't mean he remains blind to what lives outside. ‘The death of George Floyd moved me enormously. As a person and as a believer. A Christian cannot be racist.’
Mid-November, 2019, and the silence in Orval Abbey is broken by telephone ringing. Abbot Lode Van Hecke takes the call and is told that he is expected by the papal nuncio. He asks him if he wants to become the new bishop of Ghent. At that time, Van Hecke had been a monk for forty-five years and always lived far from the spotlight. He has his doubts, but says yes anyway. Yet that decision is difficult for him.
‘A monastic community is like a family,’ says Lode Van Hecke. ‘We make a vow of stability, which means that you stay true to your community and don't just leave it. I have always felt good in Orval, and thought I would stay there forever. But I have also always said that I would listen if the Pope called me. It was clear in my conscience that I had to say "yes", but the rest of my body and soul was opposed. It was a hard blow for the brothers, but they supported me in my decision from the start. That helped.’
Van Hecke may hold a high position as bishop, but he remains first and foremost a monk. In front of us is a cheerful, soberly dressed man whom we do not have to address as ‘Monsignor’. ‘I've been detached from luxury for three quarters of my life,’ he laughs. ‘You think I'm going to start with ecclesiastical “sophisitication” for myself? I prefer to keep it as simple as possible. If something goes in the direction of simplicity, it is a lot closer to the gospel than the other way around.’
Searching for meaning in the coronavirus
Van Hecke was ordained bishop at the end of February. Before he could properly start his new task, the corona crisis threw a spanner in the works. How did he experience those first months? ‘Unfortunately I was able to do less than I wanted. Ghent has ten deaneries, and I had planned to visit such a deanery every week and find out what exactly goes on around here. I had to postpone that a bit, as I did with the implementation of my program. At the same time, I was able to discover Ghent in a calm way, and talked and met people from different organisations – mainly online, of course. It was therefore not wasted time.’
‘We have a lot of challenges around poverty, globalization and ecology,’ he says. ‘I also want to pay special attention to the needs of young people. The church needs renewal, and for that you have to be able to appeal to the youth. It is a myth that young people are no longer open to Christianity, even if it is different than before. This generation no longer has to fight against an institution it wants to get rid of. They also don’t have any nostalgia. I have seen the church deteriorate rapidly, but these young people were born into a world where churches are empty or former Catholic institutions are no longer Catholic. That’s not their problem. The fact that they no longer have a connection with that past makes them free for more interesting things.’
‘Many young people struggle with the big questions of life. Perhaps Christianity can provide answers. And in the times of corona you see that people are looking for meaning. Unfortunately, this often happens after they have been confronted with personal tragedies. They recognise that an existence in the pursuit of money and career is fleeting and vulnerable, that there is more than that. "We finally know who our neighbors are," I hear. "Finally we’re together with our family." Does that bring people closer to God? For some, yes. Others will quickly revert to old habits or return to the issues of the day. Work is an easy escape from the big questions. But if you remain spiritually and intellectually lazy, I think you will miss out on life.’
Ghent is a multicultural city. Van Hecke therefore wants to enter into dialogue with other religions. ‘I asked someone from the diocese to be more explicit about ecumenism – the mutual understanding between different Christian churches,’ he says. ‘But of course we have to take a broader view. In this vein I appointed someone for dialogue with Islam and other non-Christian religions. That is essential. We live in an exciting pluralistic society, but it is only exciting when we take the time to get to know the other in a way where both parties can be themselves.’
‘On the initiative of the Muslim community and with the help of the city of Ghent, we recently held a collective prayer for corona victims,’ says Van Hecke. ‘Representatives of ten religions and philosophies of life came together at the Stadshal. A very nice moment. What struck me was the pleasure people got from meeting each other. There was no competition, let alone any sense that we felt like "enemies". In a city like Ghent, that's possible, and I think it’s a nice signal to society.’
We live in an exciting pluralistic society, but it is only exciting when we take the time to get to know the other in a way where both parties can be themselves.
Van Hecke has an eye for what is going on in that society. One day before the funeral of George Floyd [the African-American man who was killed by extreme police violence], he brought people together in the Ghent Rainbow Church and spoke out against racism and exclusion. ‘Not only was I shocked by the pictures, his death points to a broad social problem. It is by no means just about George Floyd the person. He is a symbol of all victims of structural racism. Especially because of the horrible way he died. Choking someone also has a symbolic meaning – it is evil. Racism is also a spiritual problem. A true Christian cannot be racist.’
Twice a student
When did he realise that he wanted to become a Christian and later a spiritual person? ‘Certainly not during high school, because then I lost my faith,’ he says. ‘I thought God was a myth. In my last year of high school I challenged God. I said, “If you exist, show who you are. I will read the Bible, which is said to proclaim the word of God, and then you just have to show what it means.” I was fascinated by the figure of Jesus Christ, and by becoming more and more involved with scripture, I learned that Jesus actually represented God's vision. I discovered that what was important to him could also matter to me. I sort of "slid" into faith.’
