Right-Wing Catholics in Poland Attack LGBT Rights, While Bishops Silent

LGBT equality in Poland is a contentious issue. While the issue evolved in recent years, since 2016 progress has been threatened by the right-wing Law and Justice party that governs Poland and boasts of its Catholic identity.

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Participants at Warsaw’s Equality Parade

Government restrictions have not, however, stopped some Poles from celebrating the LGBT communities in their country. In June this year, some 50,000 people took part in Warsaw’s “Equality Parade” that holds up not only LGBT people but other marginalized groups like people with disabilities.  In its 17th year, the Parade is more a demonstration for human rights against the right-wing government than a celebration of Pride.

As a bit of background, modern Poland never criminalized homosexuality. Since the Cold War ended, there has been an openness in some urban areas to lesbian and gay people. Homosexuality was removed from a list of mental health issues in 1991. The country has had openly gay and openly transgender politicians, and allows gay and bisexual men to donate blood.

Despite these positive developments, the country’s citizens remain generally opposed to certain LGBT rights. Marriage equality is constitutionally banned, and most Poles agree it should remain so. Attempted “registered partnership laws” for same-gender couples have been repeatedly defeated by legislators, though 2017 polling indicates that for the first time, a majority of Poles support some form of legal recognition. Non-discrimination protections are sorely lacking, and there are no anti-hate crime laws.

Unlike most nations, the situation in Poland is deteriorating and has been since the Law and Justice party took power in 2015. In an interview with World Politics Review, Agata Chaber of the country’s leading LGBT group, Campaign Against Homophobia, explained the conservative turn:

“The Law and Justice Party is stoking a fear of everything that is foreign, and portraying the EU as an unwanted and harmful influence on Poland. . .they say it has ‘forced’ Poland to adopt the so-called gay agenda. By portraying concern for LGBT rights as a product of foreign influence, the party is contributing to the isolation of Poland’s LGBT community.

“The Law and Justice Party has only been in power for two years, which is not long enough to dramatically change social attitudes. But given the alterations of school curricula, which removed elements emphasizing nondiscrimination while embracing more nationalist messaging, and the entrenchment of other policies, we might soon live in a society where any individual who is not white, straight, cisgender and Catholic is unwanted.”

Chaber added that the number of anti-LGBT people isn’t growing, but the “intensity of hate” by those who already are anti-LGBT is expanding. These radical nationalist groups are “increasingly dominating public discourse and public spaces, and in so doing they are making it much more difficult for LGBT people and their allies to live openly.”

Intimately connected to the Law and Justice party’s rise is the Catholic identity it strongly claims, even against church leaders’ criticisms. Poland is 95% Catholic, a majority of whom attend weekly Mass. For years, Church leaders have vehemently opposed any expansion of LGBT equality, creating fertile ground in which the conservative Catholic, anti-gay views of Law and Justice could grow.

The outcomes of this union of religion and politics have been devastating. Hate crimes have risen sharply, in large part because the government itself is ambivalent or even supportive of such acts. Harsh rhetoric has become more acceptable.

Chaber believes the future for LGBT rights in Poland is uncertain. As long as Law and Justice is in power and the threats from nationalist Catholic groups grow, there will be no new protections for LGBT people. LGBT groups’ best hope, Chaber said, is to do grassroots organizing that will “create a movement that will oppose violence and discrimination.”

I would add that now is a crucial moment for Catholic leaders, who are already critical of Law and Justice on other matters, to speak out for the human rights of LGBT people. Their opposition to the recognition of same-gender relationships does not have to stop them from using their power to oppose violence and discrimination against LGBT people.

New Ways Ministry’s co-founder, Sister Jeannine Gramick visited Poland in the late fall of 2016.  For a report on her activities there with LGBT groups and the media, click here

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 8, 2017

 

 

Sr. Jeannine Gramick Asks, “What Can We Do to Lessen Anti-LGBT Prejudice?”

Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) earlier this month with a reflection on her ministry in an international context.

