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The not so Catholic baptism of Belgian students

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Translation by:

Shona Brennan

Editors PickExperience

Faculty circles in the universities of Belgium have a tradition of baptising their new members at the beginning of each year. To get through this rite of integration, which is a classic Belgian tradition, it’s best to have a strong stomach.

On the campus of a Belgian university, it’s an activity night. Groups of young people dressed in worn, single-colour togas and caps surround another larger group of students in jeans and T-shirts. The latter group stand upright, eyes fixed on the ground. A “blue” (greenhorn) drops their head and says, “Madam or Mr. baptism comitard” (committee member), you can only speak when allowed."

Jeanne remembers her baptism five years ago. Since then, she has become a ‘comitard.’ This is the nickname of those in togas who organise baptisms. The ‘blues’ at their mercy are the future baptised, who will have to complete a series of activities for nearly two months before being crowned with the ‘penne’ student cap.

Locked up for three weeks in a shed where you'll have to pay for meals and shower while downing beers. We could picture this bizarre scenario being in a reality TV show, but here in Belgium, it does not really come as a surprising sight. Belgium has, for centuries, maintained a tradition that is totally integrated in its culture and the student baptism is just one of its symbols. This tradition is a rite of welcome to University that the most ‘blue’ rookie students choose to undertake. "We try to awaken the spirit of the young arrival," explains Jeanne. "We teach them to think for themselves, by putting them to the test." A full metal jacket style role playing game.

Sir yes Sir

At the age of 22, Vincent has just received his bachelor's degree in law from the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). This third year of study also marks another type of consecration for him—the year he was finally baptised. "I had started the baptism in the first year and I stopped after the fifth activity, so almost halfway through," he recalls. "At the time I was perhaps afraid that it would be too much for me, in relation to my studies."

Becoming baptised isn't as quick as making the sign of the cross. The blues must prove their motivation and dedication to their college circle by successfully completing a series of ten activities. And they're not exactly trivial. For example, some will bathe in blood, perform with animal corpses, or get on their knees on an autumn evening and have their hair cut off. To avoid revealing too much, baptismal secrets are very well kept within the circles. It is difficult, if not impossible, to get details about the running of an activity. "We know it's going to be like that, and we have our colour from the start."

Twice a week after classes, between 6 and 11 pm, the committee gather their blues for the activity, or ‘acti’, which increases in intensity as the baptism goes on. "Some things are a little harder than others. But we know that it's going to be like that, and we have our colour from the start", explains Vincent. They move through campus in a line, sometimes beginning to sing the respective songs of their circle.

Of course, the division of roles is clear—the blues are at the beck and call of the togas."It's our role to be a little authoritarian, that's the game,"_explains Jeanne. "We're not here to be the rookies' friends. They're not our mates, they're our blues."_

During a baptism activity, Vincent and his co-blues were asked by their committee to gulp down a raw fish. "I'm allergic to fish so I didn't eat any during that activity!" Vincent laughs, saying the adage for these challenging times- "We live baptism, we sleep baptism, we eat baptism." As well as fish, dog food also frequently appears on the menu.

They accept the rules with ‘humour’, like Vincent, "When I first went through it I saw this intimidating side of the committee. But in retrospect, this year I really experienced it as a role play, so it was funny." It took him several months of reflection before embarking on a second baptism. After being encouraged by a friend, he finally decided to go through with it. "I thought about it a little over summer, especially since the committee of my year are the ones with whom I started my first baptism. So, it was a bit like choosing to be shouted at by people who were actually with me in the audience, as well as my friends."

Uncontrolled blunders

When speaking about the baptism, Vincent, a clean-cut and straight-talking young man, doesn't hesitate to say that he takes pride in it. Jeanne does too. "Our limits are tested quite a bit during the baptism activities, and I saw how far I could go, what scared me, what bothered me less. I also learned to truly assert myself in the sense of saying 'No, that's not for me,'" she said.

Most blues are satisfied with their choice. This well-recognised ritual, however, comes with a significant risk of accidents and abuses of all kinds. Just this year, the authorities of the Catholic University of Louvain (UCLouvain) decided to close the circle of the ‘House of Francophone Athletes’. This decision was taken following ‘proven observations of degrading treatment, physical and psychological violence and indecent assault during baptisms’ according to an email from the Faculty of Motricity Sciences reported by the RTBF. The vice-rector for student affairs in UCLouvain, Didier Lambert, then reported accounts of hitting and slapping to the press.

