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Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 09, 2023
Same-sex couples take part in a public blessing ceremony in front of the Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. Several Catholic priests held a ceremony blessing same-sex and also re-married couples outside Cologne Cathedral in a protest against the city's archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)Same-sex couples take part in a public blessing ceremony in front of the Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. Several Catholic priests held a ceremony blessing same-sex and also re-married couples outside Cologne Cathedral in a protest against the city's archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Catholics and their pets will gather on church lawns throughout the country this month to participate in what has become an annual rite of fall, seeking blessings from priests to commemorate St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day was Oct. 4.

While the photos from these events usually prompt a bit of news coverage, including here at America, it is Pope Francis’ comments on other potential blessings that have generated the most analysis and commentary as of late.

Last Monday, the Vatican released a text in which Francis, who is presiding over a global gathering of Catholic leaders discerning the church’s future, wrote that he is open to the possibility that priests might someday offer blessings to same-sex couples.

When Catholic same-sex couples seek a blessing from a priest, it often flows from a deep faith in God. 

The document, a response to a series of questions from a group of five cardinals challenging the pope to clarify church teaching on a range of issues including homosexuality, is clear that the church’s definition of marriage remains unalterably the union of one man and one woman. But Francis said that upholding Catholic teaching on marriage does not mean church leaders “become judges who only deny, reject, exclude.”

Rather than “lose pastoral charity, which must be part of all our decisions and attitudes,” priests and other church ministers can discern a request for a blessing, wrote Francis.

“When you ask for a blessing you are expressing a request for help from God, a prayer to be able to live better, a trust in a father who can help us live better,” the pope wrote. He added that if priests were to offer such blessings, they would likely remain an unofficial practice, as “pastoral prudence in certain circumstances need not be transformed into a norm.”

Priests are regularly asked to bless any number of things. I have participated in pet blessings and asked a priest to bless a new home. A few years ago, I witnessed a priest bless dozens of guns as part of a kickoff to hunting season in rural Wisconsin. I have read about special events for blessings of motorcycles, herbs and sneakers. During one of my recent daily morning searches for Catholic news, I stumbled on a newspaper article about a parish that had finished a renovation of its bathrooms, accompanied by a photo showing a priest, with his arm elevated, flinging drops of holy water in the direction of two porcelain urinals.

Priests are regularly asked to bless any number of things. I have participated in pet blessings and asked a priest to bless a new home.

That particular image reminded me of a conversation I had several years ago with a young Benedictine monk who lamented to me that priests are allowed to bless almost anything—though definitely not gay and lesbian couples. It is unclear how many same-sex couples have sought blessings from the church, but as recently as 2021, the Vatican said that priests could not offer them a blessing because God “cannot bless sin.”

Might that approach to blessings of same-sex couples soon be changing?

Gay and lesbian Catholics who remain part of the church have discerned that their faith is worth enduring the church’s official condemnation of homosexual acts and its political campaigns against L.G.B.T. civil rights. That faith is often deep, considered and thoughtful, given the obstacles they face in seeking acceptance.

So when Catholic same-sex couples seek a blessing from a priest—and this already happens, regardless of Rome’s rules—it often flows from a deep faith in God. It also certainly carries risk, either the risk of rejection for the couple asking for the blessing or the risk of disappointment from the priest who feels he cannot offer a blessing. It is a request that is never made lightly.

The pope seems attuned to the pastoral needs of all Catholics, including those in same-sex relationships who desire a blessing.

Some priests will gladly offer a blessing, perhaps not in a way that could be confused for a wedding blessing but in a manner that nonetheless implores God to bless the two people in various ways. But even the most pastoral priest may bristle at such a request, especially if he cannot be guaranteed discretion. If such a blessing were to be photographed and shared on social media, or result in a letter to a bishop from an unapproving parishioner, the priest could face severe consequences. The pope’s comments do not necessarily eliminate the pastoral complexity of such requests, especially if the permission for offering such a blessing is not accompanied by a change in church teaching on homosexuality. But the comments might create conditions for pastorally fruitful conversations between a priest and Catholics in a same-sex relationship as they discern the motivations for asking for a blessing.

Of course, even if the church does someday permit priests, deacons and men and women religious to bless same-sex couples, it is unlikely there will be a stampede for such blessings. After all, even heterosexual couples are increasingly unlikely to ask the church for a blessing. The number of church weddings in the United States is plummeting. It is also unlikely that allowing priests to offer such blessings would completely change the reputation of the church as an institution that is hostile to L.G.B.T. people, though it might surprise some people who never thought they would see such a welcoming gesture from the church.

But that is not exactly the point of the pope’s statement. Rather, he seems attuned to the pastoral needs of all Catholics, including those in same-sex relationships who desire a blessing.

The significance of a blessing

Why might a same-sex Catholic couple, aware that their church does not view their relationship as holy, nonetheless seek a blessing from a priest?

For starters, blessings help believers grow in their faith, and seeking and offering blessings is an essential element of our faith. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops puts it, blessings “prepare us to receive the grace of the sacraments and help us to grow to be more like Christ.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “every baptized person is called to be a ‘blessing,’ and to bless.”

A recent essay by Jill Fisk published in Health Progress, the journal of the Catholic Health Association, explores the meaning of blessings more broadly and offers some clues about the meaning of blessings to people of faith.

“Moments of blessing transport us to a place of being known and affirmed by the One in whom our desires begin and find completion,” wrote Ms. Fisk, who is the director of mission services for C.H.A. “When we look to our faith tradition and the meaning-making rituals that shape our own call, we can find a viable strategy for belonging.”

In her essay, Ms. Fisk points to a book by the Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, in which he reflects on the value of offering a blessing.

Why might a same-sex Catholic couple, aware that their church does not view their relationship as holy, nonetheless seek a blessing from a priest?

"To give someone a blessing is the most significant affirmation we can offer. It is more than a word of praise or appreciation; it is more than pointing out someone's talents or good deeds; it is more than putting someone in the light,” wrote Father Nouwen, who struggled with his understanding of his own homosexuality. “To give a blessing is to affirm, to say 'yes' to a person's Belovedness.”

Catholics in same-sex relationships seeking a blessing often do so for the same reasons as other couples. They seek affirmation of God’s love for them. And they seek affirmation that there is something holy at work in their lives, however mysterious and ultimately unknowable that might feel.

At first glance, some blessings can seem bizarre or pointless—I am thinking of that bathroom blessing—but to those seeking them, they are filled with meaning. In the case of the bathroom, for instance, the church was celebrating that its facilities were now fully accessible.

It is unclear where the pope’s openness to discerning how a priest might respond to a request for a blessing from a same-sex couple could lead. But those blessings are already happening.

In some instances, they are defiant, public displays that challenge the church’s ban, as was recently the case in Germany. But without a doubt, in many other situations the request for blessings takes place in quieter spaces, with couples yearning for deeper communion and conversion, praying with the church’s ministers for God’s blessings, away from the fierce debate taking place in the church today.

The pope’s words, and the synod underway now, may not usher in the kinds of immediate and sweeping changes some long for. But they may encourage a greater openness in discussing pastoral requests and allow for creativity in responding with compassion.

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