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IDAHOBIT poster from Italy

Writing for The National Catholic Reporter’s “Global Sisters Report, Gramick suggested, “perhaps the tide is turning for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.” Gramick wrote:

 

“The International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia is particularly strong in Europe and Latin America, where it is commemorated with public events such as marches, parades and festivals. In Cuba, Mariela Castro [niece of Fidel Castro] has led massive street parades on May 17 for the past three years. The day can also include arts and culture-based events, such as a music festival called “Love Music – Hate Homophobia” in Bangladesh. Albanian activists arrange an annual bike ride through the streets of the capital on May 17.”

She also saw hope in the number of religious services held to mark IDAHOBIT, including several Catholic vigils. You can find out more information about these services by clicking here.

Still, while the tide may be turning in favor of LGBT equality, it has definitely not turned fully. IDAHOBIT celebrates the day–May 17, 1990–when the World Health Organization removed homosexuality as a mental illness. But in today’s world, Gramick explained, “the erroneous diagnosis of mental disorder persists, causing much fear and confusion about lesbian and gay people, with often tragic results.” IDAHOBIT then is not only a celebration of the past but a time for action towards a more just future, especially against transphobia.

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Sr. Jeannine Gramick, center, with Polish LGBT activists and journalists

To highlight the “already/not yet” reality of LGBT rights today, Sr. Gramick discussed her trip to Poland at the end of 2016. (You can read more details about the trip by clicking here.) She struck a hopeful note, despite the country’s strong opposition to LGBT issues from Catholic leaders and many politicians:

“I was surprised by the degree of openness and acceptance I found among the Polish people for their lesbian and gay sisters and brothers. Polish Catholics are emerging not only from the political stranglehold of communism, but also from the grip of their authoritarian and traditionalist religious culture. From them I learned that I, too, need to emerge from the iron grip of my own prejudices, my blind spots, and the beams in my own eye. I want to be more open to those who ‘rub me the wrong way’ and to be more welcoming to those with whom I disagree. My visit to the Polish people filled me with hope that homophobia is gradually decreasing in unexpected places.”

Gramick asked, “What can we do to lessen the homophobia and transphobia that engulfs those who are different?” She concluded:

“In my decades of ministry with LGBT people, I continue to be astounded and inspired by the example of those who remain in a church that has so miserably failed to nourish their faith life. In a spirit of non-violence, these LGBT Christian groups are now calling us to stand with them. We may not understand different sexual orientations or gender identities, but we do believe that each person should be treated with dignity and respect because each of us has been made in the image and likeness of God.”

Though IDAHOBIT has come and gone, the need to struggle against prejudices and biases that denigrate another person’s dignity or their love is always present.

How would you answer Sr. Jeannine’s question above? Leave your thoughts in the “Comments” section below.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 29, 2017

 

 

 

NEWS NOTES: Peru, Britain, Poland, Virginia

News NotesHere are some items that might be of interest:

  1. In the heavily Catholic nation of Peru, a recent rise in progressive activism for LGBT equality was recently met with conservative groups organizing a “March for Heterosexual Pride,” according to an article on Towelroad.comSimilarly, in protest to a new sex education and gender equality curriculum, a new group called “Don’t Mess With My Children.”  The group opposes what they call “gender ideology,” a term favored by many Catholic conservative bishops and Pope Francis.

2. The British Medical Association’s new set of staff guidelines encourages employees not to use the term “expectant mothers,” but instead should refer to “pregnant people,” according to The Telegraph. The purpose of the terminology change is to not offend transgender and intersex men who can or have been pregnant.  Bishop Philip Egan, the Roman Catholic bishop of Portsmouth, England, predicted that the new terminology would cause “great confusion and harm.”

3. Poland’s President Andrzej Duda said that he did not think the predominantly Catholic nation would accept a change in the Constitution to allow for same-sex marriage, according to TheNews.pl. Duda, a member of the ruling Law and Justice party, which promotes traditional Polish values, family and Catholic traditions, stated in an interview: “I do not think that the political majority today would agree to any amendment to the Constitution in this area, water down this clause and open interpretation that marriage could also include other genders.”  Poland is one of seven nations in the 28-member European Union which bans same-sex marriage, and one of six nations in the federation which does not allow civil unions.

