Papal Phone Call Story Should Teach Church About Affirmation

September 7, 2013
Pope Francis

Pope Francis

A minor brouhaha erupted on Friday concerning Pope Francis and homosexuality.  A French newspaper had reported that a young, gay Frenchman received a phone call from the pope, in response to a letter he had written to the Catholic leader.   Later, however, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, absolutely denied that the Holy Father had made the phone call.

According to TheLocal.fr, recounted the purported conversation as reported by the young man, Christophe Trutino, to the French newspaper, La Depeche Midi:

‘He said ‘Christopher? It’s Pope Francis’. I was unsettled, of course. I asked, ” Really? ” He replied : “Yes.”

“I know it’s hard to believe, but it really happened like that. From that moment on , I no longer doubted,” said the young Frenchman.

“I received the letter that you sent me. You need to remain courageous and continue to believe and pray and stay good,” the voice at the end of the phone told him during the nine-minute conversation in Spanish.

“Your homosexuality. It doesn’t matter. One way or another , we are all children of God. This is why we must continue to be good,” he continued.

But The Local also carried the denial by Fr. Lombardi:

“Father Lombardi, a spokesman for the Vatican ‘firmly denied’ claims by the young gay Catholic that the Pope had made a private telephone call to him last week.

” ‘After previously declining to deny or confirm the call, in which Christophe Trutino claimed the Pope told him ‘Your homosexuality doesn’t matter’ Lombardi told Le Figaro newspaper: ‘The Pope never called this person.’

“ ‘The only time the Pope has called France was to speak to Cardinal Barbarin. I absolutely deny this information,’ he said.

“ ‘There is always the risk that people pretend to be the pope over the phone,’ Lombardi added.”

I tend to believe the Vatican spokesperson, for two reasons: 1) I don’t think he would deny it so boldly without first checking with the pope; 2) I think if the pope had indeed made the call, he would not want it to be private.

This story, however, cannot be brushed aside quickly.  The fact that the young man’s case seemed so plausible to many, including journalists,  reveals two important lessons: 1) LGBT people are hungering for affirmation from the hierarchy; 2) people believe that the affirming message in the phone conversation could realistically come from Pope Francis.

For many years, the Catholic hierarchy, particularly in Rome and the U.S., have only had very negative things to say to and about LGBT people.   Despite tons of evidence of the faithfulness, sincerity, and commitment of LGBT Catholics, the hierarchy continued for many years to ignore these realities.  While the hierarchy often spoke about “the truth” of human sexuality (meaning maintaining the heterosexual norm),  it did not acknowledge the truth of the real lives and experiences of LGBT people, particularly the goodness discovered in their relationships.  This denial of reality and affirmation hurts not only LGBT people, but hurts the hierarchy themselves because it keeps them living in ignorance and fear.

Yet, since he was elected on March 13, 2013, Pope Francis has pointed to a different direction regarding LGBT issues.  We’ve learned that he supported civil unions in Argentina, and we have seen him take the focus off marriage equality opposition by the Vatican.  His comments on not judging gay priests have renewed the hope of many who work and pray for LGBT equality.  He has provided a different voice from the hierarchy, and it is a voice that many people have longed to hear.   So, the purported comments from the phone call could easily be recognized as coming from this affirming pope.

The third, and perhaps most important, lesson from this story is the lesson for the hierarchy.  The poignancy of this tale shows how much people want to hear a “good word” from church leadership.  They want “bread, not stones” and “fish, not snakes.”  And they are looking towards the new pope to inspire those positive attributes into the whole church,  both hierarchy and the people.

It may yet turn out that some further unknown evidence proves that there actually was a  phone call from the pope with an affirming message.  That would be wonderful and exciting.  But even if this does not prove true, our church can still learn valuable lessons from this story which can help to bring about true justice and equality for LGBT people.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Finding Hope in Challenging Times

August 29, 2012

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts on Sunday and Monday,  Sister Jeannine Gramick and I were in Washington State last week making presentations about Catholic support for marriage equality there.  The state legalized marriage equality in February of this year, the bill being signed into law by the Catholic governor, Christine Gregoire, but now it is being challenged in a referendum on election day in November.

During the Q and A at one of those gatherings, a questioner asked what is probably the most common question that I get asked:  “How do you maintain hope for justice for LGBT people in the face of so many challenges?”  I wish I had a simple and easy answer for that one.  I have no magic pill or easy fix to these challenges.  They must be faced and responded to, time and again.

Some things, however, have worked effectively over the years, and I shared some with the questioner and folks that night.  I thought I’d share them here, too, with the hope that in the “Comments” section of this post, readers will contribute their own processes for maintaining hope.

Most important for me is looking toward the positive that has occurred and is occurring.  In the gospels, Jesus declared the reign of God is already here, despite all appearances to the contrary.  I think one of our challenges as followers of Christ is to look for the signs of God’s reign of justice in the world in which we live.  It may be difficult to do so, especially at first, but, with practice, it becomes easier to do.  Just like any form of prayer.

The purpose of this exercise is not to look at the world with rose-colored glasses, but to provide a reality check on the world around us.  When bad news happens, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that ONLY bad news happens, when, of course, that is not the case.  Stopping to look for God’s reign of justice in our world serves as a good reminder against our penchant to catastrophize.

More importantly, this exercise also serves as a reminder to me that God is actually the one in charge, not me.  I’m reminded that God operates on a separate clock and calendar than I do, and that there is a time and a season for God’s actions in the world.  I’m reminded that any good that happens comes from God, not from my actions, and that anything that is seemingly bad is an opportunity to look for a way to “birth” Christ into our world.

I feel that often times I have a privileged position in regard for this kind of thinking.  People tend to think that since I work at New Ways Ministry, I am barraged daily by negative messages from the church hierarchy and from homophobes in the secular world.

The exact opposite is true.  My work at New Ways Ministry brings me into contact with thousands of  Catholics who are working to make God’s reign of justice and equality a reality in their parishes and communities.    Instead of seeing negative things happening in the church, I am privileged to see Catholics who work tirelessly and courageously to make that LGBT people are welcomed, accepted, loved, and included.

This experience of seeing so many Catholics do so much good helps me to remember that the church truly is ALL the people of God, not just the hierarchy and the clergy.

Again, I stress that all of these exercises take time, practice, and patience, but I think they are all things that people can easily do to maintain hope in our precarious and challenging times.

How do you maintain hope?  What inspires you to keep on working for justice despite so many challenges?  Maybe you get hope from a Scripture passage, a book you read, a person you know, a community you belong to.  Please add your thoughts to the “Comments” section of this post.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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