On Divine Mercy Sunday, How Have LGBT Catholics Been Experiencing the Year of Mercy?

April 3, 2016
3456298161_69e02e70d7_b

“Image of Divine Mercy” by Stephen Whatley

Nearly four months ago, Pope Francis inaugurated, to much excitement and anticipation, the Jubilee Year of Mercy now underway. He has called for this to be a time to remind ourselves that the church to be a “home for all,” a place “where everyone is loved, welcomed, and forgiven.” Catholics worldwide are participating in many ways and Malta’s Bishop Mario Grech even expressed his hope that the year would “start a new era for the Church.”

On this Divine Mercy Sunday, it is worth inquiring about what impact the Year of Mercy is actually having for LGBT Catholics, their loved ones, and their allies.

Positive moments of expanding mercy and inclusion have occurred. In several instances, bishops have used the Year of Mercy to extend special welcomes to LGBT communities.

For instance, Bishop Terry Steib, SVD of Memphis, in his letter titled A Compassionate Response, called on Catholics to tightly link mercy with humility and to be open to encounter and dialogue in ways which can move LGBT issues forward. Two bishops even apologized for the church’s mistreatment of marginalized people. In his Lenten message on mercy, Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, sought forgiveness from those whom the church had hurt, including LGBT people. In New Orleans, Archbishop Gregory Aymond is hosting a Mass for Divine Mercy Sunday that includes a ritual of forgiveness and resurrection which acknowledges:

“[That] we as individuals, as members of the archdiocese and society as a whole have let people down. . .This rite seeks forgiveness and reconciliation with those who have been hurt or alienated by the church either through institutional or individual offenses.”

While no communities were specified, LGBT people are clearly included among those hurt by the church and Aymond has spoken in more positive terms about issues of sexuality in the past.

Lay Catholics are participating in the Year of Mercy, too. Many call for a more just and inclusive church and society. As a way to mark this special year, Kentucky Catholics marched through downtown Louisville and rallied outside the cathedral to foster support for LGBT non-discrimination protections. U.S. Catholics elsewhere, including at least two governors, are actively resisting “license to discriminate” bills now under consideration in state legislatures across the country. And two transgender Catholics shared their stories during a workshop at L.A. Religious Education Congress, the largest Catholic gathering in North America.

Despite these items of good news, negative moments have also occurred.Too many church officials are either avoiding the Year of Mercy or it seems they do not quite understand mercy. Malawi’s bishops used a pastoral letter on mercy to call for the government to jail LGBT people. A pastor disrupted a funeral because of his opposition to LGBT issues. Another pastor closed a parish LGBT ministry. The Vatican has thus far refused to intervene to stop Dominican Republic church leaders’ increasing attacks on gay U.S. Ambassador James Brewster. For church leaders whose hearts remained hardened to LGBT people, we can pray these words taken from Pope Francis’ prayer for the Year of Mercy:

“You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error: let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God.”

When it comes to LGBT concerns, Pope Francis’ own involvement in the Year of Mercy is ambiguous. The million-dollar question right now is what impact his upcoming apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, will have for LGBT Catholics. The pope consistently preaches mercy during his Wednesday audiences, his foreign travels, and everything else in between. But he lodged his harshest criticism of marriage equality yet in January, and his involvement in Italy’s debate over civil unions has been unclear.

The jury is still out on whether the Year of Mercy, viewed as a whole, will be good or not good for LGBT people and other Catholics who support equality. There are signs of hope among the people of God but plenty of intransigence in ecclesial institutions too.

What do you think? Has the Year of Mercy benefited LGBT Catholics? If not yet, do you think it still might? What would be ways of showing greater mercy to those the church excludes and harms? You can leave your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 


Our Eagerness to Be the One to Cast the First Stone

March 13, 2016

On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent are: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126: 1-6; Philippians 3:8-14; and John 8:1-11. You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.

Today’s Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery is, ironically, a favorite of those who like to castigate LGBT people.  They say that because Jesus says “Go, and from now on do not sin any more,” that they are justified in telling other people–specifically, LGBT people–how to live their lives.  It seems the rest of the story is lost on them because they think they have found a Scripture text that they can use against others.