4. The Senate of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in the U.S.A., has approved a religious liberty bill that would prevent the government from punishing religious organizations which do not allow for same-sex marriage, according to The Christian Times.  The state’s House of Delegates also approved a similar bill.  Both bills appear to be in response to the executive order issued by Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Catholic, that prohibits state contracts from being given to organizations which do not have an anti-discrimination policy protecting sexual orientation and gender identity.  The Virginia Catholic Conference called the two bills “top priority” legislation.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 19, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

 

 

Sr. Jeannine Spreads Message of LGBT Equality in Poland

While most people in the United States were enjoying turkey with all the trimmings last Thanksgiving Day, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder, Sister Jeannine Gramick, was feasting instead on pierogi (dumplings), golabki (stuffed cabbage leaves), kapusta (sauerkraut), and babka (bread). Far from flouting custom, she was honoring tradition and her ancestral roots by spending Thanksgiving Day in Poland.

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In Poland, Sr. Jeannine holds a sign which reads ” I support LGBT people because we are all children of God.”

She was invited for a week-long speaking tour about Catholic LGBT issues, sponsored by the country’s leading LGBT equality organization, “Campaign Against Homophobia,” and its main Christian groups, “Faith and Rainbow” and “Tolerado.” She gave three public presentations, 14 interviews with radio, TV, or print journalists, a retreat for LGBT Christians, and spoke personally with countless individual Poles, including the Secretary General of Poland’s organization for nuns’ communities.

Traveling to Poland’s three leading cities–Warsaw, Krakow, and Gdansk–Sister Jeannine spread the message that she has been spreading for over 45 years: God has unconditional love for LGBT people and it is the church’s job to make that love real by working for justice and equality.

In the homeland of Pope John Paul II, journalists naturally questioned Gramick about her opinions on both the former pope and his current successor. Initially, she said, she had great enthusiasm for John Paul when he was elected. She felt great pride because of her own Polish heritage, but that quickly dissipated. While he called for justice in the secular arena, he was adamantly opposed to any discussion of injustice within the church’s walls. Moreover, she disagreed with John Paul’s views about sexuality, expressed in his talks on the “Theology of the Body,” stating that his notions about gender complementarity made no sense at all to women.

Concerning Pope Francis, she is more optimistic.  In an interview with Queer.pl, she said,

“I think his emphasis is in the right place. He is emphasizing the heart, not the head. He speaks often about dialogue and getting to know LGBT people, even though he maintains that he will not change church teaching (on sexual ethics). I believe that it is most important to first talk with people and thus open people’s hearts. Change (in sexual ethics) will come after there is a change of heart.”

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After one of her speaking appearances in Poland, Sr. Jeannine greets members of the audience.

In an interview with Kobieta.wp.pl, Sister Jeannine described what motivated her to become involved in this ministry. She began her work in 1971 when she met a young gay man who had left the Catholic Church. After many discussions with him and his friends, she realized that Catholics needed to be educated about LGBT lives. She explained:

“I wanted to give a voice to those in the Church who could not speak for themselves. I believe LGBT people, just as any of the faithful, should have their rightful place in this institution…

“I’ve always been interested in those who are overlooked by society. If you read the Bible, you know that Jesus came to defend the outcasts. Another issue for me is conscience. Sometimes your conscience guides you to differ with the church hierarchy…the only thing that should concern us is love and helping others.”

When asked by Queer.pl about her impressions of LGBT issues in Poland, Sister Jeannine responded:

“I’m very surprised, in a positive sense, about what I’ve seen and experienced in Poland. There is more talk about LGBT people than I had anticipated. I’ve seen great acceptance among Catholics, even among priests. They are beginning to understand that this is an important issue of human rights.”

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During one of her talks, Sr. Jeannine holds up New Ways Ministry’s list of LGBT-friendly parishes in the newsletter “Bondings.”

