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African Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu says letter clarifying blessing of same-sex couples calms Africa’s faithful

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Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa, Congo, center, who is president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, and Archbishop Gintaras Grušas of Vilnius, Lithuania, second from left, who is president of the Council of European Bishops Conference, address a news conference at Maripolis Retreat Center in Nairobi, Kenya, Jan. 25, 2024. (OSV News photo/Fredrick Nzwili)

NAIROBI, Kenya — Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa, Congo, president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, or SECAM, said that since the publishing of a letter clarifying the church’s position on the blessing of homosexual couples, “calm has returned” among the faithful in the continent.

Cardinal Ambongo gave the remarks at a press conference Jan. 25 toward the end of the seventh joint seminar of the bishops from SECAM and the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, or CCEE, held Jan. 23-26 in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. The seminar gathered the bishops under the theme “Synodality: Africa and Europe Walking Together.”

“We have discussed the declaration, ‘Fiducia Supplicans,’ with colleagues who come from Europe, because it has triggered so many reactions in Africa,” Cardinal Ambongo said in a response to a question from OSV News Jan. 25.

He explained that, with the document triggering sharp responses from the bishops’ conferences across his continent, he wrote to all African conferences, asking them to send along all their reactions.

After receiving the statements, the cardinal wrote a synthesis, then wrote a personal letter to Pope Francis and finally traveled to Rome.

“I was received by his Holiness Pope Francis, we discussed the letter. He then sent me to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith,” said the cardinal.

On Jan. 18, the French lay Catholic blog Le Salon Beige published a conversation with Cardinal Ambongo in which he said that “the pope was very sad” receiving him. “I must say that he was the first to suffer from all the reactions that came from all over the world. He suffers because he is a human being. This doesn’t make him happy,” the cardinal told the French outlet.

“Fiducia Supplicans” (“Supplicating Trust”) — subtitled “On the pastoral meaning of blessings” — published by the doctrinal dicastery Dec. 18 — stated that Catholic priests can bless a same-sex or other unmarried couple. However, it cannot be a formal liturgical blessing, nor give the impression that the church is blessing the union as if it were a marriage.

In a statement released Jan. 11, Cardinal Ambongo said the decision to not bless homosexual couples throughout Africa was made in agreement with Pope Francis and Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the doctrinal dicastery.

“We, the African Bishops, do not consider it appropriate for Africa to bless homosexual unions or same-sex couples because, in our context, this would cause confusion and would be in direct contradiction to the cultural ethos of African communities,” the document said.

The letter said that the church’s doctrine on marriage remained unchanged and reaffirmed its commitment to continuing pastoral care to all its members.

It also emphasized that homosexuals must be treated with dignity and respect, while reminding them that unions of individuals of the same sex are contrary to the will of God and therefore cannot receive the blessing of the church.

“The decision stems from concerns about potential confusion and scandal within the church community,” the Jan. 11 statement said.

“Within the Church family of God in Africa, this declaration has caused a shockwave, it has sown misconceptions and unrest in the minds of many lay faithful, consecrated persons and even pastors and has aroused strong reactions,” the cardinal wrote.

At the press conference in Nairobi Jan. 25, Cardinal Ambongo said he had written the letter to the faithful for two reasons: first to bring calm, not only in the Catholic Church, but also in Africa in general, and secondly to express the spirit of communion with the successor of Peter, Pope Francis.

“I am happy (because) since publishing … of the letter, calm has returned among the faithful and the communion has been restored,” said Cardinal Ambongo.

Archbishop Gintaras Grušas of Vilnius, Lithuania, president of the CCEE, told journalists in the Kenyan capital that there was no joint statement issued from the bishops of Europe, since each national conference had responded to the document in a different way — with some saying “they would not bless homosexual couples” and others emphasizing “they are disappointed we did not go far enough.”

“Some conferences — Poland and Ukraine — have issued a negative response that they would not be adopting it,” said Archbishop Grušas, who also is president of Lithuanian bishops’ conference. Others thought it’s “a constraining document, because it says ‘no liturgical blessings,’ which some conferences began to implement,” he said, pointing to Germany and Belgium.

At the seminar, the bishops said they had delved into several critical issues that are shaping the landscape of the church and society, pointing to the reform of the Roman Curia as one of them, as well as African and European perspectives on the first session of the Synod on Synodality held in Rome, and the role and participation of youth in the church’s life and mission.

“We recognize that the youth bring unique perspectives and energy that are crucial for the church’s growth and relevance, especially in contemporary times,” said the bishops. “Our discussions underscored the necessity of listening attentively to their experiences and insights, committing ourselves to respond to their needs and aspirations.”