Sr. Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder of New Ways Ministry, was featured by the Catholic reform organization FutureChurch as their Woman Witness of Mercy for October. The following reflection by Bondings 2.0’s Associate Editor Bob Shine was included in a resource packet on Jeannine. For more information, and to purchase the packet, click here.
After fifty -plus years in religious life, Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SL has encountered numerous people and touched many lives in her ministry of justice and reconciliation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the Catholic Church. I first met Jeannine a few months after college and in this reflection, I share a little of how she has impacted my own life and what I know younger Catholics can learn from this holy and humble person.
I began at New Ways Ministry during a service year with the Loretto Volunteers. The first evening at the Volunteers’ opening retreat, held at the Sisters of Loretto’s motherhouse in Kentucky, we watched a documentary about Jeannine’s life and ministry. I lay in bed that evening and, quite overwhelmed, questioned myself on how I had jumped into such deep waters. Sisters had shared their stories with us over meals and in side conversations. Theirs were stories of integrating schools and accompanying communities, of artistry and feminist witnesses, of poetry and anti-war protests. Theirs was a mission, to paraphrase their famed former superior Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, of going out to the ends of the branches of our world because that is where the fruit resides. And I had committed to wandering out an ecclesial branch with a sister who was taking on the Catholic Church.
Events that fall would not, at first, quiet the questions from that opening retreat. Within a few weeks, I had spent a Saturday witnessing at various sites in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the Loretto Community’s 200th anniversary and helped organize Catholic events for the marriage equality campaign in Maryland. I had discovered that even the enthusiasm and energy I had at 22 could not keep pace with Jeannine and the other sisters.
With time, working alongside Jeannine and Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, I have learned much. Four years on, Jeannine and I now teach one another. It is not quite equal – I help her navigate Facebook and she helps me navigate the complexities of being a disciple of Christ – but it is a friendship I cherish. The following are four lessons Jeannine has taught me, lessons which can aid younger Catholics like myself as we find our way in the troubled church we love.
“What is the Catholic Church doing for gays and lesbians?” A young gay man named Dominic posed this question to Jeannine in 1971, and it would be this question that radically transformed her life. Jeannine began organizing home liturgies for gay people in the Philadelphia area, educating herself on homosexuality, offering some workshops, and, in just a few years, launched New Ways Ministry with Fr. Robert Nugent. Being open to Dominic’s question and tender to the pain of gay people excluded from the church led Jeannine down a path she never expected, but which came to define her life. I was not there, but I believe it was the Spirit speaking through Dominic when he asked that question. This story is a reminder that we, as Christians, must be ever present to the people around us, ever listening to voices at the margins, and ever willing to let the Other make claims on our life that may have profound consequences.
Don’t say the church when you mean the hierarchy. Jeannine lives committed to Vatican II’s teaching that the church is fundamentally the People of God, and that community is essential for Christian life. Before I knew Jeannine well, I thought she was a rogue figure who alone had challenged the Vatican, yet this narrative is not accurate. Her decades of ministry would not be possible without the people and communities that support her and work with her – the congregations to which she has belonged, other women religious, LGBT Catholics and their families, supporters of New Ways Ministry, theologians and scholars, and more. And Jeannine is not only supported by, but actively contributes to the communities she is in. For younger Catholics in the United States, we cannot forget how essential community will be for our journeys even if parish pews are thinning out and the hair of fellow believers’ greys. Enacting the church’s evangelical mission is not possible unless we live as the People of God: baptized as priests, called to holiness, and supporting one another whatever may come.
The envelopes need stuffing. On Tuesday evenings, you will find Jeannine with the New Ways Ministry volunteers who prepare the organization’s bulk mailings and then gather for pizza and camaraderie. Jeannine models what it means to be a leader who serves. Even though she is quite busy, she attends to people with kind notes and small loving acts. She willingly does the tedious but necessary tasks with everyone else. She works long hours to ensure every detail is correct, and exhibits a persistence in ministry possessed by few (and the teacher in her never wastes an opportunity to teach me a grammar lesson). Jeannine teaches younger Catholics that seeking ecclesial reform and renewal means hard work that is hardly glamorous. We must resolve each morning to seeking a just church, steadily running the race Christ has set before us that is not even a marathon but an ultramarathon.
“I choose not to collaborate in my own oppression.” These words, with which Jeannine responded to the Vatican’s attempt at silencing her, are a haunting reminder to me of what being Christian entails. Being part of the church means calling the church to live more fully the Gospel that we proclaim, but people will resist this threatening call. Jeannine endured two decades of degrading investigations and punitive sanctions by church leaders because she refused to believe LGBT people are anything less than wonderfully made by God. She challenges even today the church she loves and the communities to which she belongs, exercising the prophetic office which we all share through baptism as she invites all people to be reconciled. To be Christian is to prioritize Christ against all else, and there will be times when following the decisions we make in conscience leaves us isolated, rejected, and deeply pained. But we should never collaborate in our own oppression or the oppression of others, especially when it is the church for which we are responsible that is inflicting wounds.
The widespread acceptance of LGBT people among Catholics in the United States and growing acceptance internationally can largely be attributed to Jeannine’s tireless labors. She is an incarnation of these words from Blessed Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, foundress of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, words which Jeannine introduced me to (they hang in a frame over her desk) and which are so powerful for Catholics who seek a reformed and renewed church:
“All the works of God proceed slowly and in pain; but then their roots are the sturdier and their flowering the lovelier.”
Holy people are holy not because of their greatest flowering acts, but because of their quietest habits which create sturdy and deep roots. Jeannine Gramick has acted greatly in listening to Dominic’s voice and being faithful to her response even when the Vatican bore down. Yet, the person I know Jeannine to be is a person whose quietest habits in daily life are what have most catalyzed the reception of Vatican II and renewal of the Catholic Church on matters of gender and sexuality. Honored to know Jeannine as a colleague and as a friend, I conclude with this prayer:
Radiant colors stretched across the sky,
the rainbow is your sign of loving covenant,
after flood waters bathed the earth, O Divine Creator.
From You, creation is breathed into being,
from chaotic waters, infinite diversity rises,
every person reflecting You, wonderfully made,
every creature beloved by You, wonderfully made.
Arms stretched to the ends of the Cross’ beam,
Jesus is your sign of lasting covenant,
after we forget how to love, O Divine Redeemer.
Slowly, creation seeks Your embrace by
our daily labors and our bread broken,
yet imperfect lives keep restrained the love
You poured into our beings, love to pour out.
With lives stretched outward from within,
we are your sign of liberating covenant,
after we encounter the Other, O Divine Healer.
Pierced by the Other’s inquiry of “Will you love?”
our reconciling hopes foundations for new bridges,
creating a church where God’s queer people
from margins to center come, radiant people,
lives echoing Jesus’ prayer to be One.
We are the People of God, invoking your creative breath,
as a sacrament in the world, as an outstretched rainbow
proclaiming anew in our renewing witness,
Your loving, lasting, liberating covenant.
May this be so; may we be one. Amen.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 29, 2016