Religious Beliefs. The Flemish are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Membership in the Catholic church is the norm, regardless of personal religious belief. Although nearly everyone is baptized and learns Catholic doctrine in catechism classes or Catholic school, many Flemish people are not practicing Catholics or are active nonbelievers. Leaving the church in an official act of excommunication, however, creates myriad social difficulties, because many social services are linked with the parish or other church institutions. Flanders has a small Protestant community composed of Flemish converts to Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormon church, and other Christian sects. In addition, there is an active, large, and dynamic Jewish community, particularly in Brussels, Antwerp, and the coastal area; an ephemeral surviving Gypsy community; and a growing community of Muslims in Brussels. "Flemish" Jews and Muslims have not adopted the Culture of their neighbors, and they continue to practice their faiths in separate ethnic communities. However, Belgian Religious minorities often speak the language of the region in which they live and participate in Belgian social and political life.
Religious Practitioners. Priests and nuns organize most religious functions. Lay religious leaders are active in parish associations and participate in the organization of religious ceremonies and church services. The Freemasons also comprise an important quasireligious group in Flemish culture, establishing ties of brotherhood that crosscut social, Religious, and ethnic differences. Freemasons have been influential in liberal party politics and in the process of defining a middle-class Flemish political interest.
Ceremonies. Baptism, first communion, and confirmation mark the child's entry into the Catholic family and Community. There are no official rituals marking entry into adulthood—except perhaps graduation from school, military service (for men), and marriage. The Flemish celebrate many days in the Catholic religious calendar that mark events in Christ's life. Also, there are a series of folk processions, rooted in historic events and legend, often using masks and papier-mâché "giants" (e.g., the Kattestoet in Ghent). Other ceremonies mark religious miracles, such as the Procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges, or are more purely commercial, on the order of street theater, combining spectacle with romantic reformulations of history.
Arts. Flemish literature, painting, sculpture, music, and dance are highly developed arts, comprising Flemish regional and ethnic styles, as well as participating in widespread European art movements. Early Flemish literature, written in local dialect, is linked with the growth in political importance of the Flemish population, depicting folk heroes that personify the political and social character of the Flemish. More recent literature is often nihilistic or surreal, influenced by the damage inflicted by both world wars on the Flemish psyche. Many of the great early works of Flemish musical composition are liturgical pieces for voice and organ, for example Orlando de Lassus's Gregorian compositions. The exceptional works of the Flemish primitives—including Memling, Bosch, and the Van Eycks—and the numerous Flemish masters, such as Rubens, were commissioned by noble patrons throughout Europe. More recent Flemish painting and sculpture often highlight the pleasures and pains of rural life, but others, such as works by Ensor, depict urban decadence and cultural decay. Folk arts, notably street singing, folk opera, and marionette and hand puppetry, have revived in recent years as part of the folk movement. Antwerp has a tradition of puppet theater that often crosses into the realm of political and social critique. In the plastic arts, tapestry and lace manufacture have evolved from early products of cottage industry into Domestic crafts. Today, lace is simultaneously a fine art, a hobby craft, and a tourist art; and many varieties of lace are available for sale, collection, and display.
Medicine. Modern medical care is provided in state-run hospitals and clinics and is also available through private doctors and health practitioners. The scientific model of Medicine is widely accepted, but health maintenance often involves folk beliefs regarding the use of herbs, mineral and saltwater baths, and the use of certain foods as preventative cures. Many Flemish also believe in the curative value of Oriental medical treatments, such as acupuncture. Devout Catholics often pray for divine assistance with health problems, posting placards of thanks to the Virgin Mary in churches. Many Flemish people avoid dental care, with a resulting loss of teeth from decay.
Death and Afterlife. Beliefs about death and an afterlife are shaped by Catholic doctrine. Funerals are sad and frequently private events, shared only by the deceased's family, close friends, and neighbors. The death of a child is a particularly sad and private event. Public displays of grief are not common. Graves, located on church grounds or nearby, are cared for by the survivors of the deceased. National graveyards of the fallen of World Wars I and II, located in northern Flanders, are maintained by the nations whose dead are buried there. For the Flemish, these vast graveyards are monuments to sacrifice and freedom, symbolic of a national and Flemish resolve to work for international peace and political compromise.