A priest in Malta will not be reprimanded for blessing rings at a commitment ceremony between two men. Those involved in this incident are revealing what the intensified mercy called for by Pope Francis earlier this week might look like when it comes to LGBT issues.
Dominican Fr. Mark Montebello attended the engagement ceremony of Nicholas John Vella and Edward Borg Bonaci last week, and while present blessed their rings. Photos of the event, including Montebello’s presence, appeared on Facebook and this moment was soon reported on by The Malta Independent. A Facebook group emerged almost immediately in support of the priest and has gained nearly 1,500 supporters.
However, once news of the event broke, Montebello was summoned, along with his Dominican provincial, by Malta’s Archbishop Charles Scicluna. They met for an hour on Tuesday, the outcome of which was reported by The Malta Independent with the following excerpt from the archdiocesan statement:
” ‘During the cordial meeting, the Archbishop encouraged Fr Mark to continue his outreach to gay people, and requested that he continue to follow Church practice and discipline in his ministry, especially in the celebration of sacred rites and Church rituals.
” ‘Fr Mark thanked the Archbishop and the Vicar General for their support and agreed that in his pastoral ministry to gay people he would continue to follow Church practices and discipline.’ “
What lessons can we gain from this incident?
First, set against the potential punishments other bishops might have imposed upon Montebello, the archdiocesan statement has a strong positive side. It is valuable in that it respects the priest in question, even affirming his ministry to the LGBT population and encouraging him to keep going. No punishment besides a request from the bishop is meted out.
Second, while there is no validation of Montebello’s actions in blessing a same-gender relationship, it is interesting to note the statement restricts its request to “Church practice and discipline” rather than making a doctrinal appeal, about the nature of marriage or homosexuality. In Archbishop Scicluna’s estimation, it seems this is clearly a very low-level issue, and its impact is limited. He is not obsessed with stopong LGBT rights at all costs, behavior for which Pope Francis has criticized other bishops.
Third, the identities involved matter because they are a priest and prelate already open to mercy when it comes to sexual and gender-diverse people. In a country that is officially Catholic, with more than 90% of citizens belonging to the church, such figures are tremendously powerful in advancing LGBT justice. Montebello and Scicluna were both nominated for awards last year by the Malta Gay Rights Movement, and though they declined, they are helping this cause more than not.
Fr. Montebello is clearly a committed advocate for LGBT rights, declaring his support for marriage equality and civil unions as early as 2005, when he said “there needs to be a change in vision” and promised to bless same-gender relationships if asked. This recent incident is merely the fulfillment of that commitment.
Archbishop Scicluna has a more complicated record, repeatedly denying that same-gender couples can marry and opposing a civil unions law in Malta that ultimately passed. He has also said that Pope Francis was “shocked” at the idea of gay couples adopting, though this comment was never confirmed. Yet, Scicluna also apologized to lesbian and gay people for harm done by the church and publicly criticized a lay man’s harsh letter against same-sex relationships. He even participated in the International Day Against Homophobia last year.
Between the two, a divide over the goodness of same-gender relationships remains. Fr. Montebello seems to understand Archbishop’s Scicluna’s words that “Love is never a sin. God is love” better than the archbishop himself. It is refreshing, however that Scicluna is allowing a priest the flexibility and trust so essential to do ministry on the margins and, when there is disagreement, always ensuring that mercy is foremost.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry