Letter Asks Pope Francis to Encounter LGBT Catholics During U.S. Visit

July 31, 2015

A coalition of Catholic, LGBT, and Hispanic groups have invited Pope Francis to meet with LGBT Catholics during his U.S. visit in September, contrasting with the more cautionary policies of Archbishop Charles Chaput and the 2015 World Meeting of Families. The New York Times reports:

“In a formal letter sent to Pope Francis at the Vatican, groups representing gay and transgender people, Catholics, and Hispanics said the church in America was in the midst of a ‘pastoral crisis’ over gay issues and asked to meet with him while he was in the United States. While some American conservatives are eager to see Pope Francis make use of his popularity on this trip to advance the fight against abortion and same-sex marriage, gay Catholics want him to acknowledge their rejection by the church, and to welcome them as full members with equal access to sacraments like baptism and marriage.”

Signatories included church reform groups (including Call To Action, DignityUSA, Fortunate Families, New Ways Ministry), gender justice projects, academic figures, LGBT advocates, national Hispanic organizations, and Catholic parents of LGBT children. Their call is for Francis to listen to LGBT Catholics’ stories, too often marked by intolerance and injustice. DignityUSA’s Marianne Duddy-Burke told the Times reporter:

“We see so many people we love abandoning the church because of the kinds of indignities and pain that they’re subjected to…whether it’s being denied a kid’s baptism or hearing a priest make horrible comments during a homily. Everybody’s got stories of pain and alienation, and those things do real harm to people. And it needs to end.”

The Times coverage includes the story of Lui Akira Francesco Matsuo, a transgender Catholic who was rejected from his Detroit parish a few years ago. Matsuo, who is originally from Japan, says Pope Francis “lost my trust” when the pontiff compared gender theory to nuclear weapons, but has hopes for the upcoming visit:

“I want him to extend his hand openly, especially to the transgender community…I am a practicing Catholic. I just don’t have a parish I can call home.”

Nicole Santamaría, an intersex woman from El Salvador, shared her own desires for Pope Francis’ visit:

“To families who are different, let him speak out and say that we are beloved human beings, that we are beloved of God…I don’t want another teenaged boy or girl to take his or her life because they thought that not even God loves them.”

Santamaría and her mother are among fourteen LGBT Catholic families participating in Equally Blessed’s pilgrimage to the World Meeting of Families. These families will share their stories and represent the religious experience of Catholic families with LGBT members from around the world. You can lend your support to this effort with a donation here.

Deb Word, the Catholic mother of a gay man who did not come out until he was 23 for fear of going to hell, said she would tell Pope Francis:

“We don’t need to put this kind of trauma on a child’s soul.”

Word works closely with Catholic parents through Fortunate Families, as well as having provided a home for more than 17 LGBT youth experiencing homelessness over the years. The letter calls particular attention to to the plight of LGBT youth who experience elevated levels of bullying, discrimination, self-harm, suicide attempts, substance abuse, homelessness, and family rejection. The letter stated:

“This is a crisis that the church can help to address through effective pastoral care and programs that provides love and support for these youth.”

Initially considered as a speaker at the World Meeting of Families, Word was rejected after acknowledging the harm church teaching has caused LGBT people. Fortunate Families’ application to exhibit was rejected in addition and the only LGBT session at the Meeting will be by a celibate gay man and his mother.

Pope Francis, who has stressed “encounter” as an important part of ministry, should listen to these faith-filled yet pained stories Outreach to LGBT Catholics by the pontiff will be doubly meaningful in Philadelphia, where Archbishop Charles Chaput has helped lead the American bishops’ crusade against many LGBT equality measures. He recently expressed gratitude that a lesbian teacher was fired and said the school exhibited “character and common sense” in being discriminatory.

The archbishop’s actions have prompted Joel Mathis, a Philly-area columnist, to ponder whether Chaput is intentionally opposing Francis’ more merciful and welcoming style, writing in Philadelphia Magazine:

“Chaput seems to have a specific mission in mind — to lay down a marker for what the church’s teachings on gay relationships and should be — and he doesn’t have time to wait until after the pope’s visit to begin making his case. . .The difference between the two men, then, might be one of tone more than substance — but it’s such a difference of tone that it has substance.”

