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The balance | Johan Bonny

This week Johan Bonny (65) strongly opposed the church position on the blessing of LGB marriages. Here the bishop of Antwerp takes stock of his personal balance.

What are your most important assets?

The Gospel and Jesus Christ. If life is a wheel, that’s the axle. This is how I measure whether what I say and do is worthwhile, within my responsibility as a bishop and as a person. The broad community around me keeps me going. The Bisschopshuis has about twenty employees: whether something is right or not, I can tell from their faces – even more than from what they say. But there are also ordinary people, of all colors and from all life situations, with children and grandchildren. I received hundreds of thanks emails from them this week. They feel respected again and the bond with the church, which is so difficult, remains intact. I do it for them. ‘

Who has invested in you?

‘I am very grateful to the institutions in Bruges, Leuven and Rome where I studied. I had good teachers in thinking and doing. As a young priest in Bruges, Emiel Jozef De Smedt was my bishop. How he stood with his people, spoke up, built up trust and radiated leadership, has shaped me greatly. In Rome I worked with the German Cardinal Walter Kasper on the unity of the Christians. From him I learned the method with which I am also in the file of same-sex marriages. You must study your case carefully so that you appear at meetings as the most confined. And you should never shrink from the non-ideological truth and justice. You have to be willing to pay a sacrifice, for example in the form of opposition. ‘

In whom or what do you invest yourself?

As a priest, you are trained to commit yourself completely to a community – a movement, parish, diocese, even the world church. You live from meeting to meeting, from liturgical celebration to celebration. I felt good about it for 25 years. But around the age of fifty I felt that it was not mentally healthy. Besides being a priest, I am also a brother and uncle. Since then I have taken more care of my family and friends. And I spent more time with my mother during this corona year than in the years before. ‘


You should never shrink from the non-ideological truth and justice.

‘The balance is not in balance. As with any retailer, there is always work ready. But now I sometimes think on weekends: never mind, the world will not end. Life does not only consist of the big tasks and files. During this Lent, I enjoy making jars of jam several times a week. I then put them in the refectory. I ask anyone who brings one with them to leave something behind for Broederlijk Delen. You can be responsible for a diocese and make jam at the same time. ‘

When have you grown the most?

‘When I was active in Bruges for fifteen years in 1997, I was moved to Rome. I left everything except what could be boxed in my car. It was a complete overhaul, at the bottom of the ladder of competences and experience. I became responsible for the Christians in the Middle East, but had never been there. Everything was done in Italian, French, English and German. And when after eleven years I was embedded again like a spider in its web, I was sent to Antwerp. I re-entered a diocese that was not mine, with people I did not know. Each time I needed different registers from my personality. ‘

Do you sometimes go into the red?

‘Yes. As with a judge and a doctor, people come to a bishop with only problems, at the risk of me getting a little gloomy and forgetting the usual joys and spontaneity of life. I sometimes radiate that. I also can’t go outside for a long time, so I don’t move much and lose contact with the seasons. Prayer too sometimes falls into haste. I normally go to an abbey regularly. Due to corona, I have not been doing that for a year. The healthy balance between work and stillness has been disrupted. ‘

‘I have never experienced a deep crisis of faith, but I am sometimes disappointed. And angry. If a couple never argues, they may not care much about each other anymore. The church community is my life and my love. And I can be endlessly patient, but oh woe when the bucket is full. Then I can really shoot out. ‘

Are there gains on your life and work balance?

‘Yes: the confidence gained from me in people and from people in me. I am quite a control freak. I have to build trust. And now it is easier than it used to be. ‘

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