Originally written in Dutch for Veto by Nora Sleiderink
Translated to English for The Voice by Gwynne van Kaauwen (Contributing Writer)
Originally published on March 29, 2019
The University Parish (UP) is well known by most students by now, but next to the Dutch-speaking parish there also exists an English-speaking, French-speaking and Spanish-speaking version. By doing so, UP conforms to a spiritual need in the international academic community.
Ewelina Konings is the coordinator of the English-speaking University Parish (EUP). She is Polish and came to Leuven for her studies in theology. During the week she teaches religion at BuSO Ter Bank and she is both the coordinator and religion teacher at the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Polish School in Leuven. But, in addition to this, she is also responsible for the weekend EUP.
“In Leuven there are four other English weekend parishes. This leads to confusion sometimes since the others are not directly connected to the KU Leuven like EUP. However, this does not mean that they are less important,” Konings says. The EUP is first and foremost meant for students and personnel of the university and their families. Yet a connection to the university is not a stringent admission criterium. For example; many members do not work at the KU Leuven, but they entered as students and afterwards stuck to the parish. “Everyone is welcome at the EUP” Konings emphasises.
“This year there have already been three baptisms and five couples are preparing their marriage”
A marriage or baptism at the EUP is only possible for students, personnel and their family. “This year there have already been three baptisms and last year there were three couples for marriage preparations.” Some of them will eventually marry in their home country, but they want to prepare here because of their work or study in Leuven. “This year there are five couples up till now, so the amount is growing,” Konings says.
Until now the preparation happened per couple, but due to the bigger demand and on initiative of the couples themselves a collective course was created. “This way experiences can be shared. The couples are from various countries, but eventually their joys and worries are no different, whether you are from Belgium, Ecuador, Italy, Spain, Romania, Poland, the Netherlands or Canada. This enriches the course.”
“The majority of our songs are in English, but we also sing in Italian, Spanish and in African languages”
On Sunday April 7 all the couples that finished the marriage preparation course will receive a special blessing during the Eucharistic celebration, as well as a certificate. “I would like young people to feel that they are just as important, both for and in the ecclesiastical community of the university parish. Their responsible love has great value for all of us and they are not alone in their preparations for happiness in the church and the world,” stresses Konings. This year she also supervises three nine year old children for their First Communion. This will take place in the EUP during the fall.
According to Konings the EUP is so successful due to the fact that it’s a “choice church”: “We are not a territorial parish or created based on nationality. You choose this parish because you feel welcome here and you want to be here.” But why do people choose the EUP specifically from the tangle of international churches in Leuven? “We are a child-friendly parish where people know each other, where people can experience their Christian values with others of their age far away from home, and where we have young, dynamic and intelligent priests from different countries and continents.”
It’s clear that these aspects create a successful mix. The masses of the EUP may be one of the most popular ones in Flanders. “Although as coordinator I’m never concerned about the amount of people coming to the EUP, only about the people themselves,” Konings emphasises. “Our chapel in Leo XIII is always full of young people who want to experience their humanity and Christianity within the EUP.”
Konings senses that there is a big demand for an English-speaking parish. “During the last few years more and more Belgians have found their way to us as well. The masses at the EUP are young, with a contemporary homily from a priest who is the same age as the believers and their friends. There is also nicer music, with djembés and room for input from all nationalities. Many people come to us with a spontaneous question on whether they could do something during the mass, because they were really involved in their home country as well.”
“Belgian students disappear from Leuven during the weekends, but the internationals stay”
“There are also students who didn’t always find their place in a very big parish. Here they get that chance and they take it.” Because of this, various influences are present in the liturgy of the EUP. The majority of their songs are of course in English, but they also sing in Italian, Spanish and African languages.
Even though the parish is small, it responds to an actual need within the international community. After all, challenges arise with the plans from the rector’s team to focus on the international dimension of the university. One example is the loneliness of international students.
Konings acknowledges a role for the EUP in this. “Belgian students disappear from Leuven in the weekend and go to their parents, but the internationals stay.” Konings experienced it like that as well during her studies. “But for me it was different; I lived nearby and could go back to my country and family every month. However, there are also people from other continents who sometimes stay here for years. They need a place, a community of people.”
“That is the most beautiful and at the same time hardest thing about our parish; the population changes constantly.”
Some internationals really want a religious community, while for others this matters less. “We have various options; the Eucharistic mass is open to everyone, but after that we have a reception, with room for food, a drink and some conversation. There you will also often see people who are looking for nice people who share the same values. On Saturday, we have a moment of faith sharing, a discussion moment about the Bible fragments that will be part of the mass on Sunday. Everyone is welcome there as well, whether you’re a believer or not.”
Some students stick around, but a part of the community eventually returns back to their home country. “That is the most beautiful and at the same time hardest thing about our parish; the population changes constantly. Some people come to Leuven for a longer period of time, others are only studying here for a semester.”
“Last year we had to say goodbye to a guy who was going back to Uganda to work for the Ministry of Water. But he could sing so beautifully! It was very hard to let him go, but that’s the way it is. Afterwards we had to say goodbye to four people who had been part of the community for about five years. People who really helped build this parish. But their assignment was done, they had to leave. Our community is thus constantly moving.”