Mark Segal, in a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer , also suggested Chaput should with LGBT Catholics and their families to hear their stories because “Your Archbishop is not a popular man in your Church or the city.”

Even with negative responses from Archbishop Chaput and the World Meeting of Families thus far, those involved with the letter believe Pope Francis has charted a different course on LGBT issues that could allow progress. Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, told the Times the pontiff was “at least willing to have conversation and interaction” and LGBT issues are no longer a “litmus test” for ecclesial exclusion. He added:

“I don’t think he’s going to be the pope that makes the changes we want…But he’s already taken a number of important steps that will, I think, pave the way for future changes.”

HalltoFrancis_FinalThis record includes meeting with an LGBT advocate during his recent trip to Paraguay, his famous “Who am I to judge?” comment, inviting LGBT pilgrims to VIP seating during an audience in Rome, and welcoming a transgender man rejected by his Spanish parish to the Vatican for a meeting. Francis’ record has prompted other letters and calls for meetings with the U.S. LGBT community, including a recent letter by fired gay priest Fr. Warren Hall.

Whether Pope Francis meets with LGBT Catholics during his U.S. visit, they and their loved ones will be visible and participating in the World Meeting of Families and other events. The pilgrimage is not the only way that LGBT issues will be present in Philadelphia during the WMF. Groups are sponsoring events and programs “outside the walls” of the WMF, but nearby in Philly.

All are welcome to hear and to be heard, an invitation hopefully Pope Francis will take up and be transformed by his encounters with faithful Catholics who love their church while knowing LGBT people are sacred and equal in God’s eyes.

For the latest news regarding the 2015 World Meeting of Families, visit the appropriate category on the right hand side of this page or click here for all the Bondings 2.0 posts covering the preparations for this event.

During the World Meeting of Families, New Ways Ministry will host a half-day workshop on gender diverse families entitled TransForming Love: Exploring Gender Identity from Catholics Perspectives, on Saturday, September 26, 2015, 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., at St. John the Evangelist Parish Center, 1212 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia.  For more information, click here.

For more information about New Ways Ministry events at WMF, please send inquiry emails to: info@NewWaysMinistry.org. For more information about the Equally Blessed Coalition’s pilgrims to WMF, please click here.   You can donate financially to support these pilgrims’ work by clicking here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Celebrate U.S. & Irish Marriage Equality with a Pilgrimage to the Emerald Isle!

July 2, 2015

As people here in the U.S. continue to bask in the exhilaration of the new reality of marriage equality across the nation, there have been many exciting ways that people have been celebrating this past week.

Here’s an idea for your consideration if you are looking for new ways to celebrate:  go on a Catholic LGBT-friendly pilgrimage to Ireland, the first nation to enact marriage equality by popular vote!

Jeannine Malta

Sister Jeannine Gramick

New Ways Ministry’s Co-Founder, Sister Jeannine Gramick, has just announced that she will be leading an eight-day pilgrimage to the Emerald Isle in April 2016.  Entitled “Ireland: Land of Rainbows and Wedding Bells,” this journey is a perfect way for Catholics in both countries to celebrate together their two historic marriage equality victories that occurred just about one month apart from each other.

In addition to visiting historic and sacred sights connected to Ireland’s Catholic heritage, the pilgrims will be meeting with members of Gay Catholic Voice Ireland, the national Catholic LGBT ministry, and will participate in a monthly Mass and social in a Catholic parish in Dublin which has been established for LGBT people and their families.

News of the pilgrimage was heralded on Yahoo yesterday, with an article by Jo Piazza, who wrote If Nuns Ruled the World: 10 Sisters on a Missionwhich included a chapter on Sister Jeannine’s ministry with the LGBT community.  Piazza described the trip:

Jeannine, a Sister of Loretto, is a big world traveler. This was just the most recent in nearly two decades of gay and lesbian pilgrimages that she has led around the world. Hers is a highly specialized group tour. It’s targeted to gay and lesbian Catholics and their families and is led by a Catholic sister.

A sister? Yup.

She’s a spitfire of a woman, and I can imagine that she is a ton of fun to travel with.

