Flemish bishops first in the world to give green light to church blessing of gay couples and issue specific prayers

The Bishops of Flanders are opening the door to blessing gay couples. In doing so, they are going head-on against the Vatican. On Tuesday morning, they published a liturgy that can be used for this purpose. Just last March, the Vatican ruled that a church blessing of gay couples is forbidden because "God cannot bless sin".

According to Cardinal Jozef de Kesel and the other Flemish bishops, gay couples "often ask for a moment of prayer during pastoral encounters to ask God that He may bless and perpetuate this commitment of love and fidelity".

They are now, as far as is known, the first bishops in the world to explicitly give the green light for a church blessing. However, "the difference must remain clear from what the Church understands by a sacramental marriage", that is, a lifelong union between and man a a woman.

As recently as March 2021, the Vatican banned the ecclesiastical blessing of gay couples. God, according to the statement issued by the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith, "cannot bless sin: he blesses sinful man so that he may recognise that he is part of the plan of love and enable himself to be changed by God". 

According to Roman Catholic teaching, sexuality can only take place within an indissoluble marriage between man and woman and without seeking to prevent the conception of new life through artificial means. According to spokesman Geert de Kerpel of the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, the liturgy now published was not submitted to the Vatican in advance.

The short and simple sample liturgy distributed by the Flemish bishops on Tuesday has, in addition to prayers and a Bible reading, a moment of "commitment by the two people involved" in which they "express together before God how they commit themselves to each other". They express before God that they 'want to be there for each other in all circumstances of life' and they pray for 'strength to be faithful to each other and deepen our commitment'. 

According to initiator Willy Bombeek, who was appointed by the bishops as co-ordinator of the Homosexuality and Faith Contact Point, the 'blessing wish' at the end of the liturgy is explicitly intended as a blessing of the gay couple.

The distribution of this liturgy prepared by theologians is done within the framework of the creation of a contact point Homosexuality and Faith within the Flemish Catholic Church. In their own words, the Flemish bishops thus want to 'structurally anchor pastoral care and guidance for homosexual persons'. In this way, they want to contribute 'to a welcoming Church that excludes no one'. The Flemish contact point is assisted by a person appointed by the local bishop in each of the Flemish dioceses 'within the framework of diocesan family pastoral care'. That is the department of a diocese that deals with family pastoral care.

According to the bishops, with these decisions they are 'concretely responding to and fulfilling the desire to give explicit attention to the situation of homosexual persons, their parents and families'. According to them, this was 'explicitly expressed by Pope Francis' in the official exhortation 'Amoris Laetitia' (the joy of love) written by the pope in 2016.

In this document, in which the pope also created the possibility for remarried divorced people to take communion in specific cases, the pope talks about how the church should accompany remarried divorced or practising homosexuals using three words: listen, accompany and integrate. 

According to the bishops, who note will travel to the Vatican next week for their Ad Limina visit - a kind of multi-year performance review - they want to remain "close to gay people along the sometimes complex path of recognising, accepting and living positively their orientation".

Those who choose to remain celibate - as the official teaching of the Catholic Church dictates - deserve 'our appreciation and support', according to the bishops. But those who choose to go through life in a love relationship equally deserve this 'because this relationship too, although not a church marriage, can be a source of peace and shared happiness for those involved'.

According to the bishops, Pope Francis calls for 'valuing and supporting people's conscience even in life situations that do not fully live up to the objective ideal of marriage'. 

Catholic and gay but no longer compulsorily discreet

As coordinator of the Homosexuality and Faith contact point, the Flemish bishops have appointed Willy Bombeek, who took the initiative for this gay blessing. 'I myself am gay and religious, or religious and gay, the order does not matter,' he says.

Bombeek was a spokesman for Catholic education in Flanders for 16 years. 

'I was always very discreet about my homosexuality there because I worked in a Catholic organisation. I was also part of a Christian think tank called Logia. Two years ago, we were invited as a group to Pope Francis and he called us to pay attention to those on the fringes. This made me start thinking about my own situation. My friends knew I was gay and also religious and connected to the church. But at my work, people actually didn't know. But my gay friends asked me if I didn't know a pastor who could bless their relationship. So I thought: I have to do something with this.

I then started personal research because LGBTQ people are baptised and integral parts of the church. That observation was my starting point. I started talking to LGBTQ  people and to priests and religious. And with parents of lhbt people too, because a coming-out of an LGBTQ person is also a coming-out of a parent or other family members.

That's how I learned what the needs are. I discovered that there should be a place in the church where questions can be asked from a fundamental acceptance. Sexuality belongs to the experience of a homosexual and finds its framework within a lasting and faithful relationship as it does for heterosexuals. The starting point was and is that what applies to heterosexual couples also applies to homosexual couples. Furthermore, it appeared that it is important to have a guideline so that a priest who receives a request for a blessing by a gay couple has clarity on what is possible.

From there, I worked out a three-page proposal and went to Cardinal De Kesel, the archbishop of Malines-Brussels, with it. He reacted very positively and asked me to develop it further.Then I put together a working group consisting of LGBT people, parents of LGBT people, a theologian, a religious and other committed Christians. Together we worked out a document that we submitted to the Flemish bishops. 

On this basis, the Contact Point has now been established and the liturgy published.

What has happened here fits very well with the synodal path that the Pope wants with the Church: it has gone up from the grassroots, from a personal initiative shared with others, to the bishops. And these have responded positively to it. We have always been very loyal to the Church, asking questions and engaging in dialogue, but always from a deep respect.

I am moved by the fact that the Flemish bishops are so committed to it. The cardinal and all the bishops all fully support the document. In my new position, I am part of the inter-diocesan family chaplaincy. The message is very clear: you can be there as you are.'

Sample liturgy

The liturgy proposed by the Flemish bishops, they say, can "proceed in all simplicity". They give the following prayers as examples.

'Engagement of the two involved. Together they express before God how they commit to each other. 

For example:

God of love and faithfulness,

today we stand before You surrounded by family and friends.

We thank You that we could find each other.

We want to be there for each other in all circumstances of life.

We confidently express here that we want to work on each other's happiness day by day.

We pray: give us strength to be faithful to each other and deepen our commitment.

In your nearness we trust, from your Word we want to live, given to each other for good.

Prayer of the community. The community prays that God's grace may work in them to care for each other and for the wider community in which they live. 

For example:

God and Father,

we surround N. and N. today with our prayer.

You know their hearts and the path they will take together from now on.

Make their commitment to each other strong and faithful.

Let their home be filled with understanding, tolerance and care.

Let there be room for reconciliation and peace.

Let the love they share delight them and make them of service in our community.

Give us the strength to walk with them, together in the footsteps of your Son

and strengthened by your Spirit.



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