Belgium is one of Europe’s richest countries, but Brussels is a city of stark contrasts, with 30 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. Poverty levels are even higher among those with foreign roots, many of whom live near St. John the Baptist Church.
Father Alliët sees his work in part as an effort at redemption for Belgium’s brutal colonial past, which it has only just begun to address. “When Belgium colonized Congo, no one thought about showing any documents,” he explained. “We just went anywhere we wanted and took whatever we felt like.”
After Father Alliët retired in 2019, Father Kockerols, the auxiliary bishop, wanted to transform the church into a museum of religion, but the priest resisted. “I told him that this is not how you connect with people,” he said. “I went to see the pyramids in Egypt. It was very impressive, but that did not turn me into a worshiper of Tutankhamen.”
Eventually, the church authorities backed down. The archbishop named a successor to Father Alliët, but that priest’s role to date has been mainly symbolic.
There is dissonance between the teachings of Christ and the attitude of some clergymen, Father Alliët said. He believes that while the selection of Pope Francis has helped correct the imbalance, a lot remains to be done. “But we are lucky,” he joked. “We finally got a pope who is trying to be Christian.”
Despite the difficulties, the priest remains hopeful about the future.
“This work is like the procession of Echternach,” he said, referring to a Roman Catholic tradition from nearby Luxembourg where the participants take three steps forward and two back. “You advance slowly, but you nevertheless move ahead,” he said.