Piazza interviewed Sister Jeannine about her 20 years of leading Catholic LGBT pilgrimages.  They discussed the February 2015 Italy trip, in which Sister Jeannine’s pilgrimage group were provided with VIP seating at the papal audience in St. Peter’s Square on Ash Wednesday.  Sister Jeannine commented on what that welcome meant to her then and now:

“Of course, there is special significance to this particular pilgrimage we took to Italy. Our 50 pilgrims, that included 7 same-sex couples, were invited to special seats within 25 yards of Pope Francis at the papal audience on Ash Wednesday. Just as LGBT people, their families, and friends were welcomed to the Vatican, the SCOTUS decision on June 26 welcomes lesbian and gay couples into the civil family.”

An image of the rainbow which appeared in the sky over Dublin on the day Ireland voted in marriage equality.

Included in the upcoming pilgrimage to Ireland will be visits to places of Catholic and LGBT importance, as well as those of ancient and contemporary Irish history, including:   Our Lady of Knock Shrine,  Oscar Wilde’s home, sites important to both St. Brigid and St. Patrick, the Book of Kells at Trinity College, the Convent where Catherine McAuley founded the Sisters of Mercy and where she is buried, murals in Belfast commemorating victims of modern religious conflicts, and a museum dedicated to the S.S. Titanic, built in Ireland.

The Ireland pilgrimage will take place on April 11-18, 2016.  The cost, including round-trip airfare from Newark, N.J., is $2,599, which also covers breakfast and supper every day, all admissions, hotel accommodations, and all transfers.   For more information, please visit the New Ways Ministry website to view and download a PDF brochure for the trip, including registration form.   Or contact New Ways Ministry in one of three ways to request a brochure: email: info@NewWaysMinistry.org; phone: 301-277-5674; postal mail:  New Ways Ministry, 4012 29th Street, Mount Rainier, MD 20712.

So if you are looking for special and unique way to celebrate marriage equality here in the U.S., consider joining with Catholic LGBT people, friends, family members, supporters, and pastoral ministers in making a pilgrimage to Ireland where your joy will surely be doubled!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 


Father Martin’s Viral Facebook Post on ‘So Much Hatred From So Many Catholics’

July 1, 2015

Perhaps the biggest Catholic post-Supreme Court decision news is not what Catholic bishops have been saying, but a social media controversy that has focused on Jesuit Father James Martin’s Facebook page.

Father James Martin, SJ

David Gibson, on his blog at Religion News Service, reported on the issue which is causing millions–yes, millions–of people to flock to the Facebook page of the popular Jesuit author and speaker.

The “offending” post which is causing the controversy, was put up by Fr. Martin just before 3:00 pm on June 26th, the day that the U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage equality nationwide. In the post, Fr. Martin said:

“No issue brings out so much hatred from so many Catholics as homosexuality.”

“Even after over 25 years as a Jesuit, the level of hatred around homosexuality is nearly unbelievable to me, especially when I think of all of the wonderful LGBT friends I have.”

Earlier in the day, Martin had made three posts about the Supreme Court ruling.  The first was a post announcing the decision.  The second was the response to the decision from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).  The third was the response of New Ways Ministry.   For each of the posts, he added the following prefatory guidelines to his followers who would want to comment on them:

“No ad hominem. No uncharitable remarks. No homophobic remarks. Mo more than one or two posts per person. And Catholics who disagree with the Supreme Court decision must treat gays with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity,’ as the Catechism asks.”

In both the USCCB post and the New Ways Ministry post, he provided links so that his readers could, if they wanted, easily see both points of view.

Later in the day, probably due to many negative comments he received, Fr. Martin posted the message, quoted above, about how homosexuality brings out an immense amount of hatred.

The statistics for each of these posts tell an interesting story:

  • Announcing court’s decision: 9.603 Likes; 746 Shares; 1,088 Comments
  • USCCB reaction: 1,662 Likes; 215 Shares; 535 Comments
  • New Ways Ministry reaction: 6,635 Likes; 881 Shares; 879 Comments
  • Martin’s 3:00 pm post on negativity: 402,328 Likes; 141,108; Shares; 18,229 Comments

[Facebook statistics are from late in the evening on June 30, 2015]

Gibson reports that the result of all that sharing of the 3:00 pm post, already over 28 million people have viewed it.

The rest of Martin’s 3:00 pm post reads like a sermon:

“The Catholic church must do a much better job of teaching what the Catechism says: that we should treat our LGBT brothers and sisters with ‘respect, sensitivity and compassion.’

