“The Atmosphere Has Changed”: Belgium’s Bishops Discuss Queer Blessings at Vatican

Cardinal Jozef De Kesel

In a few months, as the world marks the tenth anniversary of Pope Francis’ election, there are certain to be many commentaries about what has and has not changed in the church this pontificate. For LGBTQ+ advocates, however, an indication of just how much progress has been attained happened late last year—and offers a prompt to keep pursuing equality in 2023.

Every five years, bishops from a given region make their ad limina visit to Rome where they meet with the pope and Curia officials, ostensibly to discuss issues specific to the church in that region. Before Francis’ pontificate, the visits were considered one-directional: the Vatican dictated to the visiting bishops what they should be doing and how their local church should proceed. Dialogue was scant. Under Francis, church leaders have noted a change in these visits, which are perceived now as more collaborative and conversational, directed largely by the visiting bishops’ needs.

Changing the style of meetings may seem irrelevant to the cause of LGBTQ+ equality. Yet, there is substance to this change in style, exemplified by the Belgian bishops’ ad limina last November.

Just two months before their visit to the Vatican, the Flemish-speaking members of the Belgian bishops’ conference issued a new pastoral initiative for LGBTQ+ inclusion—including a liturgy to bless queer couples. In releasing the text, the Flemish bishops ignored the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s harsh 2021 ban on such blessings. As the ad limina approached, observers speculated about what reception Belgium’s church leaders might receive at the Vatican. Certainly, under previous popes, a stern rebuke or even sanctions might be expected, yet the release of the blessing liturgy has prompted no response from Rome as of yet.

At the ad limina visit, no rebuke or sanction was issued. Instead, the Belgian bishops were “glowing” after their two-hour meeting with Pope Francis, according to Nederlands Dagblad. Cardinal Jozef de Kesel of Mechelen-Brussels commented that “the atmosphere has changed” at the Vatican compared to the visits under Francis’ predecessors. Kesel continued, “The reception was very warm everywhere. . .We talked about many issues affecting our local churches. Each time we were also told that they wanted to listen to us to understand our situation.” The newspaper’s report specifically mentioned the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues (via Google Translate):

“The ‘gay blessing’ of Flemish bishops was of course also discussed. Incidentally, the cardinal [de Kesel] did not speak very explicitly about a gay blessing or about a liturgy, but more carefully about a ‘moment of prayer in which we ask God to help and bless these people’.

“‘I am very happy that we were able to explain it and that we were listened to,’ said de Kesel, who pointed out that there are no tensions between the Flemish and French-speaking bishops on this matter.

“‘We focus on religious gay people who are trying to live a life that is possible for them. Who have found a partner with whom they can share their lives. You must be realistic: celibacy is a charisma, a gift that is not for everyone.'”

Further evidence of change comes from the German bishops’ ad limina, which also occurred last November. Crux’s John Allen noted that the visit was being set up by many observers as a showdown given persistent tensions between the Vatican and Germany’s Synodal Way process. But it was less a showdown than a detente. Crux reported that the German bishops simply declined a Vatican proposal to put a moratorium on the Synodal Way. About these visits Allen concluded:

“The plain fact of the matter is that despite the difference in treatment – the Germans got a somewhat cold shoulder, the Belgians a warm loving embrace – in neither case did Pope Francis actually order either group to stand down. Instead, the impression is that despite whatever reservations some of his Vatican aides may have, the pontiff is content to let these developments play out. . .

“Second, it also seems fair to say that the days in which a decree from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was taken to be definitive, meaning the last word on a subject in the church, would appear to be over.”

Analyzing how the style of some Vatican meetings changes is unlikely to be of intense interest to most people. But Catholic LGBTQ+ advocates should pay attention to this: the changes apparent in these meetings are only possible because of grassroots Catholics’ decades of persistent work to bring about a more inclusive, just church. Pope Francis has revealed again and again that he is willing to let Catholics, church leaders and lay people alike, explore how to live faith in ways that are concrete and attentive to pastoral realities. His ad limina meetings with Belgium and Germany’s bishops are further proof. In 2023, LGBTQ+ Catholics and allies must sustain efforts for reform and renewal in the space that Pope Francis has created.

Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, January 13, 2023

2 replies
  1. Mary Dodson Brown
    Mary Dodson Brown says:

    This sounds so hopeful. It is subtle, yet so much more than the slamming doors and admonitions of the past. Let us continue to pray for the welcome of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters by the church!

  2. Anne
    Anne says:

    Pope Francis reflects the spirit of Christ in the Church. He gives us (LGBTQI folk) a warmth and hope as never before in the life of the church. It’s sad but not surprising that he has enemies among the conservatives, especially one recently deceased.


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