Published: 26 February 2010 14:26 | Changed: 26 February 2010 17:34
A priest's refusal to grant communion to a gay man has led to uproar in the Catholic south of the Netherlands.
A multitude of gay men now look set to descend on Sunday mass in the city of Den Bosch.
By Eric van den Berg and Pieter Kottman
Prince Gijs might have been a wise and benevolent leader – but he is also a homosexual one. That alone was enough for his local church to refuse this atypical nobleman holy communion.
Prince Gijs is no ordinary royal. His reign only lasted three days and his realm extended no further than the borders of the small town of Reusel. Gijs, known in everyday life as Gijs Vermeulen, a 24-year old bartender, was his hometown’s Prince of the Carnival. Every year, towns in the Netherland’s Catholic south elect their own buffoonish royalty, an honour generally bestowed on the more festive members of the community.
The prince’s duties include waving at crowds, ritual tomfoolery and doling out free beer, but also participating in the traditional mass on the Saturday that precedes Carnival, this year on February 13.
Carnival goes awry
This is where Reusel’s carnival celebrations went awry this year. According to Catholic teaching, people who live in sin are excluded from holy communion. It is public knowledge in Reusel that Vermeulen lives together with his boyfriend. Therefore, father Luc Buyens of the local church told the prince before the ceremony he would receive “a cross on his forehead but no communion wafer”.
The incident has caused uproar. Gaykrant, a Dutch gay magazine, called upon its readers to go to Reusel and visit last Sunday’s mass. Confronted with a deluge of homosexuals, father Buyens called upon the bishop of Den Bosch for guidance, before deciding to send his entire flock, regulars and new arrivals alike, home without granting them the communion.
Some Dutch churches support gay marriage
Even though some individual pastors hold divergent options, the Catholic Church denounces homosexuality in the Netherlands. Dutch protestant churches are wildly divergent in their teachings on homosexuality. The Dutch Mennonite Church, Arminian Brotherhood, The Dutch Protestant Union and the ecumenical Protestant Church in the Netherlands are the only ones that have fully embraced homosexual relationships. In these denominations, gay people are even allowed to marry.
Now, an even larger crowd looks set to descend on the Cathedral of St. John, an historic monument that has long been home to the bishop of Den Bosch. Several gay rights organisations have embraced the initiative, as has the Labour party chairman, Lilianne Ploumen.
The Gay Prince
’Gay prince’ Vermeulen said the uproar surrounding his person has saddened him. “I am not looking to be a poster boy,” he said. The press got wind of the incident through colleagues of his, he explained. From there on, the issue took on a life of its own. However, Vermeulen did express some satisfaction the incident had led to public debate. “I wouldn’t use the word discrimination, but I have been treated differently from others,” he said.
“What annoys me as well is the lack of uniform policy. Other so-called sinners – not that I would call them that – do not have this problem. If the church were consistent, nobody could receive communion,” Vermeulen said.
Henk Krol, the Gaykrant’s editor in chief, called the initiative to visit the St. John’s Cathedral in Den Bosch “a cry for help”. “Many people, including heterosexuals who are divorced or living together out of wedlock, feel ostracised by this church,” he said.
A test of Catholic resolve
The presence of numerous homosexuals on Sunday will mostly be a test. Will the bishop, Antoon Hurkmans, grant communion to his congregation if he knows there are homosexuals amongst them? Or will he send everyone home?
Antoine Bodar, a pastor who used to conduct masses at St. John’s, called the gay initiative “a provocation”. “The Church distinguishes between teachings and pastoral work. In the pulpit, you are the lion, in the confession booth, the lamb. The Church knows that people have sex before marriage and that there are homosexual believers out there. That only becomes a problem when someone starts to manifest himself as the gay prince of the carnival in his hometown,” he said. “Receiving the wafer is not a right. Most people are not cut out for it in the first place. Someone is looking for a confrontation here.”
Krol of the Gaykrant begged to differ. “Even the very conservative bishop of Brussels, André Léonard, has said gay and straight people alike should follow their conscience,” Krol said. “I feel father Buyens should have told Vermeulen: ‘I think you’re life is not entirely in line with our teachings, but if you feel your conscience is clean, be my guest.’ Instead he spoke of ‘a grave sin’ and called granting Vermeulen communion ‘sacrilege’. Big words, if you look at the pictures showing Pinochet and Videla receiving communion.”
Krol said he was looking to compromise, but a meeting with bishop Hurkmans on Thursday yielded little result. Hurkmans announced his diocese would be "more careful" in granting holy communion. He said pastors would ask people who had remarried after divorce or didn't attend church regularly to refrain from communion as well as homosexuals. A spokesperson for a gay rights organisation called the decision "harsh".