“But God wants more. God wants us to love. And not a twisted, crabbed, narrow tolerance, which often comes in the guise of condemnations, instructions and admonitions that try to masquerade as love, but actual love.

“Love means: getting to know LGBT men and women, spending time with them, listening to them, being challenged by them, hoping the best for them, and wanting them to be a part of your lives, every bit as much as straight friends are part of your lives.

“Love first. Everything else later. In fact, everything else is meaningless without love.”

Fr. Martin has taken the venom spewed towards him in stride, it seems.  At about 10:00 pm on the same day, he posted his reaction to the immense negative response he received.  He offered screen shots of three of the attacks on him, and then humorously commented:

“Dear erstwhile ‘friends,’

“If you are currently composing a Facebook message to describe how much you disapprove of me–like these from three separate Catholics–wouldn’t it be better simply to hit the ‘Unfollow’ key? Not that I don’t enjoy such notes, including the frequently amusing misspellings and delightfully creative grammatical mistakes. But it would save us both a lot of time.

“Many thanks!

“Your pal,
James Martin, SJ,
or as one of you styled me,
‘Father’ James Martin, SJ”

Martin, who posts on a wide variety of church, social, and cultural issues, was not daunted by the criticism.  Since this controversy, he has already posted twice more on the Supreme Court decision. Martin is one of the most popular Catholic commentators on Facebook, with over 277,000 followers.

I think there are three lessons in this story.  The first lesson is that this Facebook incident illustrates both how passionate Catholics–on both sides of the issue–are about the Supreme Court’s decision. While the strong majority of U.S. Catholics support marriage equality, there are still many who are equally strongly opposed to it. These groups need to be reconciled to one another.

The second lesson is the need for civil discourse as Catholics continue to discuss this topic.  The Supreme Court decision resolved the legal and political questions of same-gender marriage.  The moral and religious questions will continue.  It will be imperative for both sides of the debate to treat one another respectfully, as a number of U.S. bishops have pointed out in their reaction statements.

The third lesson is that the negative reaction to Father Martin’s post shows how poorly educated Catholics are on the basics of church teaching about accepting gay and lesbian people with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”  Connected with this teaching, and equally as poorly taught by bishops and leaders, is honoring the human dignity of gay and lesbian people. Father Martin pointed out the reality of this deficiency in his post.   Much more teaching about how the Catholic social justice tradition applies to gender and sexual minorities is greatly needed.  Now, more than ever.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related post:

Queering The Church: “Catholic Responses to Homosexuality:  Hatred or Simple Disagreement?”

 


New Ways Ministry and U.S. Catholics Rejoice at Supreme Court Marriage Equality Decision

June 26, 2015

The following is a statement of Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director, on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to enable marriage equality to be enacted throughout the nation.

New Ways Ministry rejoices with millions of U.S. Catholics that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided in favor of marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples! On this historic day, we pray in thanksgiving that justice and mercy have prevailed and that the prayers and efforts of so many have combined to move our nation one step closer to fairness and equality for all.

With this Supreme Court victory, Catholics recommit themselves to working to make sure that all LGBT people are treated equally in both church and society.  While we are delighted with this victory, there is still much work to be done to ensure those goals.

Catholics have been at the forefront of working for equal marriage rights for lesbian and gay couples. The overwhelming majority of U.S. Catholics have consistently been in favor of marriage equality, and have put their support into action in legislative, judicial, and electoral campaigns.

Their Catholic faith has inspired them to make sure that their lesbian and gay family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers receive equal treatment by society. The Supreme Court’s decision embodies the Catholic values of human dignity, respect for differences, and the strengthening of families.

While the U.S. Catholic bishops have consistently opposed marriage equality measures on all fronts, Catholic people in the pews have had a different perspective from their leaders.   The lived faith of Catholic people has taught them that love, commitment, and sacrifice are the essential building blocks of marriage and family. Their daily experiences interacting with lesbian and gay couples and their families has taught them that these relationships are identical to heterosexual marriages in terms of the essential qualities needed to build a future together, establish a family, and contribute to social stability and growth.

The U.S. bishops now need to reconcile themselves to the new social reality of marriage equality, as it is poised to spread to all 50 states. They can do so by entering into a dialogue with lesbian and gay Catholics to learn more about the reality of their lives and how their faith inspires their relationships. The bishops should declare a moratorium on firing lesbian and gay church employees who have married legally. These firings have been a scandalous trend with effects that are harmful not only to the people involved, but to the life of the Church.

