Gabriel Ringlet: ‘I would like priests to dress like everyone else, to practice a profession like everyone else’

Priest, chaplain, journalist, professor, theologian, writer… Gabriel Ringlet has already taken many paths. He came out of it, too, to go beyond the beacons.

For more than 50 years, he has shared his faith differently. This Saturday again, his Christmas celebration in Louvain-la-Neuve with actor Sam Touzani, ethnic Muslim and atheist, was sold out. Reformist ideas and a new wind in a Church still sometimes described as rigid and identity-based.

At the dawn of the year 2023, he looks back on the past year. Its crises and its injustices, but also its notes of optimism and hope.

Gabriel Ringlet is the 7th speaker in our Grands Entretiens at the end of the year.

What event touched you the most in 2022?

What touched me the most this year was the resistance of Iranian women. It is fundamental and goes far beyond Iran. These women, joined by men from elsewhere, dare to say no to an unspeakable religious system that betrays its own tradition. What they are subjected to has indeed nothing to do with the prescriptions of the Koran and the tradition of Islam. This “no” that women dare to proclaim in the street despite immense risks is broader than a refusal of the Iranian dictatorship alone. It is a “no” to all dictatorships, and to all confinements. Especially when these confinements are based on the sacred, which for me is the height of the ignoble. Unfortunately, religion sometimes engenders terror, whereas its primary vocation is to liberate and make people lighter. In Iran, as in many wars, religion is reclaimed in a role that is not at all its own.

The reception of asylum seekers must become an absolute priority of the Church, beyond all questions relating to the institution.

The year 2022 was marked by many crises, whether health, political, economic or migratory. What role should the Church play in this context?

Faced with any crisis, I see the role of the Church on two levels. First, it is important that there is a strong word. The latter must always be on the side of openness, reception and liberation from confinement. But so that this word is not only something abstract, it is important that it translates concretely on the ground. With regard to asylum, for example, it is essential that the Church dare to commit itself very strongly. This also corresponds to his vocation. I would dream that in all the parishes of the world, this welcome becomes an absolute priority. Let all other questions, especially those concerning the institution itself, be put into perspective.

The reception crisis has indeed been at the center of the news this year in Belgium. Hundreds of people are still forced to sleep outside because of the saturation of the reception centers. And this, while the Belgian State has already been condemned on several occasions for not having respected its legal obligations. How do you view this situation?

There will be no concrete change in reception on the ground if there is no change in mentalities. By this, I mean trying to make our fellow citizens understand that the other is an opportunity, a possibility, a hope and a help. Too often we still see asylum as a problem. We are sometimes afraid of doing too much because of the reaction of our fellow citizens. However, I believe that we must engage in this field without the slightest reservation and go further than what is happening today. We must make this action positive, show to what extent it is an advantage for us who were born here, that this welcome increases us instead of reducing us.

Preserving nature and restoring dignity to the excluded are part of the same movement.

Another major crisis that marked the year is the one from which the planet is suffering. 2022 was synonymous with the COP, first on climate and then on biodiversity. Do you think that the Church also has a role to play in this area?

Absolutely. The encyclical “Laudato si'” written in 2015 by Pope Francis really shook mentalities and gave birth to many initiatives. Moreover, this text remains extremely topical. If I had to sum it up in one sentence, it is that the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor come together. In other words, there will be no response to the ecological crisis without social justice. It is an invitation to an integral approach: preserving nature and restoring dignity to the excluded are part of the same movement. I think this is a clear, stimulating position, and I notice that throughout the world, in our country and in a whole series of parishes, “Laudato si'” has been the most widely read document , the most popularized and the most worked on in recent years. It is also perhaps in this field that there have been the most concrete actions that have been carried out locally. The strong word translated by actions that we talked about earlier, that’s a bit what’s happening here with “Laudato si'”.

Ten years ago, you pointed the finger at the “clericalism” and the identity “withdrawal” of the Church. How do you think it has evolved since then?

The cases of pedophilia, which have shaken the Catholic Church to its most essential foundations, have made it more modest. What happened is obviously extremely serious, but I have clearly seen for several years that Church leaders are expressing themselves with more sobriety, even if there is still a long way to go before the institution really dares to declericalize. This is played on several grounds.

