Pope Francis Preaches for ‘Open Doors’ to Welcome All

June 3, 2013

Pope Francis

A stark contrast to the actions of  members of the US hierarchy lately, Pope Francis is preaching a gospel of tolerance from the Vatican leaving many commentators and Catholics wondering what implications this will have. Whereas Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is quite literally closing the cathedral doors to LGBT Catholics and failing their pastoral needs, the pope is demanding that every church’s doors be open wide to anyone who seeks Jesus Christ.

Kevin Clarke at America calls Pope Francis a “human pastoral quote machine” when he reports on the pope’s recent morning Mass homily about welcoming all:

” ‘Today’s mildly rebuked pharisees are the self-appointed pastoral border guards who hold up a hand in consternation instead of offering one in welcome when the less-than-perfect among us seek to gate crash at the house of the lord. ‘There is always a temptation,’ Pope Francis warned, ‘to try and take possession of the Lord.’ The pope spoke of an unofficial ‘8th’ sacrament created by parish gatekeepers to throw up obstacles to those they deem unworthy…

“Pope Francis said, ‘Jesus is indignant when he sees’ such efforts to block people from sacramental life because those who suffer are ‘his faithful people, the people that he loves so much.’ “

Michael Sean Winters of National Catholic Reporter analyzes this homily, and identifies two challenges that Francis lays at the feet of American bishops: what it means to be a pastor and the limits of theology. He quotes the pope as saying:

“‘Jesus is indignant when he sees these things [Catholics being excluded]‘ – said the Pope – because those who suffer are ‘his faithful people, the people that he loves so much’

“‘We think today of Jesus, who always wants us all to be closer to Him, we think of the Holy People of God, a simple people, who want to get closer to Jesus and we think of so many Christians of goodwill who are wrong and that instead of opening a door they close the door of goodwill … So we ask the Lord that all those who come to the Church find the doors open, find the doors open, open to meet this love of Jesus.’

Winters questions prelates like Archbishop Charles Chaput who exclude a child from Catholic elementary school for having lesbian mothers. He notes the false torment of Catholic parishes and dioceses around the recent Boy Scouts of America decision to allow gay youth. Ultimately, he concludes that the pope’s message should change this dynamic by making clergy more about love than rules.

The second challenge from Pope Francis is a critique of intellectualizing faith, as if theology provides every answer and all guidance. Too often the LGBT community is greeted with technical terms and strict categorizations from priests bound by out-dated theology, not pastoral love. Winters writes in summary:

“Papa Francesco is challenging all of us, across the board, to re-think our attitudes and our ideologies, our certainties and our prejudices…It seems like the Holy Father is becoming the world’s parish priest, and I hope the actual parish priests (and their bishops) will follow his example. He is welcoming. He is challenging. He is straight forward. But, most of all, he is loving.”

In loving and inviting all who seek our Catholic community, Pope Francis provides an alternative to the standard policy of exclusion found in too many parishes and dioceses. He claims Jesus is “indignant” when Catholics cannot access the sacramental life of the Church, the opposite of what Detroit Archbishop Vigneron said when he told told Catholics who support marriage equality to stay away from communion. The pope is preaching words of welcome, just as many are asking, “Can LGBT Catholics find a home in the Church?”  This question can be answered positively if bishops around the world are listening to Rome, and on this matter, we must hope they are.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Bishop Gumbleton Preaches on Christ’s Radical Welcome for All

April 19, 2013
Bishop Thomas Gumbleton

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton

Responding to statements by Detroit’s Archbishop Allen Vigneron suggesting pro-marriage equality Catholics  refrain from  Communion, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton instead told Catholics last week, “Don’t stop coming to Communion.” He expanded that message of inclusivity in his weekly National Catholic Reporter column, “The Peace Pulpit,” and in an extensive interview with Democracy Now.

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, Bishop Gumbleton reflected on last Sunday’s Gospel reading (John 21:1-19) and the implications for how we form a church after Jesus appears post-Resurrection to the disciples. He concludes that the church is a place where all, without condition or exception, are welcomed:

“As we go on in what happens on this occasion, we discover a couple of things about that mission. One is how it has to be totally inclusive. You don’t push anybody out of the community. You draw everybody in, until you have — in John’s Gospel, he often uses large numbers to make a point by exaggeration. Back when he changed water into wine, when Jesus did that, John said, ‘There were six jugs of water with thirty gallons of each,’ he’s making a point. Thirty gallons in six jugs, that’s a lot of wine, but they certainly didn’t drink it all on that occasion. John is simply making a point: there’s no limit to what God can do. So this occasion, when they’re fishing, the net is bulging with fish, bulging, but it doesn’t break. See, everybody can come in…

“It’s something we need to remember, that we’re not to push people away from the church. We’re supposed to draw them in. We want everyone to be part of this community of the disciples of Jesus.”