Today begins a time for Catholic supporters and Catholic opponents of marriage equality to reconcile with one another and work to build up their local faith communities so that together they can work for a world Pope Francis envisions: one of justice and mercy.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 


On Marriage Equality, Sweeping Changes Possible But Much Remains the Same for Catholics

April 28, 2015

Artistic rendering of oral arguments during an appeal of California’s Proposition 8.

Today’s oral arguments heard by the U.S. Supreme Court could be some of the last steps to establishing a nationwide right for same-gender couples to marry, a decision likely determined by Catholic Justice Anthony Kennedy’s swing vote. Either way, after oral arguments are concluded and a decision is announced by the end of June, much will remain the same for Catholics.

America covered the issues at play when the Supreme Court initially agreed to hear these cases in January, highlighting the two questions under consideration: whether there is a nationwide legal right to same-gender marriage and whether states must recognize such marriages made legal in other states.

In the America essay, St. John’s University legal scholar Ellen K. Boegel explained that because there are two questions, this “leaves open the possibility for a split ruling” depending on how justices interpret the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection’s clause, where states would be required to recognize other marriages without granting licenses of their own. A piece in U.S. Catholic covered the five major arguments, coming from both sides, that will likely be voiced during oral arguments tomorrow:

1)  The precedent of a 1972 Minnesota case, Baker v. Nelson which denied a gay couple access to marriage “for want of a substantial federal question.”

2) The question of states’ rights:  “a tug of war between the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection, and the rights of states—and, by extension, voters—to make their own laws.”

3) The place of procreation in marriage. Some say that the state is involved in marriage to guaranteed stable parenting for children, and that lesbian and gay people do not procreate with one another.  Others say extending marriage to gay and lesbian couples can reduce the amount of children in foster care by creating a larger pool of adoptive families.

4) The question of whether it is better for children to be raised in families headed by heterosexual couples.  No legitimate studies show this option is more successful, and courts have not clearly settled this question yet.

5) The power of history and tradition in the institution of marriage.  Though we have seen many developments in the institution socially over the centuries, the power of history and tradition can be a powerful argument, some legal scholars say.

This potentially historic decision is still a few months away, but certain ecclesial realities will remain for LGBT and ally Catholics after the Supreme Court decides. First, Catholics will sustain and hopefully grow existing high levels of support for marriage equality and LGBT rights with New Ways Ministry’s Francis DeBernardo telling Crux:

” ‘Even if the Supreme Court should decide negatively in this case, Catholic lay people will continue their work to make sure that their lesbian and gay friends and relatives receive equal treatment under the law.’ “

Combative stances towards marriage equality on the part of many U.S. bishops will remain in place, as well as the lack of nondiscrimination policies and laws to protect LGBT church workers, almost 50 of whom have publicly lost their job since 2008. Phrasing these as “fired because you’re married” incidents, The Advocate reports:

” ‘Any time there are civil rights advances and increased visibility … we will have some adverse reactions,’ adds Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, who as a lawyer and activist has fought for LGBT rights, particularly marriage equality, for more than 20 years. That’s not a reason for the marriage equality movement to back off, but it is a reminder that there will still be work to be done even when there are equal marriage rights nationwide, he says.’ “

Further, the question of religious liberty remains unsettled even as a recent victory in Indiana has somewhat chilled conservative hopes for such laws.  This issue has not gone away, and 27 states still have bills under consideration.

There are also internal questions for the church about how same-gender couples and their families will be provided pastoral care and better integrated into parish communities.  Additionally, Catholics who oppose marriage equality will have to make peace with this new reality as this societal shift begins to take root everywhere. While the global church is adjudicating these questions during the synodal process and next fall’s World Meeting of Families, American parishes may soon have to find just and inclusive solutions if marriage equality becomes legal nationwide.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related article

Hamilton-Griffin.com: “Will Justice Kennedy Go All the Way on Same-Sex Marriage?”


Sr. Jeannine Gramick Calls on Irish Population to Vote for Marriage Equality

April 19, 2015

A Catholic nun is calling on Irish citizens to vote for marriage equality this May, the latest in a series of voices hoping to legalize same-gender marriages in the country through a nationwide referendum.