"They're not our mates, they're our blues."

At ULB, the desire to preserve this tradition and ensure that it unfolds smoothly is palpable. The vice-rector for student affairs, Alain Levêque says "There is a close relationship between the representatives of student circles (the Association of Student Circles or ACE, ed.) and our team, so they can ensure that this tradition is carried out in the best possible conditions." For the last ten years, ULB has had a ‘folk charter’ which is signed by each Circle. At ULB, 10% of the 30,000 registered students are baptised. The ACE has indeed seen a real ‘boom’ of blues in recent years, which could be explained by the introduction of the charter.

However, the baptisms haven't always been this supervised. Even if they are, excessive alcohol consumption, loss of control or too much ‘passion’ for the game have led to several serious, sometimes even fatal, accidents. Last December, the university KU Leuven mourned the disappearance of a twenty-year-old student who died following a baptism activity. According to reports from the Belgian press, the young man fell into a coma following his circle's ingestion of fish oil - a product with a high salt content. He was pronounced dead the following day.

The university authorities then pressured their circles to sign a folk charter. This is far from being the first accident of its kind. In recent years, movements and petitions have appeared online to denounce abuses observed during baptisms. For example, an open letter to students from a parent whose son died at a student party in 2013 warned of excessive alcohol consumption. The website ‘Stop Veterinary Baptism Abuse,’ created in 2012, collects anonymous reports. The baptism of this veterinary school in Liège is considered one of the most difficult in the region.

One parent's account describes sleep deprivation, forced and repeated waking after barely an hour of rest on the ground, hygiene deprivation (washing was forbidden), pressure to drink beer (at breakfast and at every activity). Under such conditions, peer pressure can become unbearable, leading the free will that characterises this student ceremony to be called into question.

Hazing versus free will

An accident during a baptism at the same school was a source of legal tension between France and Belgium a few years ago. Following the rapid consumption of several litres of water during an activity, a French student  fell into a coma in 2013, suffering from a cerebral oedema. Ségolène Royal, then Minister of Education in France, sent a letter to the Belgian Prime Minister, asking him to ban student baptisms in Belgium, calling them hazing. Illegal in France, hazing is defined as ‘the act of causing others, against their will or not, to endure or commit humiliating or degrading acts during events or meetings related to school and socio-educational environments’. The authorities of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation refused to legislate it, warning of a recurring conflation.

"It's truly a communion"

Jeanne and Vincent share the same opinion that the baptism is not hazing. "It's not binding’, emphasises Jeanne"A lot of people think that the baptism is mandatory. But that's not the case."_ 

When he decided to stop midway through in first year, Vincent says he felt ‘no pressure’ from the committee members. Regarding accidents that could occur, Alain Levêque mentions a recent desire on the part of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation to ‘set up a working group to facilitate good practices at baptism activities’.

A family affair

‘The goal of the activities is to get through them, together. And that, it strengthens bonds in an incredible way’, explains Vincent. Helping each other and staying together in difficult situations is the point of honour in maintaining this tradition. As is the case with many Belgians, the baptism is a family affair for Vincent. Both his parents were members of the baptismal committee."They were pretty disappointed when I didn't complete it in first year", he jokes. So, for his second - successful - try he decided to surprise them. At the end of the last activity, he rang to ask them to accompany him to buy his cap. "And then they were overflowing with joy of course, they were super happy. And my dad came to see my baptism!" he remembers fondly.

During the ceremony which closes these two months of student revelry, it is common that the family is present to share this moment with the baptised young person. "It truly is a communion", says Vincent. Moreover, at the beginning of the next school year, he will be part of the ‘poils’, students in open togas who help the blues by giving them water and food during each activity. With a necessary ounce of sympathy for the new blues, for whom the worst is yet to come.


**Names in the story have been changed Cover photo credits: © www.manneken-pis.be // Manneken-Pis aux couleurs des étudiants de l’ULB à l’occasion de la fête de la Saint-Verhaegen

Translated from Le baptême pas très catholique des étudiants belges