The end of secrecy

The end of secrecy

Even if the Vatican says no: Throughout Germany, Catholic chaplains bless relationships that do not conform to the Catholic ideal – even homosexual ones. Consequences could follow. A visit to Geldern.

He's not allowed to do it, but he does it anyway: Father Christian Olding stands in his church of St. Martin in Geldern, in the Lower Rhine region, and places his hands on the heads of two men. "The Lord bless you," Olding murmurs: "Let his face shine upon you." Holger and Lennart Woltering, married in a civil ceremony since 2017, are both active as singers in the Gelden church community. "All the emotions came up for me, just like at the wedding," says 30-year-old Holger after the blessing: "With a tingle in my stomach. Madness."

"Like a slap in the face"

If the Vatican has its way, a Catholic chaplain like Olding may not bless a homosexual partnership – or more accurately, he can't. The church has no authority to do so, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared in mid-March. Same-sex unions do not correspond to the divine will. God "does not bless sin and he cannot bless it".

Holger and Lennart Woltering have also noticed the declaration from the Vatican. "It felt like a slap in the face," says Holger. "It seems so backward," Lennart thinks: "The Vatican comes around the corner with something where you thought we were already over it," the 33-year-old says.

Father Olding has also been hit by the no from the Vatican. "It can't be that we tacitly accept something with which quite a lot of pastors, theologians and faithful Christians are passed over," he says. Together with others, he has launched the Germany-wide initiative "#liebegewinnt". Around the 10. May around there are country widely "blessing services for lovers". All participating couples who wish to do so receive a blessing – even if their relationship does not correspond to the Catholic ideal of a man and a woman in a first marriage. It's about a blessing, the pastors stress – and not an "attack on the sacrament of marriage between a man and a woman," which critics often accuse them of doing.

The end of secrecy

In Sankt Martin, a romantic pop song plays over the loudspeakers, a rainbow flag hangs on the front of the altar. Pastor Olding and retired pastor Heiner Dresen put on mouth-nose protection in rainbow colors. Then they go from couple to couple, put their hands on their heads and say the words of blessing. The "lovers" are holding hands, a man and a woman are looking deeply into each other's eyes, two men have their arms around their waists. 35 couples in total, including homosexuals, heterosexuals, married, divorced and unmarried couples.

Dresen, a priest since 1985, has already blessed a couple in their second marriage during his chaplaincy years – in their living room. Olding also already gave the blessing secretly – to the Wolterings at their wedding in 2017. Accepting the Vatican's stance and acting differently on the ground under the table has long been the balancing act pastors have accepted, he says. However, he says the current declaration is a turning point for him. "I can't stand it and go along with it like this any longer."

Consequences for the Church

He is not afraid of sanctions for the time being. His bishop, the head pastor of Munster, Felix Genn, had declared, like some other bishops in Germany, that he would not punish his pastors if they also blessed gay and lesbian couples. "But we all do not have a guarantee."

Not all bishops are open to the topic. And some, including those from other countries, see the reform process of the Catholic Church in Germany – the Synodal Way, which also addresses the ie of sexuality – as attacking marriage between a man and a woman and warn of a church split. For Monday, the main day of action of "#lovewins," they have called for an international prayer to "make amends for all offenses …, committed by the apostate pastors of the German Church".

Is there a reaction from the Vatican?

The Vatican, too, is likely to pay increased attention to the blessing service in Germany. Whether there will be a reaction and whether the more liberal bishops will then continue to stand behind their pastors is an open question. A bishop is obliged to obey the pope – just as a priest is obliged to obey his bishop. Possible consequences he will bear, says pastor Olding. Nevertheless, the point has now been reached to say that this cannot continue.

In Geldern, the 35 couples have received the blessing. In the church vestibule, there is a glass of champagne at the end – with distance and a mask. Once again the romantic song resounds, many have a smile on their face. "This is important for me, that my partnership is under God's blessing," says Andreas Hein. The 49-year-old came to the service with his 55-year-old partner Mario Berwanger. The two want a level supported by God's love to fall back on when life gets tough. They had already left the church. When Berwanger fell ill with cancer and found encouragement from a pastor, they entered again.

Protest and division?

He calls the statement from the Vatican very painful. "We are all equal before God," he says. His partner Hein does not believe Rome will change its stance on homosexuality. He would rather focus on local parish life. He was welcomed by his pastor and now plays the organ in the congregation. "This is church," finds Hein: "Not what is said up there."

Pastor Olding does not want his service to be misunderstood as a church-political protest. Nobody wants a church split either. But the Church must remember its mission: "To be at the service of the people and to stand by them in the reality of their lives."For the time being, Olding wants to continue doing what he is not allowed to do – without secrecy.

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Christina Cherry
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