Sister Jeannine Gramick

Sister Jeannine Gramick

Sister JeannineGramick, SL, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, has been in Ireland this past week for a gathering of Catholic Church reformers. She also has been meeting Catholic LGBT organizations there.  In an interview with The Independent, she commented on the upcoming referendum:

” ‘You can be a Catholic and vote for civil marriage for lesbian and gay people because it is a civil matter – it has nothing to do with your religion.’ “

She added that the bishops were “like little children” with their threats that priests would stop performing civil marriages, adding:

” ‘I think [the bishops] would be punishing heterosexual couples in the sense of making it more difficult for them as they would have to have two ceremonies and it wouldn’t hurt the gay population.’ “

In a radio interview, Gramick also said she imagines a future where priests are married to either men or women. You can listen to an audio file of this interview by clicking here, and scrolling down to the bottom of the text of the interview to find the audio file.

Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland who has been an outspoken advocate for church reform, added her support for a “Yes” vote. Invoking the 1916 Easter Proclamation (which established the Republic of Ireland), she framed the referendum as a matter of good for children, telling The Irish Times

” ‘[My husband and I] believed it to be about Ireland’s gay children…We owe those children a huge debt as adults who have opportunities to make choices that impact their lives, to make the right choices, choices that will allow their lives grow organically and to give them the joy of being full citizens in their own country…We want, in the words of the proclamation, the children of the nation to be cherished equally.’ “

Challenging the language of “intrinsically disordered,” McAleese added:

” ‘The danger of calling it intrinsically disordered and at the same time calling for the love, Christian love for those who live the homosexual life meant people have been forced into the shadow, have been forced into self doubt, deeply conflicted.

” ‘[It] is a terrible thing for a young person who has grown up, for example in the church, and have been told they are loved absolutely to discover at 15,16 or 17 that all the language they have heard – particularly the homophobic language that they may have heard, the locker room language – applies to a person like them and applies to them.’ “

However, the Association of Catholic Priests, founded by Redemptorist Fr. Tony Flannery, has refrained from taking an official position on the marriage referendum due to a variety of opinions in the organization.

The referendum, scheduled for May 22, could be the first time globally that marriage equality is affirmed in a popular referendum and, according to The Boston Globe, both sides say the “Yes” side is likely to win. One anti-LGBT leader has admitted that marriage equality could “win by a landslide,” but this has not stopped the Catholic bishops from mounting a campaign against the measure.

Regardless of the outcome, Tánaiste [Deputy Prime Ministr] Joan Burton of Ireland’s Labour party has already made clear that there will be no “right to discriminate” clauses written into Irish law that would allow businesses to deny service to LGBT people. This is a direct response, reports The Independent, to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s request for such clauses if marriage equality passes.

Finally, much of the debate in Ireland is playing upon Catholic values so ingrained in this historically Catholic nation. The ad below from “Yes” campaigners is a prime example, asking voters to “bring your family with you” on May 22:

Elsewhere campaigners talk of justice and faith, such as this video from two Catholic parents making their own appeal for equality.

It seems that in Ireland, as all over the world, Catholics are once again voting for marriage equality because of their faith and not in spite of it.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Reflecting on the Papal Audience with LGBT Catholics

February 27, 2015

Now that New Ways Ministry pilgrims are back in the United States, and now that the dust is settling from our exciting journey to Italy which included prime reserved seating at the papal audience in St. Peter’s Square on Ash Wednesday, it seems a good time to reflect on the the experience.  And while we’re reflecting, you might want to see a clip of our group singing the hymn “All Are Welcome” to the pope on that day.  Just click on the following video:

As for relfection, I think I can speak for my fellow pilgrims when I say that the trip and the Pope Francis experience can be summed up in one word:

“Wow!”

The news stories of our special seats went literally around the globe, appearing in news outlets in Poland, Argentina, Germany, United Kingdom, Malaysia, Ireland, Australia, Spain. And those are only the stories that we have been able to track.

I think our pilgrimage participants were more surprised than anyone that the story received so much attention.  We certainly didn’t feel special, and we certainly didn’t feel we deserved such attention. While it was certainly an honor to be seated so close to Pope Francis, in seats reserved for VIPs, we hadn’t realized that this would be the case until the very moment when we were ushered to our section. We didn’t really have much time to anticipate and prepare for the experience.