Bishop Gumbleton also notes the Gospel teaches us about community leadership and inclusivity:

“Again, I want to emphasize that the disciples were just learning this, how to be the community of disciples, how to be the church. There wasn’t a predetermined plan with institutional guidelines and laws developed and so on. No, none of that. They had to struggle to understand how to be the community of disciples of Jesus…

“But here, right at the beginning, it’s altogether different. It’s to be a leadership of love…

“That’s the kind of church we have to be working toward becoming part of — following that leadership of love, not a leadership of power and authority and penances and penalties and exclusions and so on, but a leadership that says love.

“Love is the only thing that really counts in this community of disciples of Jesus; love and leadership of the church throughout all the members of the church. The whole community would be a community of disciples who love one another and who proclaim that love to the world around us and who carry out the mission of Jesus by drawing all into this community of disciples.

“We establish the church by doing this promulgation of love wherever we go, not just by our words, but by our actions. When we become that kind of a church, from the Pope right through the whole community, then that’s when we’ll be a sign to the world that will draw the world to enter into the reign of God and bring fullness of God’s reign into reality — a reign of love, a reign that will be peace and justice for all.”

Bishop Gumbleton is a long-standing advocate for welcoming the LGBT community within the Catholic Church, and he spoke for nearly an hour with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now last week about many issues of justice, church reform, and his personal journey. Within that, Bishop Gumbleton noted the importance of conscience in the Church’s relationship with gay and lesbian individuals:

“No one can judge the conscience of any other person. And homosexual people have to deal with who they are, how they express intimacy and love. And I am sure, based on the teaching of the church, also that, before anything else, a person’s own individual conscience gives guidance to how that person must act, and no one can interfere with that. And that’s teaching that goes right back to the beginning of the church…That’s their conscience decision, and it’s between each person and God. And that’s church teaching. And so, how individuals deal with their homosexuality is something that we have to respect.”

In Bishop Gumbleton’s wisdom, a clear plan for clergy in reaching out to the LGBT community is available in this model of radical inclusivity. Cardinal Dolan recently remarked about the need for improved relations between the church and LGBT people. He would do well to listen his fellow bishop who preaches Christ’s radical inclusivity, the primacy of conscience, and most of all, love.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Catholic Parents Cope Differently When LGBT Children Are Excluded

April 3, 2013

Mary Jo and Norm Bowers, Catholic parents with a lesbian daughter

The trend of LGBT individuals exiting the Catholic churches of childhood is now expanding to include their parents, too. Many clergy and ministers try to balance pastoral care with doctrinal statements, and some Catholic parents of LGBT children are finding the results inadequate. WBEZ, a Chicago public radio station, profiled several Catholic couples with children of varying sexual orientations and gender identities to understand further the parents’ relationship with the Church.

Toni and Tom Weaver explain how combining their love for their gay son with their strong Catholic identities is an evolving process. Toni describes herself as an active member of her parish in the music ministries and through daily Mass attendance. Their son, Michael came out the day after graduating college, and Toni believes her warm embrace in that moment would not always have been true. WBEZ reports:

“’If he had come out to me 10 years earlier, I’m not sure what my response would have been,’ Toni said. ‘I was definitely very traditionally Catholic and had even been moving in Evangelical circles. I was the first one to preach that homosexuality was wrong.’

“But Weaver said she came to a fuller understanding of homosexuality when she began studying for a master’s degree in theology:

“’Here were people who were gay who were being treated atrociously, and they were being denied their basic rights, and they were the butt of jokes…It finally dawned on me that people don’t choose their sexual orientation. That for me was an absolute turning point, and I attribute it to the work of the spirit.'”

The Weavers welcome their gay son, and then sought to alter the attitudes of Catholics around them, but were harmed when a bishop’s letter condemning marriage equality was read during Mass. This episode triggered the Weavers to permanently leave their Catholic parish:

“’I think that was the first time I felt slapped in the face by my church…I stood up, we were sitting in the middle of the pew. I stood up, and I turned toward the door and walked out. I grieved the church for 18 months. I grieved it. Something had died in my life.'”

Other parents remain split on how to engage Catholic communities, like Norm and Mary Jo Bowers who have a married lesbian daughter with two children baptized in the Church. Mary Jo left the Church, but her husband remains with a highly localized perspective:

“’I’ve told my pastor, I said, ‘To me my whole religion is this parish. It stays within the confines of this parish…I have nothing anymore to do with the hierarchy and what comes out of Rome’…

“Norm Bowers said he was offended by that and by a column in a Catholic paper. A priest wrote that children raised by gay couples might grow up ‘confused.’

“’I said to myself, which Catholic who has a brain isn’t confused in the Catholic church today?'”

Parents who remain, like Norm Bowers, find the positives in their local parishes and maintain hope that, under a new pope, perhaps the tone will change to something more pastorally-inclined. They also benefit from supportive clergy, like Fr. Bill Tkachuk of St. Nicholas Parish in Evanston, Illinois who compliments parishioner’s efforts to create an LGBT-affirming Catholic community:

“[Fr. Tkachuk] said the church needs to be more sensitive to families in the way it talks about gays and gay issues: ‘Speaking in the language that people can hear with their hearts and accept with their hearts, as opposed to a more academic language that can be received as very hurtful, even if it’s not intended that way.’