In holding onto this one line of Scripture, such people are doing exactly what the scribes and Pharisees in the story have done: isolating one bit of text and, in the process, losing the whole spirit of Scripture’s message that people should not judge one another, but should love one another and offer each other mercy.  The gospel writer is clear that their purposes are vengeful, not religious. The author says they brought the woman to Jesus “so that they could have some charge to bring against him.”  People use the act of judging not only to bring harm on their targeted victim, but to trap others, as well. Human beings are always way too eager to cast the first stone.

In the gospel story, Jesus’ first response is to write in the dirt.  Some commentators say that this action is a message from Jesus:  by doing so, he is telling the accusers that the letter of the law is as transitory as letters written in the sand.  They need to find the law’s deeper message, which is a message of acceptance and mercy.  More importantly, they should look to their own lives to discover sin, not to search for it in other people’s lives.  Indeed, this same message, so important to Jesus’ ministry, appeared in the gospel story two weeks ago.

Only Christ can tell us to “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” Other human beings don’t have that authority.  Christ will speak to us in the depths of our heart, in the privacy of our consciences, when all other judgmental people have disappeared, and when we are alone with Christ.  Only Christ  knows whether we have sinned or not.  If other people try to point out the sins of others, they fall into the same trap as the scribes and Pharisees in today’s story.  They open themselves up to the same rebuke that Jesus gave them:  “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

The scribes and the Pharisees in today’s story can be forgiven for their error because of their ignorance.  They were doing what they had been taught to do.  I think of that lesson when I am confronted with church leaders who oppose any sort of progress for LGBT equality.  It is not necessarily evil and hatred that motivates them.  Instead, I think, most of the time they are held captive by the narrowness of their own upbringing.  That is why we must constantly seek to educate such people. We must continue to tell our stories, even when they don’t want to hear them.  We must continue to speak out so that others can learn the deeper messages of God’s Word.

Our job is not to point out whether we think other people have committed a sexual sin, the sin of homophobia, or any kind of sin.  Our job is to examine our own lives, recognize our own need for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and to try to offer that same mercy and forgiveness to others.  If we think of ourselves as in this story, we certainly should not picture ourselves as Jesus.  We don’t even need to think of ourselves as the woman.  The scribes and Pharisees, the ones who are too inclined to judge others and to appeal to the authority of the law, are the people that I think we most reflect.

In today’s first reading from Isaiah, God tells us that we need to give up our habitual patterns and our penchant for always doing things the way they have been done for so long.  We need to be aware that our old ways of thinking need to be transformed:

Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

God is always calling us to something new.  Isaiah continues with a message that even the situations which seem most hopeless for renewal can, in fact, be renewed by God:

In the desert I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.
Wild beasts honor me,
jackals and ostriches,
for I put water in the desert
and rivers in the wasteland. . .

God does not give up on us–ever!  And God does not give up on those who are opposed to LGBT equality–ever!  God is always wanting us to renew ourselves, to examine our lives–not the lives of others–and to be open to “something new.”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Beyond Being the Prodigal Child, We are Parent and Sibling, Too

March 6, 2016

 

13c624503a3550cf9b427e6f5a7e6e0d

“The Prodigal Son Returns” by Soichi Watanabe

On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent are: Joshua 5:9A, 10-12; Psalm 34: 2-7; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; and Luke 15:1-3, 11-32. You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.

The Prodigal Child is among Scripture’s most well-known parables. In today’s liturgy, its rich themes of forgiveness and reconciliation are enhanced by the readings from the book of Joshua  and 2nd Letter to the Corinthians with which it is paired.

Interpretations generally position the reader as the wayward child returned to the parent, hinting that we are lost disciples returned to God’s loving embrace. This applies to our interpersonal relationships when we find ourselves welcomed back into families and communities which we may have left

But what if we position ourselves as the parent, or even the elder sibling? Doing so complicates a calming parable, raising questions for us when we would rather bask in being the prodigal child welcomed home and celebrated.

For instance, if we are the parent, we have to ask ourselves if we run to meet those who have abandoned and even harmed us? Are we “filled with compassion” by their presence? Do we unreservedly organize a celebration when someone accepts returns after years of exile? As people existing at the church’s margins who have experienced the very real exclusion and  harm which some church ministers can inflict, is our response to other excluded people like the parent in this parable?

If we picture ourselves as the elder sibling, are we ready to acknowledge that we want some people in our lives to remain absent and even figuratively dead? Are we envious when others receive greater love or care in certain moments? When reconciliation happens in our church, would we rather the divisions and wounds remain because we have adjusted to them? Have we so rooted ourselves and our identities at the margins that progress becomes unwelcome?

