A church in Germany has held the first of several historic Masses across the country to bless homosexual couples in the coming week, in defiance of a Vatican decree clarifying that such blessings are banned in the Catholic Church.
"The heavens were open," Munich priest Wolfgang Rothe said, visibly moved after blessings before an altar decorated with a rainbow flag in the Catholic Church of St Benedict.
The church in the southern German city is holding one of four planned blessing Masses in the majority-Catholic state of Bavaria. The other three are set to take place in the city of Wuerzburg.
On Monday - a week before the International Day against Homophobia - church services all over Germany from Aachen to Zornheim, as well as in major cities like Frankfurt, Cologne and Berlin, are to stage blessings of same-sex couples under the motto #liebegewinnt (love wins).
"My concern is to get this out of the church backyards - to where it belongs: in the middle of church life," Rothe said. Christine Waldner and her partner Almut Muenster said they found the first such ceremony in Munich "very moving."
"It was not so easy to find a church," said Renate Spannig, spokesperson for the reform initiative Maria 2.0, which co-organized the service.
Maria 2.0 is a grass-roots reform initiative, which among other things campaigns for greater roles for women in the Catholic Church.
Burkhard Hose, chaplain for the Catholic community of Wuerzburg Universities, began collecting signatures from people in the church shortly after the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a declaration in March that the Catholic Church does not have the authority to bless homosexual couples.
By signing, the roughly 2,600 signatories declared their willingness to continue blessing same-sex couples.
Catholic priests in Germany have expressed their dissatisfaction with the Vatican ban and have said they want to bless all loving couples, whether gay or straight. Lay members of the church have also expressed their opposition to the Vatican's stance.
The president of the German Catholic Bishops' Conference, Georg Baetzing, criticized the action, saying it was not "a way forward."
"Blessing services have their own theological dignity and pastoral significance. They are not suitable as instruments for ecclesiastical political manifestations or protest actions," he said.