It is first of all a question of style, of way of being. I would like priests to dress like everyone else outside of celebrations, to practice a profession like everyone else – even full-time – it’s completely combinable. It may seem like a detail, but it’s not. Women should also be able to have responsibilities and become priests. We must not mistake the sacred, place it where it has no place. This crisis of pedophilia has revealed what the “sacred false” could be terrible.

This evolution also passes through an extension of functions to all those who are not priests or who are not pastors. This is why we launched the School of Rites. To show that, from birth to death, “everyman and lady” can be called upon to practice rites, to make strong symbolic gestures and to become celebrants.

A final element concerns language. It is sometimes itself too clerical, particularly the liturgical language. It is necessary to find a more symbolic, more artistic, literary and poetic language. This is why it is interesting to appeal to artists and creators of the imagination to renew it.

The Church obviously has the right to lay down markers, but it must also recognize the quality of the markers of the other and open the debate.

The churches are emptying, the year 2022 has seen a new significant increase in the number of apostasies… It seems indeed that the discourse of the traditional Church speaks to fewer and fewer people.

There are many things to consider regarding desertion from churches, but I would like to point out two.

Firstly, I think that the time when the Church dictated its rules on the major issues of faith (believing in the resurrection, the afterlife…), as on the major issues of morality (euthanasia, abortion… ), is totally over. And that’s happy. Our contemporaries, including practicing Catholics of a certain age, no longer accept this diktat. They now want a personal, critical faith. If the Church does not open up to debate even on the most essential questions such as the resurrection, it will see people leave it. She obviously has the right to set tags, but she must also recognize the quality of the other’s tags. I think she would be more respected then.

Secondly, when the ritual becomes ritualism – that is to say when we no longer understand what is being said in a celebration – we give up. This is why within my priory we try to combine three things: the Gospel, the news and the imaginary, the last serving as a link between the first two. We realize that the public is very eager for this.

With regard to apostasy, in other words the abandonment of the faith (Editor’s note: which is reflected in particular among Catholics by debaptization), I like to think that behind this decision, there is a call, a desire to take another more open, more critical path. Dare to say that it is healthy to doubt. There is not necessarily a contradiction between the increase in the number of apostasies and a great spiritual aspiration on the part of this generation.

Alongside the decline in religious practices, there is a strengthening of spiritual aspirations.

Are you optimistic, pessimistic or realistic about the future?

I am both an optimist and a pessimist. Pessimistic about what the thinker Olivier Roy calls “the flattening of the world”. This expression really touched me. This researcher believes that today there are poor identities, in other words people without real beliefs, in a world where everything is becoming the norm. Conversely, I’m not calling for strong identities, which can be very dangerous, but I think we need to invent a new path that I call “singing identity”. Dare to say where we come from and where we are going, but in a “non-binding” way. I am also pessimistic when I see the threat of famine in the world, which is not talked about much even though it concerns hundreds of millions of people. However, feeding the hungry is an essential imperative beyond any ideology.

But optimistic despite everything in front of the fight led by a certain number of young people, especially on the side of the defense of the planet. I am also optimistic when I read the COP15 agreement in Montreal on the preservation of territories. Always optimistic when I read the conclusions of the commission on the Capitol in Washington which investigated Donald Trump. The remarkable work done by this commission dares to say something to the world. Optimistic, finally, when I see that alongside the decline in religious practices, there is a strengthening of spiritual aspirations. This need for breath is very encouraging. I believe that there are many people who want to grow their inner resources.

Moreover, the various successive crises are perhaps pushing us to move towards a certain sobriety, a “happy sobriety” to use the words of Pope Francis. That seems realistic to me. A synthesis between optimism and pessimism.

If you had one wish for 2023, what would it be?

To formulate this wish, I am thinking of a disappearance that touched me a lot at the end of 2022. That of the poet Christian Bobin. Throughout his work he managed to tell the greatness of life in the simplest things. A sort of secular Francis of Assisi, if I may say so. My wish would therefore be that in 2023, each and every one of us becomes the poet of his own existence. Rediscover the poetry of our childhood. In our individual journeys, in our professional lives, giving a poetic breath to our humanity can only make it grow and push it to resist.

Gabriel Ringlet: ‘I would like priests to dress like everyone else, to practice a profession like everyone else’