Asking myself these questions raises truths I would rather ignore. I have to admit that that at times I have not wanted to forgive, never mind to celebrate, certain people who have passed through my life. I am comforted that seeking LGBT justice in the Catholic Church seems to be stable employment, given the depth of institutional and cultural homophobia in our community. I would rather be the prodigal child, welcomed and held, celebrated and held up, than practice the parent’s boundless compassion or admit the darkness I share with the elder sibling.

Thankfully, the lectionary sets this parable of the Prodigal Child within a context. The first two readings are reminders of that God fulfills promises. In the passage from Joshua, the Israelites celebrate the Passover as their forty years of wandering comes to an end. The unceasing manna which had sustained them dries up. God kept God’s promise. In 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks of the new creation brought about by God through Christ. Again, God kept God’s promise.

This context allows us to root ourselves in God, confident that God keeps the promise made by Jesus to be with us always. Knowing that God’s grace is operative in our lives, we know that when we do not love boundlessly or are ready to face our dark sides, we do not do so alone. We have God’s grace and we have one another, ambassadors of Christ in Pauline language, to mediate that grace to us. Lent is a time for conversion. My prayer today is that we may all come to know we are loved as the Prodigal Child, to know we must love as the parent, and to know that to love and be loved we must wrestle with our darkness as the elder sibling.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Play Starring Transgender Jesus Draws Catholic Protests

November 24, 2015
jesus-queen11

Jo Clifford as Jesus in the play

Catholics in Northern Ireland protested a play performed this month which portrays Jesus as a transgender woman, but the playwright defended it as an attempt to make audiences “think again” about faith and gender.

The play, titled “The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven,” was most recently performed at Outburst Queer Arts Festival in Belfast just weeks after the nation’s legislature failed to advance marriage equality legislation.

Writer and actor Jo Clifford described it as a “very important, very intimate show,” explaining to BBC:

” ‘Obviously being a transgender woman myself it concerns me very greatly that religious people so often use Christianity as a weapon to attack us and justify the prejudices against us. . .

” ‘I wanted to see if we could move away from that and make people think again.’ “

Audience members are quite moved, said Clifford, including Christians. The writer has repeatedly reinterpreted biblical stories to generate new ideas, suggesting the overall message of this play is clear:

” ‘I think it’s very important to get across the message that Jesus of the gospels would not condone or want to promote prejudice and discrimination against anybody and to try to convey a message of compassion and love and understanding of everybody. . .No matter what their belief, no matter what their gender, orientation or sexuality.’

Not all welcome that message as a small Catholic group protested in Belfast, as has at previous performances. Former Glasglow Archbishop Mario Conti once said that it is hard to imagine “a more provocative and offensive abuse of Christian beliefs” than this play.

Clifford, however, said protesters have generally not seen the play and that it seeks neither to offend nor blaspheme because she is a Christian herself. Her point is rather to reflect on Jesus’ ministry through this “work of devotion”:

” ‘I simply want to assert very strongly, as strongly as I can that Jesus of the gospels would not in anyway wish to attack or denigrate people like myself.’ “

Clifford made a similar point in another interview, available on YouTube:

“He was talking to the victims of persecution, to the victims of prejudice and he would speak to them in a very accepting way, as one human being to another.”

In this, Clifford is correct. The Gospels reveal a Jesus who elevated people’s dignity and specifically sought out those who had been marginalized.

Catholic tradition has long embraced the arts as a means for spiritual nourishment and divine revelation, opening up the human person to themselves, to others, and to God. While I have not viewed Clifford’s play, her interviews suggest she is someone committed to creating art with devotional ends. The protesters would have benefited more by attending a show and seeing what came up in their inner life, instead of casting stones from afar.

For more information on The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, visit the play’s website here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 


Entering Our Own Deserts of Temptation

March 9, 2014

Periodically in Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by two New Ways Ministry staff members:  Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder. The liturgical readings for the First Sunday of Lent are  Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11.

           The Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent tells the story about the temptations of Jesus in the desert. The wilderness is a classic place for confronting ourselves, a place where we analyze our motives, question our thoughts, desires, and behavior, and investigate our future. In the desert there are no roads or maps, just the time and space to know God and ourselves in a clearer way.