She noted that Catholic lay people in the U.S. and many other nations are much more supportive of LGBT people than the Catholic hierarchy. She felt that the “hierarchy of the Church is responsible for the administration of the community, but they should also feel a responsibility to listen to the people.”

The Campaign Against Homophobia and Faith and Rainbow, two organizations that sponsored Sr. Jeannine’s speaking tour in Poland, launched a nationwide reconciliation campaign last September.  “Let’s Exchange a Sign of Peace” posted billboards all over Poland depicting a handshake in which one hand wore a rosary around the wrist and the other wore a rainbow bracelet. While Polish bishops decried the efforts, the Polish citizenry responded quite positively. Many prominent Catholics and several Catholic publications supported the effort.

Sister Jeannine’s lecture series built on so much of the enormous work already done by these organizations and their supporters—efforts that Sister Jeannine feels will bring about many blessings. When asked about the situation in the U.S. in the future, she responded that the mission may become more difficult to accomplish in the new presidential administration, but like her friends in Poland, she is ready to keep on working. To Weekend.gazeta.pl, she said:

“Good work will go forward because the hearts and minds of people who support the LGBT community have been changed. These hearts and minds were opened and are no longer shut. We will not step back. It will be much harder. But we can handle it. We have to.”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 17, 2017

 

 

Polish Bishops Warn Against “Sinful Fancies” as Catholics Seek LGBT Rights

przekazmysobieznakpokoju-655Polish Catholic bishops are strongly  criticizing a  new reconciliation campaign designed to build bridges between the Church and the LGBT community.

Earlier this month, the “Let’s Exchange a Sign of Peace” campaign was launched by several Polish LGBT groups, including the “Campaign Against Homophobia” and “Faith and Rainbow.” The campaign, which has the support of Catholic media, features billboards “depicting clasped hands — one with a rainbow bracelet and the other with a Catholic rosary,” reported the National Catholic Reporter.

There are plans, too, for meetings across Poland between Catholics and LGBT advocates, to remind the country’s faithful that foremost in church teaching is “the necessity of respect, openness and willing dialogue with all people, including homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals [sic].” These efforts have been joined by a group of Catholic parents with LGBT children who appealed earlier this year for  Pope Francis to speak out against the hatred their children experience.

Poland’s bishops are pushing back against these mounting efforts. The Polish Episcopal Conference released a statement “attacking Wiez, Znak and Tygodnik Powszechny [Catholic media outlets] by name, and rejecting claims that the Polish church was homophobic.” It said specifically of the ad campaign featuring hands held in a sign of peace:

“But if extending hands to others means accepting the person, it never means approving their sin. . .Members of a community gathered in the liturgy have a permanent duty to be converted, and meet Gospel demands by turning away from their sinful fancies. We fear this action, extracting the extended hand gesture from its liturgical context, assumes a meaning incompatible with the teaching of Christ and the church.”

This statement was backed by individual statements from Cardinals Kazimierz Nycz of Warsaw and Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, the latter of whom said Catholic LGBT advocates were “falsifying the church’s unchangeable teaching.”

But, importantly, several Catholic media outlets in Poland remain committed to being spaces where questions of gender and sexuality can be openly discussed, and progress is happening. Dominika Kozlowska, editor of Znak, said “the bishops’ reaction is only a first step — what matters is that they’ve now felt it necessary to take up a position on LGBT issues,” including acknowledging, even in a rudimentary but novel way, that LGBT people deserve to be respected.

Catholics will keep the conversation going, Kozlowska said, urged on by the example of Pope Francis who visited the country in July for World Youth Day celebrations. Continuing the conversation necessarily includes church leaders, as NCR reported:

“Having refused to recognize homosexuality as a genuine orientation, and seen it only as something sinful, Poland’s Catholic bishops now have to consider the subject more carefully.

