Reflecting on the Life and Ministry of Father Robert Nugent

Father Robert Nugent, SDS

News of the death of New Ways Ministry’s co-founder, Father Robert Nugent, SDS, has circled the globe in the last few days, and news reports and reflections on his life and ministry have proliferated.  Different stories focused on different aspects of Fr. Nugent’s life and ministry.

Thomas C. Fox, publisher of the National Catholic Reporter reflected on how Nugent’s pioneering spirit of inclusiveness is now being recognized by the highest level of the Church:

“Nugent will be remembered in Catholic history  for his  early efforts to minister to gays and lesbians at a time when few, in any, other clergy and religious would do so publicly.

“In some ways, gay and lesbian ministries have made great strides since the Nugent first reached out to that marginalized segment of our church. In other ways, those ministerial efforts have made only small gains. Gay and lesbian ministries are still not the norm in Catholic parishes and New Ways Ministry is seldom welcomed into parishes.

“Pope Francis, as if taking the lead from the now deceased Nugent, when asked how he views gay clergy, responded: ‘Whom am I to judge?’

“That was precisely Nugent’s attitude — and he lived as Francis now preaches.”

Father James Martin, SJ, editor-at-large of America  magazine was quoted in The Huffington Post’s  news story of Fr. Nugent’s death, praising him for the integrity with which he navigated difficult situations:

“I always admired Father Nugent’s pioneering work with gay and lesbian Catholics; along with Sister Jeannine Gramick he helped many thousands of people feel more welcome in their church. But I admired just as much his fidelity to his vow of obedience. In a complicated time, Father Nugent navigated a course between justice and fidelity with enormous grace and trust in God. All Catholics–not just gays and lesbians –owe him a debt of gratitude. May he rest in peace.”

In talking about “justice and fidelity,” Fr. Martin is likely referring to Fr. Nugent’s response to the Vatican censure of the ministry that he shared with Sister Jeannine Gramick.  The Catholic News Service story in The Catholic Review recounts that challenging time of his life:

“New Ways Ministry was subject to repeated investigations and inquiries at the diocesan, religious-order and Vatican levels, including one ordered in 1994 by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1994, then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI.
“As a result of the investigation, Father Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick, then a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, were ordered to stop pastoral ministry to gays, saying they advanced ‘doctrinally unacceptable’ positions ‘regarding the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the objective disorder of the homosexual inclination.’
“After a year of speaking and writing about homosexuality, Father Nugent and Sister Gramick were directed to stop talking about the topic and the Vatican investigation itself. Father Nugent complied, but Sister Gramick ultimately decided to defy the ban and left her order to join the Sisters of Loretto.”
In addition, the same news story (which includes a comprehensive biography of the priest) notes an important high point in Fr. Nugent’s ministry:
“The Paulist Center Community in Boston gave its 1995 Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice, named after the Paulists’ founder, to Sister Gramick and Father Nugent. ‘This is the first time we have received an award as a team from a mainstream, nongay organization,’ Father Nugent said at the award ceremony. “
Previous recipients of the Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice include Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez.
The Washington Blade story noted another award that Fr. Nugent received:

“. . . Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the LGBT Catholic group Dignity USA, said Nugent’s more than 20 years as a leader of New Ways Ministry continues to have an impact on LGBT Catholics and Catholic clergy despite his absence from direct work on LGBT issues in recent years.

“ ‘Dignity USA gave Bob a lifetime achievement award in 2001 to recognize just how important he was as a ground-breaking figure in lesbian and gay ministry throughout the 70s and 80s,’ Duddy-Burke said. ‘I continue to meet people who say Bob’s writings, workshops, and personal ministry were the thing that gave them hope as they were coming out in the 70s and the 80s,’ she said.”

On The Billerico Report blog, John Becker hailed Fr. Nugent as a “Catholic LGBT Rights Hero,” noting that even after he was censured, he continued to do what he could for lesbian and gay people:

“Although Fr. Nugent stopped leading public workshops and retreats about LGBT issues, he continued ministering one-on-one and with small groups. He maintained his pro-equality beliefs until the end of his life.

“The LGBT community has lost one of our heroes, one who stood up and spoke out against the Catholic Church’s institutional homophobia when few others within that church would.

“Well done, good and faithful servant.”

In addition to these public testimonies, New Ways Ministry has been receiving email from all over the nation and the globe attesting to the many ways that Fr. Nugent’s ministry touched people’s lives.   We are so grateful for the many prayers and expressions of support that we have received from so many. Such support is so strengthening for our hearts and souls.

Brother John Gleason, CSC,  sent us an email which contained a poignant story which very accurately captures the essence of Father Nugent.  Brother Gleason wrote:

“For many years, when I was Provincial and later as Vicar General of my community, I supported Sr. Jeannine and Fr. Nugent.  In fact, I was presnote and on it was printed the followent in Rome the day they were ‘silenced’ by the institution and had supper with them that very night!  I was profoundly struck by Fr. Nugent’s calm throughout the entire ordeal.  Later, he sent me a note,  and on it was printed the following word by Fr. Bernard Haring, CSsR, from his book, My Witness for the Church:
” ‘I love the Church because Christ loved it, loved it to the utmost extreme. I love it even when I discover painful attitudes and structures which I do not find in harmony with the Gospel.  I love it as it is because Christ also loved me with all my imperfections, with all my shadows and constantly gives me the first fruits of his Kingdom so that my love may correspond to his eternal plan.  I experience the Church in the celebration of the Eucharist:  Christ and the Church with him remind me of all the limitless evidence of love, grace and mercy. In this the Church helps me to form a grateful memory. lf we open ourselves to this and gratefully remember all the good which has flowed to us in the Church and constantly flows to us, then we can and will all succeed in giving even the suffering from the Church its place in the heart of Jesus.’
“Although these were Fr. Haring’s words, they struck me as utterly true of Fr. Nugent and deeply affected me.  I have them framed for all to see and read and ponder, for it is really our love for Jesus that allows us to continue this, albeit at times painful, journey.
“I am blessed to have known him and grateful there is now such a wonderful intercessor!”

