National Catholic Sisters Week, currently underway in the US, seeks to honor and celebrate the many women religious who have positively contributed to our world and our Church. For decades, Catholic sisters included justice for gay and lesbian people in these efforts to create change, and they have been ardent advocates for the full equality of every person. Now, Nathan Schneider’s article published by Al Jazeera America reveals the crucial role Catholic sisters play in advancing justice for transgender people in the Church.
Sr. Monica, a pseudonym used in the article due a request by her congregation for anonymity, began ministering among the transgender community in the late 1990s. Her smaller congregation is noted for ministering on society’s margins, and Monica is trained as a spiritual director and liturgist. She began ministering to the lesbian/gay community at first, before recognizing a “call within a call” to accompany the transgender community. The article notes of Sr. Monica’s ministry now:
“Monica has welcomed trans people into her home for retreats, and helped them to pray, and taken them out to dinner dressed, for the first time in public, according to the gender they know themselves to be. She often stays in touch with them for years on end. ‘Her basic message,’ [psychologist Maureen] Osborne says, ‘is to let them know that they are loved by God and that they are meant to embody exactly who they are.’
“Monica has healed souls and saved lives. Yet the leadership of the Catholic Church she serves acts as if her ministry doesn’t exist.”
Currently, there is no official teaching from the Vatican on gender identity aside from an ad hoc document suggesting guidelines on gender transitions, and a few condemnatory remarks from Pope Benedict XVI in public speeches. Neither can be considered the result of substantive theological reflection or “official” in any way.
In 2010, Sr. Monica convened a meeting of seven Catholic priests, a deacon, and four transgender Catholics for an afternoon of sharing and reflection. Schneider describes the meeting, the first of its kind, in the following way:
“Over the course of an hour, two trans men and two trans women told their life stories in brief, and the priests had to listen. They talked about the process of discovering that their gender didn’t fit their body — some in childhood, others later in life. They talked about struggles with priests and longings to be reconciled with their faith…
“During the second hour, there was an open discussion. The priests didn’t ask questions so much as affirm, and express sympathy. ‘I commend you for the integrity that you have’ — that kind of thing.
“As the second hour ended, some of the priests began to slip out for other appointments. One of them began to speak, paused, and then said, ‘Your ministry is to us today, and your spirituality is very, very apparent. You’ve helped me personally a great deal.’
“Another pause: ‘Because I’m a queer man.’ After what he’d heard, somehow, his own secret didn’t seem so scary. ‘I’ve come out to a number of people — but not yet to my brothers here.’ “
Sr. Monica’s ministry was sustained for a long time by her religious community, even when bishops were sharply critical of her work. These critics have kept her from being more public about transgender ministry, and now illness has forced her into an early retirement. Sr. Monica has withdrawn from leading retreats and counseling more than 200 transgender people, instead spending time in prayer and silence with the hope of ‘melting into God.’
At the same time, transgender topics are increasingly addressed by Catholics through writings and workshops sponsored by New Ways Ministry, of which Schneider writes:
“The first-ever Catholic trans conference in the United States took place one Saturday last November at a suburban convent in Towson, Md. About 35 people attended, mostly older women, sitting together in a room with a crucifix on one wall facing another wall of stained glass. The morning’s presentation was by a psychiatrist who works with gender-variant patients at Children’s Hospital. In the afternoon there was a talk by Hilary Howes, a middle-aged businesswoman who converted to Catholicism after her transition at age 40, almost two decades ago…
“Howes said during the conference in Towson, ‘The idea that God is beyond gender is quite clearly there…It’s a beautiful spiritual journey, but if you don’t have to go through it, please don’t.’…
“The day was full of epiphanies…Some who were already familiar with transgender terms and categories were trying to wrap their heads around the genderqueer label that increasingly resonates with young people — not one gender or the other so much as somewhere in between, or both, or neither.”
Sr. Jeannine Gramick, who has ministered to lesbian/gay people for decades, is quoted in the article as saying, “The trans issue is in the Catholic community now where the lesbian and gay issue was in the late ’70s.” Schneider highlights these two sisters as he concludes the article, writing:
“For decades Grammick [sic] has spoken boldly on behalf of the queer community and has been censured mightily for it; where Monica agonizes about whether or not to speak, Grammick simply does so and then deals with whatever blowback comes from the hierarchy. Where Grammick has advocated, Monica has internalized.
“And this eats at her. ‘I am silent while trans people are being killed,’ she says, clenching her shoulders as if holding an invisible weight. ‘They’re being murdered and committing suicide, and I’m silent!’ When she’s worked up like this Monica can flash a gaze that makes her eyes seem steely and certain, until they fill with tears. And then a saying from St. Catherine of Siena comes to mind, turning her anger to a duller sadness. She recites it: ‘Preach the truth as if you had a million voices — it is silence that kills the world.’ “
In whatever way sisters have ministered, the religious women’s persistent accompaniment and advocacy for LGBT justice is a central reason to celebrate them during Catholic Sisters Week. At the same time, the voices of LGBT Catholics, their family, friends, and allies are all needed to carry on Sr. Monica and the sisters’ desire for transgender inclusion.
You can read the full article at Al Jazeera America by clicking here, and read more coverage of trans Catholic issues by this blog by clicking here. New Ways Ministry will also be offering another transgender workshop on Saturday, May 17, 2014, in Washington, DC. For more information on that, please call (301) 277-5674 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry