Amid debates in the German-speaking world over whether the Church should bless same-gender couples, two parishes in Austria have already begun doing so alongside the blessing heterosexual couples on Valentine’s Day.
Two parishes in the Diocese of Linz, Wels-St. Francis and the Ursuline Church, offered the blessings for all couples this week, as they have done for several years. Diocesan newspaper KirchenZeitung reported (the following is a computerized translation, so it is “rough” in a few places):
“I am glad that we can access the symbolic treasure chest of the church. The ritual has a tremendous power. We underline the importance of relationships,” says Irmgard Lehner, parish assistant in Wels-St. Francis. In Lehner’s parish, there have been blessings for Valentine’s Day for many years, the last one took place last Sunday. Dozens of lovers had their hands put on and make a sign of the cross on their foreheads. Whether couples in love or long-married couples, whether people in happy or momentarily troubled relationships. Everyone is welcome.
“The offer can be used by lovers in all circumstances – including lesbian and gay couples. At least in Wels, however, few people have so far come in homosexual relationships to blessing. Irmgard Lehner believes that ‘it is still taboo to make an official appearance. . .Every person should feel welcome with us as he or she is,’ says the theologian.”
Fr. Franz Harant, who leads the Diocesan Working Group on Pastoral Care for Homosexuals, also viewed a welcoming approach to blessings as a positive step. Citing Pope Francis’ call in Amoris Laetitia to respect people regardless of sexual orientation, the priest said, “[t]he blessing that exists everywhere is awarded. We have nothing to forbid” [also a computerized translation].
The debate over whether same-gender couples should receive blessings in the Church has intensified among German-speaking prelates in recent weeks. It was reported this month that Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising had endorsed such blessings, news many observers claimed was mistaken. The cardinal’s silence on the matter has only added to the confusion, which you can read about here.
In January, Bishop Dieter Geerlings, an auxiliary bishop in Münster, said he would bless same-gender couples who were civilly married. Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, deputy chair of the German Bishops Conference, said a blessing for the civilly married would allow for better pastoral accompaniment.
On the other side, Bishop Felix Genn of Münster barred a gay Catholic who was married under Germany’s new marriage equality law from receiving a church blessing.
The Central Committee of German Catholics, a lay-organized group, called for such blessings back in 2015. They desired, in the words of President Thomas Sternberg, “a signal of ecclesiastical appreciation for same-sex couples.”
Church ministers offer blessings for all types of people, objects, and occasions. It is simple discrimination that LGBT people’s love could not be blessed, too. But thankfully, while the debate continues in German-speaking contexts and elsewhere, at least two Austrian parishes are not waiting to do what is right. They are leading the rest of the Church forward.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 15, 2018