“His parishioners recently wrote to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. They objected to a letter in which the cardinal called civil unions a ‘legal fiction,’ and gay marriage ‘contrary to the common sense of the human race.’”

Barbara Marian and her husband now commute over an hour to St. Nicholas each week after having too many negative experiences in her local parish. Barbara has a lesbian daughter, along with three nieces and a nephew who identify as LGBT and sees no plausible way to leave the Catholic Church:

“’We live with love for these neighbors, colleagues and children and we see them as whole persons,’ Marian said. ‘We don’t focus on the small part of their lives that involves their genitalia.’…

“‘I am Catholic through and through and through,’ Marian said. ‘There is no separating me from the church. Although it brings me to my knees with anger and tears when the bishops make a statement and strafe my community, I bleed.'”

As growing numbers of Catholics and parishes support LGBT equality, and as more children feel safe coming out to their families, anti-gay efforts by Catholic bishops will continue affecting long-term parishioners who refuse to remain or stay silent when they watch their children come under attack.

A good resource for Catholic parents of all sorts–those who are struggling with accepting a child’s orientation, those who are struggling with church structures, those who want to become more involved with equality issues–is Fortunate Families, a national network of Catholic parents of LGBT sons and daughters.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Embracing the Superabundance of Love

December 2, 2012

The readings for the first Sunday of Advent are Jeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2, and Luke 21:25-28, 34-36. You can view the readings here.

As Advent begins, Catholics worldwide prepare themselves for Christ’s entrance into creation. In the already/not yet nature of Christianity, these weeks both anticipate Christ’s coming anew and celebrate  the Incarnation that brought us a historical Jesus. Each week we hear encouraging messages of hope, joy, and peace.

For LGBT advocates within the Church, we begin this Advent  on a particularly positive note with recent victories for marriage equality and as we witness a growing trend of acceptance, affirmation, and welcome amongst Catholics at large.

In this hope-filled Advent context, this Sunday’s readings seem jarring in their use of  harsh apocalyptic images to refer to the coming of God’s kingdom, which is elsewhere shown as peaceful and just. Catholic LGBT advocates also know of the harshness of a hierarchy doubling down in its oppressive anti-equality work as we struggle to ensure each person and every family are legally protected, at a bare minimum.

Luke’s gospel (Lk 21:25-28) has Jesus identifying nations in dismay, roaring seas, death from fright, and the powers of the heavens as signs of this new era when God’s justice will reign. Jesus’ further exhortation to be ready for what will surprise us and to remain strong during the trials seems a tall order. Jesus’ words can seem terrifying for the Christian — exactly the opposite of what we desire to aid us at Advent’s hopeful beginning.

Thankfully, the second reading from First Thessalonians contextualizes how preparedness, vigilance, and prayer demanded by Jesus may be lived out. Paul writes to the emerging community in Thessalonica in this pastoral letter, the earliest book of the New Testament and thus in close proximity to earliest Christian belief.

Couched amid apocalyptic passages, the reading today comes from Paul’s blessing for the community. We hear two parts proclaimed. The first desires an increase in love and the second calls for a strong Christian witness by the early Christians (1 Thes 3:12-4:2):

“Brothers and sisters:
May the Lord make you increase and abound in love
for one another and for all,
just as we have for you,
so as to strengthen your hearts,
to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father
at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones. Amen.

“Finally, brothers and sisters,
we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that,
as you received from us
how you should conduct yourselves to please God
and as you are conducting yourselves
you do so even more.
For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.”

We in the 21st century Church find ourselves desperately requiring this same blessing that the Thessalonians received. Paul does not merely pray that they may love, but directly addresses Christ in his prayer. To quote the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Paul “asks for a superabundance of love directed within and beyond the community” where the apostles lead by their humble witness.

In this, Paul demands the Church’s ministers lead by examples of love, and we can hope that the bishops and other church leaders will do the same. Given present affairs, we cannot wait on them to be loving witnesses to Christ — this superabundance of love must come from the laity and supportive religious and clergy. In this preparatory period of Advent, when we begin life with Christ again, it is this superabundance that might be a powerful focal point.

Superabundance isn’t a sufficient amount; it isn’t even more than necessary. Superabundance is gratuitous. It is overflowing. It is uncompromised, unrestrained, and perhaps unwieldy.

A superabundance means all, without exception, find their places in community and all, without exception, find more love than would suffice for even the most suffering people. It means that LGBT persons with their loved ones, their children and their families, their friends and their allies are not merely accepted, but eagerly invited to participate in a life with Christ anew.

I challenge myself this Advent to extend beyond just working out of love for structural changes and legal victories. These are essential, but only loving an ordinary amount comes from a love that two millennia of Christianity has tamed far too greatly.

This Advent, while we ready the way for Christ, let us re-embrace the superabundance of love found amid the earliest Christians, unconcerned with doctrinaire thinking and always concerned with how the community enacted its faith-filled witness.

Then we can be Christians that will stand before Jesus when God’s kingdom nears, confident that in loving superabundantly each person we lived well.

-Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


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