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Catholic Church works to explain what same-sex blessings are and are not

A same-sex couple receives a blessing in front of Germany's Cologne Cathedral in September 2023, a few months before Pope Francis officially declared such blessings allowable.
Martin Meissner
A same-sex couple receives a blessing in front of Germany's Cologne Cathedral in September 2023, a few months before Pope Francis officially declared such blessings allowable.

A few years ago, Javier López and his partner of 14 years, Sergio Guzmán, were visiting family in Mexico. While there, a priest — who's a longtime friend — surprised the couple.

"I just want to make sure that you guys take care of each other," López recalls the priest saying. "And at that point he actually asked us to kneel in front of him and gave us a blessing."

It was something López says they never expected: "We were shocked and surprised and really, like, 'I guess this is official now.'"

The moment was poignant for both López and Guzmán.

"He was a friend of the family but represents the church as well," Guzmán says, "so it was a great affirmation and not a condemnation of our relationship."

The blessing wasn't planned or even asked for, but López says that was part of the priest's gift to them. "He can probably see that we're in a very committed relationship and that we were Catholics and always went to Mass."

Essentially, Pope Francis' declaration in December allowing for such blessings officially OK'd a practice that some priests have been doing for a long time but more or less as an open secret.

Especially poignant for parents of gay and lesbian Catholics

López and Guzmán live in suburban LA and regularly attend Saturday evening Mass with the LGBTQ+ Catholic group Dignity. About a dozen or so people gather for hymns, Scripture, prayer and communion.

Chris Cappiello, president of Dignity's San Fernando Valley chapter, says the announcement about the blessings came as a welcome surprise.

"Maybe not everything we're hoping for and working for," he says, "but huge progress."

Progress, Cappiello says, not just for Catholics in same-sex relationships themselves, "but for family members, particularly parents who may be experiencing this terrible tension and conflict between what their church is teaching them and what their heart is telling them about their child who is in a loving partnership."

Cappiello says there is still much work to do within Catholicism — work that includes eliminating the church's official teaching that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered and that sexual activity between people of the same sex is a grave sin.

"I'm not seeking the blessing of a church that is oppressive to LGBTQ people," he says. "I'm seeking to change the church in which I was born and raised."

Cappiello thinks allowing these blessings is the beginning of that change.

What these blessings are and what they are not

Official, doctrinal changes are not what the blessings are about. And the job of Father Chris Ponnet in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is to help both priests and parishioners understand them.

"The church continues to maintain that the sacrament of marriage is between a man and a woman for the rest of their life," he says.

Ponnet, who is the archdiocese's chaplain to its gay and lesbian ministry, says he always declines to attend the civil weddings of same-sex couples he knows because he doesn't want there to be any confusion. He says the church is clear that it does not condone or recognize such marriages and that his presence could lead people to think "it's all OK."

What the pope is allowing, he adds, is similar to how priests bless all sorts of things, such as homes, a new school year and pets.

"It's simply saying that we who believe in blessings," Ponnet says, "should be instruments of blessings to others."

And he says it's important to be clear and precise about exactly what priests are blessing and what they are not blessing. "We're not blessing the relationship," he says. "We're blessing the individuals in front of us. And I appreciate the pain that that causes, and I don't know how to get around that."

Any priest can decline to do one of these blessings, but Ponnet advises those in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who are unwilling to do them to refer couples to him so he can help them find a priest who will.

The pope's declaration from December also makes it clear that these blessings are not to be part of a Mass or even necessarily to be scheduled or formally planned. A couple might simply ask for one while visiting the priest in his office or elsewhere.

Francis' announcement also makes allowances for similar blessings of straight couples in what the church considers "irregular" relationships. That might include a couple in which one of the partners is divorced but did not get a formal church annulment before entering into another civil marriage.

Despite these blessings for same-sex couples being far short of marriage, lifelong Catholic Sergio Guzmán says what he and his partner Javier López received from the priest in Mexico a few years ago — even before it was officially allowed — was important and meaningful.

"The church is able to bless us," he says, which is an invitation to all LGBTQ+ Catholics to live in hope for what lies ahead. "And we are able to bless the church with our presence, with our gifts."

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Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.