This is hard stuff. I don’t like to confront myself or question what I do or what I think, but if I want to grow closer to God and understand myself better, then Lent is a good time to do it.

Like Jesus, I find that I am often tempted to turn stone into loaves of bread–bread that is delicious, sweet-smelling, and good. I am tempted to reject the stone that is hard and tough and inflexible. I am tempted to love the bread and not the stone. I like those people who are “bread,” not the “stone” people. I like the people who agree with me about LGBT issues, not the stone people who need conversion to justice. But Jesus is asking me to love the stone people too. This is hard stuff.

Like Jesus, I am too often tempted to throw myself down from the pinnacle of the temple of life into the depths of work, expecting that God will catch me and take care of my emotional and social needs. At other times, I’m tempted to throw myself down into the pit of comfort and avoidance of responsibilities I don’t like or that feel too challenging, expecting that God will somehow see that it all gets done. I think Jesus is asking me to stay on the pinnacle of the temple of common sense and find some balance in my life. More hard stuff.

Like Jesus, I have been tempted to possess all the kingdoms of this world by having the good opinion of others. How crucial is the desire to be loved and respected, to be understood and thought well of, especially by those I care about. These are the kingdoms I desire. But Jesus is asking me not to pay homage to these human kingdoms for “God alone shall you worship and God alone shall you serve.” To believe that God’s boundless love and joy will fill me when I’m misunderstood and rejected—very hard stuff.

As we begin this Lenten journey, the lesson of the desert seems clear. Jesus went into the desert to know himself and his God better. He did not let temptations come between him and his God.

What are your stones, your temple pinnacles, your worldly kingdoms? What temptations do you find in your Lenten wilderness that will help you know yourself and God better?

–Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, New Ways Ministry


Jesus Calls Us Just As We Are–Wrinkles, Warts, and All

December 22, 2013

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 has been featuring reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by two New Ways Ministry staff members:  Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder.  The liturgical readings for the fourth Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 7: 10-14; Psalm 24:1-6; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

“The Calling of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio

During the last seven days of Advent in the Western Christian tradition, the Church prays the “O Antiphons,” which are antiphons for the Magnificat during Vespers. They are called “O Antiphons” because each one begins with the interjection “O.” Each one is a title for Christ and refers to the prophecy of Isaiah about the coming of the Messiah. The precise origin of the “O Antiphons” is unknown, but by the eighth century, they were used in liturgical celebrations in Rome.

The most well-known of the O Antiphons is “O Emmanuel.” The first reading and the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent both recall this antiphon. Isaiah prophesies that a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, who shall be named “Emmanuel.”

The Gospel reading repeats this prophecy, after stating that Mary was found to be pregnant before she lived with Joseph, to whom she was engaged. Assured by an angel that Mary’s child was conceived through the Holy Spirit, Joseph took Mary into his home. And all this took place, Matthew tells us, to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah had foretold. “Emmanuel” means “God is with us.” Matthew is telling us that, through Jesus, we know that God is with us.

It seems easy for me to believe that God is here with us in the “good times.”  When I have no financial worries, when I can relax because all my work is done for the moment, when I am enjoying myself with friends and loved ones, when government officials pass a measure that is respectful of the dignity of LGBT people, I can say, “O God, I know you’re here and it’s good!”

Then there are the “bad times” when my Dr. Jekyll is transformed into Mr. Hyde. I am cranky, critical of Church authorities, judgmental of others’ idiosyncrasies, disappointed in myself and others, wallowing in self-pity. Where are you God when I experience my shadow side?

Pope Francis talked about this shadow side in an extensive interview he gave for the Jesuit journals. Formerly called Cardinal Bergoglio, Pope Francis was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” After some silent time, Pope Francis answered, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” He then talked about often visiting in Rome the Church of St. Louis of France to contemplate Caravaggio’s (who, by the way, was gay) painting of “The Calling of St. Matthew” (see above).

In the painting, Jesus’ finger is pointing at Matthew, calling him to be an apostle. “That’s me,” the Pope said. “I feel like Matthew.” Matthew, the tax collector, is clutching his money as if to say, “No, not me! This money is mine. Don’t call me. Let me stay in my darkness with my money.”

It is comforting to know that, like Matthew, Pope Francis is conscious of his sinister and gloomy side. Like Matthew and Pope Francis, I too am being called in my “bad times.” Jesus is there, inviting me with his finger to follow him. Indeed, that is most often when God calls us.

