Willy Bombeek, the head of a new “contact point” for gay Catholics that’s backed by the Flemish bishops, says he is confident that his ministry is something the pope would approve.
Bombeek is the coordinator of a new “Homosexuality & Faith” contact point which was announced by the Flemish bishops Tuesday with an accompanying document that included proposed blessings for same-sex couples.
Flemish is the dialect of Dutch spoken in Flanders, one of the three autonomous regions of Belgium.
Speaking to Crux, Bombeek, who pitched the idea of the ministry to the bishops with the help of a special working group he established, said the idea is from the grassroots, and was developed by people who “confirmed the pope’s vision, and from that, they wrote this mission out and I’m really proud to say that it’s a really big step to acceptance.”
“It’s really in the spirit of our pope to say, make a ministry, give attention to the people on the peripheries,” he said, voicing his conviction that this ministry is something “I have to do.”
In their announcement, the Flemish bishops said they wanted to “structurally anchor the pastoral care and guidance of homosexual persons within the Flemish Catholic Church.”
Cardinal Jozef De Kesel, archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, and the other Flemish bishops outlined their vision for the mission of the new contact point in a document titled, “Homosexual persons are pastorally close – For a hospitable church, which excludes no one.”
The document, published online along with the announcement of the contact point, draws heavily on Pope Francis’s 2015 exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, which highlighted the need to be more respectful of and welcoming to Catholics with same-sex attraction.
In the document, the bishops said they wanted to be close to homosexual persons “through the sometimes-complex way of recognizing, accepting and experiencing their orientation in a positive way.”
Those who choose to remain celibate “deserve our appreciation and support,” as do those who live as a couple in faithful, lifelong partnerships, they said.
They drew a distinction between same-sex unions and sacramental marriage but insisted that the families of same-sex couples have an equal desire and right to the “pastoral attention and guidance” shown to heterosexual couples.
Bombeek will work at the level of the Inter-Diocesan Service for Family Pastoral (IDGP), and each diocese in Flanders is asked to appoint someone to work specifically with homosexual individuals and couples, and who will turn to Bombeek for tools and guidance.
“Believers who live in a stable homosexual relationship also desire respect and appreciation within the faith community. It hurts when they feel they don’t belong or are excluded. They want to be heard and recognized. This is what this pastoral approach is all about,” the bishops said, saying the new ministry is intended to celebrate the decision to stay in a committed long-term partnership.
Stressing the difference between same-sex partnerships and sacramental marriages, the bishops said a moment of prayer asking God to bless the love and fidelity of these partnerships should be discussed with a pastoral counselor.
They suggested this moment of prayer begin with a brief statement, an opening prayer, a reading from scripture, and a commitment from both partners in which they “express before God how they commit themselves to each other.”
The prayer, they said, could go like this:
“God of love and faithfulness, today we stand before you surrounded by family and friends. We thank you for allowing us to find each other. We want to be there for each other in all circumstances of life. We hereby express with confidence that we want to work on each other’s happiness, day after day. We pray: give us strength to be faithful to each other and to deepen our commitment. We trust in your nearness, we want to live by your Word, given to each other forever.”
After the prayer, the bishops suggested that a communal prayer asking for God’s blessings on the couple be recited, and that the moment of prayer be concluded with intercessions, an Our Father, a closing prayer, and then a blessing.
This move on the part of the bishops is a quasi-direct act of defiance to the Vatican, which last year said the blessing of same-sex unions is not allowed because the nature of same-sex unions goes against church teaching, and the church “cannot bless sin.”
In a March 2021 letter responding to formal questions from several dioceses on whether it was possible to bless same-sex unions, the Vatican’s doctrinal office, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), said no, but insisted the ruling was “not intended to be a form of unjust discrimination, but rather a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite” of sacramental marriage and the unique blessing attached to it.
Bishop John Bonny of Antwerp, after the DDF letter, said he felt “shame for my church,” and offered an apology to those who were hurt by the Vatican’s “painful and incomprehensible” decision.
Pope Francis himself has repeatedly supported the church’s stance on marriage, and has said he is against same-sex marriage, but he has voiced previous support for civil union laws providing same-sex couples with legal protection and other rights.
Bombeek, who since 2021 has led the “Homosexuality & Faith” working group that morphed into his new role with the Flemish bishops, told Crux that the inspiration to begin a ministry dedicated to this topic came from a May 2018 meeting he had with Pope Francis as part of a Catholic think-tank organization. The pope told them to “give attention to people living in peripheries around the church.”
After hearing this, Bombeek said that given his own personal experience as a gay Catholic who had worked in church circles for 32 years, his mind went immediately to members of the Catholic LGBT community, so he pitched the idea to the Flemish bishops to start a ministry dedicated to LGBT outreach and things went from there.
When the DDF issued its letter last year, Bombeek said he asked the Flemish bishops if he should stop and re-work his proposed ministry to take into consideration the Vatican’s position, but was told to go ahead without changing course.
Asked if he is worried about backlash or criticism from the Vatican given its stance against same-sex blessings, Bombeek said he is “always worried about it,” but is confident since he has the backing of the bishops.
“No matter what happens, they’ll still say to me, continue in what you’re doing, and for me, it’s what our pope has said in Amoris Laetitia: respect, acceptance. Give them a place inside of the church. That’s fundamental,” he said.