A brief biography of Father Nugent appears on New Ways Ministry’s website.

We will continue to update you with any further reflections on Fr. Nugent’s life, as well as letting you know about details about his funeral, memorial services, and any memorial opportunities.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry.

Related articles

Associated Press: “Catholic priest once condemned by Vatican for his ministry to gays dies”

Edge Miami: “Gay-Friendly Father Robert Nugent Dies on New Year’s Day”

The Holy Irritant: “Fr. Bob Nugent, RIP”

Religion News Service:  “The Rev. Bob Nugent, silenced for his work with gay Catholics, dies at 76″

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8 Responses to Reflecting on the Life and Ministry of Father Robert Nugent

  1. pjnugent says:

    Marvelous testimony. I wish I had known my apparent relative. Thank God for the good ones.

  2. Barry Blackburn says:

    I can’help but remember the ancient quotation, “the mills of God they grind; they grind exceeding small” in relation to Fr. Bob’s obedience in his silencing. By his obedience he was placing his absolute trust in God as a prayer. God who hears all prayers and who acts in our hearst sent us Pope Francis to add to the great success of New Ways Ministry and the work and workshops of Sr. Jeannine and Fr. Bob. We in Toronto have never forgotten their excellent work and Ministry. He is in the Kingdom of God’s Peace.

  3. Babs says:

    I attended the anniversary of the Newtown shootings at the National Cathedral in DC and Eleanor Holmes Norton spoke to the gathered community of Perseverance with respect to gun legislation and compared it to the vote for women, Civil Rights Legislation, saying these changes don’t take place in our time frames but we must Persevere. It was my first thought on hearing of Fr. Nugent’s death, the Perseverance of he and Sr. Gramick in the face of the sometimes very hurtful responses to their inclusion of the LGBT community into the Church. Let us continue to persevere in his memory.

  4. PK Miller says:

    Father Bob & Sister Jeanine gave a workshop here in Albany NY about 30 years ago. For the first time, LGBT people–as we now call ourselves–heard a message of LOVE, acceptance, Jesus is with you wherever you are along life’s journey. This was at a time when we were ostracized from mainstream churches, condemned, all but physically thrown out. It’s what led to organizations such as Dignity, Integrity, Affirmation, etc. Father Bob & Sister Jeanine, instead accepted us. it saddens me that Fr. Bob as given a terrible choice–your ministry to LGBT folks or your vocation. As a college/grad school classmate, a Jesuit, has said repeatedly, “If I am not a priest, I am nothing.”
    Thank you Father Bob. Rest in peace, my brother. well done, good and faithful servant.

  5. Friends says:

    “In Paradisum Deducant Te Angeli”:

    I had never heard of Fr. Bob, but clearly he is one of The Lord’s Own. It’s such a blessing that he lived to see Pope Francis’ still-emerging proclamation of a renewed understanding of the true nature of the Church. The Holy Spirit — the Third Person of the Holy Trinity — has never abandoned us, and surely never will:

    http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+16%3A33&version=NRSVA

  6. […] few others within that church would.” — John Becker upon learning earlier this month of Fr. Robert Nugent’s […]

  7. […] FATHER ROBERT NUGENT, NEW WAYS MINISTRY CO-FOUNDER, DIES ON NEW YEAR’S DAY The first news is sad news. Father Robert Nugent, a co-founder of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic LGBT rights group, died on January 1, 2014 after a three-month battle with cancer. Father Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick founded New Ways Ministry in 1976 to service to the needs of gay and lesbian Catholics who were hurt by the treatment of the Church and the greater society. Father Nugent was inspired by Vatican II to fight for those who are marginalized in society, and this led him to minister to the Catholic LGBT community. The work of Father Robert Nugent and Sister Jeanine Gramick led them in conflict with more conservative Catholics and they were eventually silenced in the late 1990s by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger because of their refusal to accept church teaching on the “intrinsic evil of homosexual acts,” and Nugent was condemned for questioning “the definitive and unchangeable nature of Catholic doctrine in this area.” In 2010, New Ways Ministry again drew the ire of U.S. Catholic leaders for criticizing the hierarchy’s fight against same-sex marriage. […]

  8. […] Father Robert Nugent was a co-founder of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic LGBT rights group, and fought for the inclusion and acceptance of LGBT individuals within the Catholic Church. Father Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick founded New Ways Ministry in 1976 to service to the needs of gay and lesbian Catholics who were hurt by the treatment of the Church and the greater society. Father Nugent was inspired by Vatican II to fight for those who are marginalized in society, and this led him to minister to the Catholic LGBT community. The work of Father Robert Nugent and Sister Jeanine Gramick led them in conflict with more conservative Catholics and they were eventually silenced in the late 1990s by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger because of their refusal to accept church teaching on the “intrinsic evil of homosexual acts,” and dared to say that homosexuality was not a sin. […]

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