‘At that point I ended up in a kind of existential crisis. I wanted to study medicine, and even had a student room in Leuven until I realised something: I knew I would never practice that profession. Another option was to study at the conservatory – I was very good at playing the piano – but a friend told me that he thought my path lay elsewhere, and I felt he was right. To buy some time I decided to deepen my faith and went to the Seminary in Bruges. For a year I pretty much only thought about what I would do the following year (laughs).’
He eventually chose to study Philosophy at KU Leuven. ‘I came into contact with philosophical tendencies that sometimes clashed head-on with my religious beliefs, but I found that fascinating. It has led to purification rather than doubt. Faith has its own coherence.
At the same time, I have also learned to respect the ideas and coherence of others and to see the richness therein. You should not want to Christianise people if they are not open to it. I do remain critical, just as I am for myself. Christianity has been faced with philosophies that question it or proclaim its end for 2,000 years, and it still exists. We can handle that.’
When we ask what kind of student he was, he beams. ‘A real one (laughs). I did my best and had good results, but I also made the most of student life. Moreover, that period left me with friends with whom I am still in contact. Some even attended my bishop ordination. Actually, I was a student two times over. Ten years later I studied theology, which I combined with volunteer work at the Sint-Jans hospital in Brussels, where the foundation for palliative care was being laid at that time.’
After three years of Philosophy, Van Hecke fulfilled his military service as secretary to the chief chaplain of Brussels Arthur Luysterman, who later became bishop of Ghent. He became acquainted with Orval Abbey through a colleague there. ‘I didn't want to know anything about the monks for a long time, because I found it morally irresponsible to lock yourself up when there was so much good to do in the world. And yet I immediately felt that my place was there.’
Van Hecke finished his studies – ‘at the insistence of the monks of Orval’ – and made a long journey to Latin America, which would be determinative in his life. ‘I knew that soon I would have to “stay inside” for a long time, so that was the moment to travel. I have been to Mexico and the Caribbean, among other places,’ he says. “That wasn’t an obvious choice at the time, all the more because civil wars were raging in many of those countries. It was certainly not a "tourist trip". I saw a lot of suffering and poverty there, and in a way that marked me in a certain way. Since then I have always remained sensitive to the suffering of my fellow man.’
At first I thought I would have a hard time with celibacy or obedience – not obvious for someone with an independent character (laughs). But all of that was fine.
The monks of Orval live in a closed monastic community and devote their days to work and prayer. Has he ever suffered from loneliness? ‘The purpose of that solitude is not to become lonely,’ he says, ‘but to open up to the other, however paradoxical that may sound. At first I thought I would have a hard time with celibacy or obedience – not obvious for someone with an independent character (laughs). But all of that was fine. I was sorry that I could no longer play the piano the way I wanted, because I didn't have the time to really focus on it. The brothers were in agreement that I should think about the conservatory, but other things came my way. I'm a musician who never realised his talent because there was something more important. Sometimes I get almost sick from that thought, but you have to accept it.’
One of those matters was his appointment as abbot. He held the position for 13 years, and saw the number of monks increase once again after years of decline. He had previously honed his management skills as director of the world-famous Orval brewery.
‘Among other things, I helped to double beer production from 45,000 hectolitres to more than 80,000. And even then the demand is greater than the supply! People may think that we consciously create scarcity or export much of our production abroad, but that’s not the case at all. Barely eight percent goes to export, that's nothing. The big demand comes from Belgium. It’s simply a beautiful product that is appreciated. To illustrate: I am friends with an abbot of an abbey that also produces beer, and when we go to a café – which, to be clear, does not often happen – he says: “Have an Orval, I’ll take one too” (laughs).’
The monks maintain the abbey and the community with a minimal share of the profit, but eighty percent goes to charity. ‘One of the conditions for being recognised as an abbey beer is that you support good causes. At Orval, we donate to various sectors. We try to do something about local poverty, but we also support international poverty organisations. That’s needed, as the world is getting poorer and poorer, and the gap between rich and poor is increasing.’
In all faiths or beliefs you can distinguish between those who are open and those who are closed,’ he says. ‘Fanatics are closed, and that makes them dangerous.
‘Investing in education is also important,’ says Van Hecke. ‘An education is expensive, but if you want to get people out of poverty, you have to get them out of that culture of poverty. Orval Abbey gives a number of grants to universities and colleges and requests that these be reserved for people with a migrant background or from a poor environment.’
Van Hecke believes that religion can make the world a better place. Does he mind that all kinds of fundamentalists cast religion in a bad light? ‘In all faiths or beliefs you can distinguish between those who are open and those who are closed,’ he says. ‘Fanatics are closed, and that makes them dangerous. Education can play a vital role in the fight against extremism. You have to disrupt slogan-esque thinking at university. People learn to be critical of themselves and the world in which they live. Stimulate and motivate them in a positive way to believe that all life, not only your small circle, is fascinating.’