Some of us can faithfully recite the opening questions and answers from the old Baltimore Catechism. Question: “Who made me?”  Answer: “God made me.” Question: “Why did God make me?”  Answer: “God made me to know him, to love him, to serve him, and to be happy with him in heaven.”

I would like to see a new Baltimore Catechism and everyone should be required to memorize what should be its first question: “Why did Jesus come?” Answer: “Jesus came to show God’s great love for me. Jesus came to tell me that God loves me just the way I am—with wrinkles or crooked teeth or no hair or warts, socially inept, nasty to others and myself, with a diseased heart or a diseased body. Jesus came to let me know that, despite all these flaws, I am very special. Jesus came to say that God is with us in the good times and the bad.

–Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, New Ways Ministry


Patiently Waiting for the Desert to Bloom With Abundant Flowers

December 15, 2013

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by two New Ways Ministry staff members:  Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder.  The liturgical readings for the third Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; Psalm 146: 6-7, 8-9, 9-10; James 5:7-10;  Matthew 11:2-11.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

Since Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium or The Joy of the Gospel, first appeared in late November, I have been reading this book-length document in small pieces. The other day, as I sat in my easy chair and continued to soak in his words of encouragement and advice, I found myself at the section about spiritual reading, particularly reading the Word of God. “Great!” I thought. “Here’s some help for the homily I need to write!”

Pope Francis writes that, after we perform a recollected reading of the text, we ask ourselves some questions about the Scripture passage. What does this text say to me? What about my life needs to change? What do I find pleasant or attractive in this text for my life? Francis says that we need to avoid the temptation to apply the passage to other people. Now, this hits home! During the Scripture readings at Sunday worship service, I sometimes find myself thinking, “I hope so-and-so heard that!”

With Francis’ advice at hand, I read and reread the Scripture texts for the Third Sunday of Advent to figure out what God was saying to me. Isaiah speaks of a joyful time when all will be made right and good: feeble hands and weak knees will be strengthened, blind eyes will be opened, and deaf ears will hear. But until this time arrives, the epistle of James cautions us to be patient, just as the farmer waits for the rains to water the precious fruit of the earth. We are not to complain about one another, but look to the prophets as examples of the patience God asks of us.

The Gospel reading gives us an example in the prophet, John the Baptist. John preached a stirring message of repentance for sin and baptism with water to cleanse the body and soul, but John waited patiently for a Messianic figure, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. From his prison cell, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if his waiting time is over. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” John is an example of patience.

In my own life, I find that it’s “the little things” about which I am impatient. Why is the car in front of me going so slowly? Why do I feel exasperated when others don’t do things the way I do? Why am I annoyed when I can’t find my gloves or keys? Why do these things alter my mood from one of peace and lightheartedness to sourness and grumbling?

I seem to be somewhat patient about “the big things,” like changes in the church’s teaching on homosexuality or sexuality, in general, because history attests to the evolution of thought and understanding about sexuality. As the Christian community learned about the workings of human sexuality from the various sciences, I see how we adapted our ideas about sexual morality and ethics. We already see these changes of thought in various theological positions and in the minds and hearts of the laity. I believe that one day these sexual teachings will change on the hierarchical level, so I am a bit patient, although I sometimes ask, “How long, Lord? How long?”

Or perhaps I am learning to be patient about “the big things” of Church doctrines because I am coming to see that Church teachings are rightly fading in importance. Maybe they don’t need to change right now, but just recede into the background until they can be modified. As Pope Francis has said, “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines.” The Church needs to focus “on the essentials, on…what makes the heart burn, … (on) the Gospel.”

Pope Francis is guiding us back to the essential message of Jesus that the Church needs to preach and we need to hear: God loves us just as we are, in all our sinfulness and messiness and impatience and is calling us to love God in return by showing love for others, ourselves, and all of creation.

So during this Third Sunday of Advent, I pray for patience in “the little things” and “the big things” until the time, as Isaiah says, when the desert will “bloom with abundant flowers.”

As I write these Advent words, I can look up from my desk to see a plaque on my office wall. On the plaque is one of my favorite excerpts from a letter of Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger, the foundress of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, to her sisters. Her words are a fitting reminder of Advent patience: “All the works of God proceed slowly and in pain; therefore, their roots are sturdier and their flowering the lovelier.”

–Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, New Ways Ministry