St. Michael's City, Europe's Capital

In recent years Brussels, once considered by diplomats and travelers as the somewhat provincial capital of a small kingdom, has emerged as the glamorous international center of the European Union and the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

With their deep sense of history, the native Bruxellesois and their Flemish and Waloon neighbors in the Kingdom of Belgium are well aware that their ancient capital experienced greatness in the past.

The name of the city may be derived from the Flemish word Broekzelle, “marsh village.” A Gallo-Roman settlement developed into a town in the Dark Ages. Irish monks converted the local people to Christianity during that period. These missionaries placed the area under the protection of St. Michael the Archangel.

In 1383 Brussels became the capital of the Duchy of Brabant. Trade, industry and handicrafts flourished under the enlightened rules of the Dukes of Brabant. The Church played an important role in the lives of prosperous burghers and hardworking peasants.

Brussels grew up around the Grand Place, one of Europe's great squares, and the Town Hall (Hotel de Ville). On top of this imposing Medieval structure's tower is a statue of St. Michael. In the early part of the 11th century, Duke Lambert II had the relics of St. Gudula moved from the center of the town to a church on Treurenberg Hill, a short distance from the Grand Place.

From then on this church of St. Michael and St. Gudula became the Collegiate Church of Brussels. Despite the great role the structure played in the history of the nation, it has been linked with the Cathedral of Mechelen (Mallines) as the see of the primate of Belgium only since 1962.

The early building was in Romanesque style. The additions from the 13th century were Gothic. Today the old foundations may still be seen below the crypt of this magnificent structure.

Medieval Splendor

Actually in accord with Medieval tradition, the church was constructed over the centuries by skilled artisans. The impressive Gothic choir was completed in the late 13th century and the nave and transept in the mid-15th century. The western facade, which was finished in 1490, is in the flamboyant French Gothic style and differs from the Brabantine design in other parts of the cathedral.

The entrance may be reached by climbing a long mid-19th staircase, a comparatively modern addition. Inside 12 pillars form the outline of the interior, world renowned stained-glass windows in later Gothic style allow ample light in the chancel and nave. On the left side of the choir, in the northern chapel, a visitor may view some of these richly decorated windows, which portray the European emperors and kings of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods. Included are the Flemish-born Emperor Charles V, on whose empire the sun never set, and his son Philip II of Spain, who had problems ruling Flanders.

During much of the 20th century, the cathedral was under almost constant renovation. The craftsmen finally finished their work in late 1999. Then, on Dec. 4, 1999, Crown Prince Philippe married his bride Princess Mathilda in the cathedral to great national rejoicing.

Brussels is a city of churches dating back to Medieval times, when religious orders set up parishes throughout the city to perform their religious and charitable duties. Today visitors may hear the peal of bells calling the faithful to Mass even on weekday mornings. Brussels is confronted as much as other parts of Europe by a shortage of clergy and an abundance of religious indifference on the part of many young people.

Typical of local parishes is Our Lady of Sablon (Notre Dame du Sablon) several blocks south of the cathedral. Today the church dominates Sablon Square and its nearby park. The district has many art galleries, shops, restaurants and cafes.

In Medieval times Sablon was outside the walls of Brussels. In 1304 the Guild of Archers built a small chapel there in honor of Our Lady. Soon it became a place of pilgrimage. Then the archers had a major Gothic church built over the years from the early 15th century to the beginning of the 16th. It is one of the most beautiful Gothic structures in Belgium.

Royal Re-enactments

On a trip to Brussels my wife and I had the honor of seeing King Albert II of the Belgians at Mass there on Ascension Thursday. He was accompanied by one escort rider on a motorcycle and a car with attendants. The king walked through a cheering crowd, waved and rode away.

Belgians still are proud of their cultural heritage. They observe many Medieval festivals. A colorful pageant, the Ommegang, occurs annually on the Grand Place in Brussels from July 3-5. It is a historical re-enactment of a ceremony held in 1549 for Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain.

The Ommegang dates from the mid-14th century, when it was a religious observance. Vestiges of its origin are still maintained. Guests and viewers occupy the Grand Place to see the procession. The royal party and their entourage take their places on a reviewing stand. Horsemen and flag bearers lead the procession. Next come the representatives of the guilds.

Foremost among them are the archers. They carry the statue of their patron, Our Lady of Sablon, which has been escorted from the church. Afterward re-enactors, guests and visitors mingle to enjoy the occasion.

Brussels and the rest of Belgium have much of interest to attract the Catholic traveler.

John Carroll is based in Silver Spring, Maryland.