” ‘The institutional church must start offering adequate pastoral support for this part of our society, rather than just treating these issues ideologically,’ the Znak editor told NCR. ‘I think Francis is offering a way out of the deadlock, by proposing new ways of thinking, acting and speaking, and giving a new quality to church reflections. This is something quite new for Poland, and conservatives and progressives here should all learn from it.’ “

Editors from the three Catholic publications criticized by the bishops said they were not pushing a political agenda, but questioning whether LGBT people’s pastoral needs were being met. They wrote in a joint statement:

” ‘Our involvement as media patrons of this campaign was aimed solely at stressing those elements of church teaching which are little known and disseminated in Poland. . .Polish Catholics have now received a clear call from their pastors to treat homosexual brothers and sisters with dignity and respect. If our involvement in this campaign was improperly understood, perhaps this was a felix culpa, or fortunate mistake.’ “

Studies reveal that Poles are asking more questions and breaking away from issues once considered settled in the highly Catholic country. Faith and Rainbow, a group for LGBT Christians, prompted conversations at World Youth Day by hosting an LGBT Welcome Center. These latest efforts at conversation and at reconciliation should be welcomed by the bishops, instead of  allowing LGBT people and their families to be  marginalized in the church and in Polish society.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

 

 

Parents Implore Pope to Put an End to Homophobia in Poland

We’ve often commented on this blog that the Catholic parents of LGBT people are among the strongest advocates in the Church for equality and justice.  Parents’ groups have been speaking boldly and effectively around the globe, perhaps most notably here in the U.S. through the organization Fortunate Families, and in Malta through the organization Drachma Parents.

A new set of parental voices has joined this growing chorus, this time from the very Catholic nation of Poland.  When Pope Francis visited there last month for World Youth Day, a group of parents of 16 gay Poles wrote to the pontiff, asking him to help put an end to the “widespread” homophobia which they say exists in their nation.

NDTV.com reported on the parents’ letter:

“Pointing to a recent string of ‘attacks on offices of organisations working with homosexuals, burning of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) symbols, and beatings of non-heterosexuals,’ the group implored Francis to intervene.

” ‘Instead of compassion for families, society is engulfed by a wave of homophobia,’ the group said in an open letter, which was published by several Polish newspapers and magazines in the past week [end of July].

” ‘Only the voice of Your Holiness can prevent future tragedies,’ they told Francis, who famously remarked ‘Who am I to judge?’ about gays earlier in his papacy.”

The news report described other important passages from the letter, including the experience of LGBT Poles, and the failure of the Polish church to protect the dignity of LGBT people:

” ‘On a daily basis, our children face hate attacks, verbal assaults and even physical violence only because they were created that way by God,’ said the parents, who did not publish their full names for fear of reprisals.

 ” ‘Why is there so much homophobia among Polish Catholics?’ they asked, quoting passages from Church teachings that call for gays and lesbians to ‘be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.’

” ‘Why aren’t priests reminding people in their sermons that LGBT people are also God’s children and only God can judge them?’

” ‘Jesus himself never said anything about the love between people of the same sex,’ the letter said.”

Unfortunately, Pope Francis did not address LGBT issues in any of his public addresses at World Youth Day, though he did refer negatively to gender issues in a private meeting with Polish bishops.

One Polish gay advocate feels that Francis’ more positive messages on LGBT issues is having an influence on the minds and attitudes of Catholic Poles.  NDTV.com reported:

” ‘It’s not yet at the point in history when the Catholic Church in Poland would be ready to agree (to officially recognise LGBT groups) — we are not yet there,’ [said] Misza Czerniak, an LGBT activist.

“He however acknowledged that ‘Francis has changed the tone and the vocabulary that is used when speaking about LGBT people in the Church, and we are extremely grateful for that.’

” ‘And what is a big sign of hope for us, is that the Polish church is gradually learning from him.’ “

Catholic parents of LGBT people are the true prophets in our Church.  Their journeys of acceptance and love, their experience of understanding new realities, are exactly the same journey that the entire Church, especially the hierarchy, need to learn.  Parents have a lot to teach church leaders about unconditional love, and about treating all people equally as brothers and sisters.  Their strong voices in support of their LGBT children are a true gift to our Church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry.