We knew that Archbishop Georg Ganswein, prefect of the papal household, had reserved seats for us, but the letter that he sent to Sister Jeannine Gramick gave no indication that these were special seats, or even where they were located.

Indeed, our first interpretation of Ganswein’s response to Sister Jeannine’s letter seemed to be something of a “consolation prize.”   She had not requested special seating:  she had requested that Pope Francis meet with our pilgrimage group of LGBT Catholics and supporters.  We assumed that Ganswein was giving us a polite dismissal, not a place of distinction.

Ganswein had met Sister Jeannine back in 2003 when she visited the Vatican, and gave him a copy of the Italian edition of her book, Building Bridges: Gay and Lesbian Reality and the Catholic Church, in order to present it to Cardinal Ratzinger.  The English edition had been a major focus of the Vatican’s investigation of Sister Jeannine and her co-author, Father Robert Nugent, which had taken place in the 1990s.  Ganswein is well aware of the controversy, and knows of the history that New Ways Ministry has had with the Vatican.  These past events did not prevent him from welcoming our group to the preferred seating section.  It is like the cloud of suspicion surrounding Sister Jeannine and New Ways Ministry is not as thick or as suffocating as it used to be.

One wrinkle in this experience was the way our group was named among those attending the audience.   The list did not mention that we were from the LGBT community, though Sr. Jeannine had made that explicit in her letter.   There was some disappointment about this fact, but most of the pilgrims took it in stride.

Part of their willingness to forgive this error arose from the treatment we received on our past two pilgrimages to Rome. Under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, our presence was not acknowledged at all.  While our LGBT status was not recognized publicly, this LGBT group was not shunned.  Indeed, it was given a place of honor.

Still, I think that this incident of not being named is in a way symbolic of the way that Pope Francis is approaching LGBT issues.  He is willing to go to a certain point, but he is not yet willing to go all the way.  For some people that approach is cowardly.  For others, it might seem political.  I tend to view it as a step forward.

Part of the step forward means that it is a great improvement over the previous two papacies.  Their approach to LGBT issues seemed to be avoidance, opposition, and silencing.  Pope Francis’ approach seems to be engagement, welcome, and discussion.   Those are important changes.

But Pope Francis, for all his welcome, has not fully embraced LGBT issues.  He has opposed marriage equality and adoption rights for lesbian and gay couples.  He has promoted the concept of  gender complementarity as a requisite for marriage.  Most recently, he attacked “gender theory,” a term to describe anything that does not fit traditional gender roles, as being akin to nuclear war.

On the other hand, it seems he may be open to civil unions.  He has opened wide the discussion in the Church on marriage and family issues by his management of the synod process and his call for bishops to consult the laity on these matters.  He has called for church leaders to seek out the marginalized and to provide a welcome to all, especially those the Church has traditionally ignored.

In other words, his record, so far, is a mixed bag.

As Sister Jeannine and I told many reporters after the audience, Pope Francis has taken some very important steps in the right direction, but the church hierarchy still needs to take many more steps in order to achieve justice and equality for LGBT people.  It must speak out against repressive laws around the globe against LGBT people.  It must condemn violence directed towards them.  It must stop firing LGBT church workers and volunteers.  It must speak out for equal treatment before the law.

When we were asked, “What more could Pope Francis be doing?” our answer was simple:  there must be more dialogue with LGBT people and family members.  We suggested that the upcoming synod and World Meeting of Families would be excellent opportunities for such dialogue, and we recommended that the pope and his team invite members of the LGBT Catholic community to speak publicly at those events about their lives, faith, and love.

Recognition of our group at this papal audience was another step in the process of LGBT inclusion in the Church.  Our hope is that the Vatican’s action will inspire national and local church leaders to follow their example.

The papal audience is all about gestures and symbols. While it was an honor for New Ways Ministry’s pilgrimage group to be recognized at the audience, we are keenly aware that this honor was not for the 49 of us alone.  It was a welcome and recognition that extends to all LGBT Catholics and allies who have worked so hard for so long for some kind of official acknowledgment.  As we prayed while sitting near the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica and just a few yards from Pope Francis, we prayed in thanksgiving for all of you who have been transforming our Church, and which helped bring it to this moment.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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