Pope Francis Plants Seeds for Equality at World Youth Day

PF WYD 2016World Youth Day 2016 concluded yesterday, ending a crowded week of catechetical programs and prayer opportunities in Krakow.

Frank DeBernardo and I had hoped that Pope Francis would acknowledge gay Holocaust victims during his visit to Auschwitz, or use the week-long program to apologize to LGBT people hurt by the church, but neither occurred publicly. Still, I sense a different and powerful current happening at this World Youth Day through which Pope Francis is leading younger Catholics towards a reforming and renewing church.

Addressing youth at a prayer vigil on Saturday evening, Pope Francis urged attendees to “leave a mark on history” by being active in the world, uninhibited by fear and inspired by prayer. The pope said God seeks to work “one of the greatest miracles we can experience” through people’s own works.  He focused specifically on seeking reconciliation and unity:

“[God] wants to turn your hands, my hands, our hands, into signs of reconciliation, of communion, of creation. . .to continue building the world of today. And [God] wants to build that world with you. . .

“Thinking that in this world, in our cities and our communities, there is no longer any room to grow, to dream, to create, to gaze at new horizons – in a word to live – is one of the worst things that can happen to us in life. When we are paralyzed, we miss the magic of encountering others, making friends, sharing dreams, walking at the side of others. . .

“Today, we adults need you to teach us how to live in diversity, in dialogue, to experience multiculturalism not as a threat but an opportunity. Have the courage to teach us that it is easier to build bridges than walls!”

He had made a similar call to radical and hospitable discipleship during the Way of the Cross earlier in the week, too. And at the closing Mass on Sunday, Francis preached about God’s unconditional love and said “that not to accept ourselves. . .means not to recognize our deepest identity” as children of God. His homily on the Gospel story of Zacchaeus and Jesus also spoke extensively about the “paralysis of shame,” which should give way to the courage of living life.

Though Francis did not comment on LGBT issues, they were surely present throughout WYD in  personal conversations, catechetical sessions, and, most fundamentally, the lives of attendees. What the pope did emphasize many times are concepts like reconciliation, diversity, encounter, and dialogue. He affirmed young people struggling with questions about life or faith. These words may have challenged some attendees, but they likely confirmed what many young Catholics already know and are living out as they work for a more inclusive and just church for all.

So why and how are Pope Francis’ remarks relevant for LGBT advocates? His remarks to youth are subtly but importantly different from his predecessors’ remarks at youth events. Francis does not want youth to become the next generation of Catholics obsessed with opposing LGBT rights or other culture war issues. He focuses less on these issues and more on being a welcoming church that mediates God’s inclusive love.

But Francis is not just instructing young Catholics. He is reminding them of what they already know and what they are already doing.  In many situations, they have already been living Francis’ message in their work for LGBT justice.  Young Catholics are, in many regions, the most affirming group in the church. They are demanding that the church’s ministers and leaders be more pro-active when it comes to equality. Young Catholics have led the church by promoting reconciliation in their own families, schools, and communities. They embrace diversity, and they are courageously living out diverse sexual and gender identities in greater numbers than ever before. They are encountering the world with a real openness about LGBT issues, even in conservative regions.

Young Catholics can readily see that the church cannot preach hospitality if it turns away people because of their gender identities. They understand that embracing diversity must include embracing diverse sexual identities and expressions. They understand that not only can the church help reconciliation in the world, but that the church has deep wounds around gender and sexuality which must be attended to as well.

Francis seems unable or unwilling to apply his otherwise wonderful words explicitly to LGBT injustices within the church. The key now is for Pope Francis and church leaders to reverse the process of instruction. Following Jesus’ words, the pope and his staff should instead learn from the children. Such instruction would help church leaders see the new horizons towards which God calls the church. World Youth Day reminded me that young Catholics are cultivating and harvesting the seeds of equality planted by Pope Francis and an older generation of social justice Catholics.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry