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


New Ways Ministry’s LGBT Catholic Pilgrims Get VIP Seats at Papal Audience

February 19, 2015
NWM Rome 2015

New Ways Ministry pilgrims pose in St. Peter’s Square following the papal audience with Pope Francis.

In what is surely the most official welcome from Church officials that New Ways Ministry has received in its 38-year history, a pilgrimage group of 48 LGBT Catholics and supporters led by our co-founder, Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, received VIP seating at the papal audience in St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, on Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015.

Sister Jeannine had written to Pope Francis in December 2014, asking him to meet personally with the group when they visited Rome as part of their ten-day pilgrimage to Florence, Assisi, and the Eternal City.

Two weeks before departure on February 12th, she received a letter from Archbishop Georg Ganswein, Prefect of the Papal Household, letting her know that he had reserved tickets for the group for the Ash Wednesday audience.  She assumed that these were the general seating tickets. On the night of February 17th, when the group picked up the tickets at St. Peter’s, they learned that they were VIP seating.

When the group arrived at St. Peter’s Square in the morning, we were guided by papal ushers to the level of the Square where the pope sits.  All were astonished!    While we were not able to shake the pope’s hand personally, it is very significant that the Vatican responded so positively to an LGBT group by giving us such a prominent place at the audience.
When the pope passed by our group, we all sang “All Are Welcome,” a popular hymn which calls for an inclusive church.  We also called out several times that “We are LGBT Catholics!”
Pope Francis greets pilgrims at the Ash Wednesday audience.

Pope Francis greets pilgrims at the Ash Wednesday audience.

Although Sister Jeannine Gramick has led two other pilgrimages to Rome under the two previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, their presence was ignored at the papal audiences.

A Religion News Service story in The Washington Post noted that it was not just Vatican recognition that was significant, but that several other Church leaders helped the process along the way:

“. . . Archbishop Georg Ganswein, head of the papal household and the top aide to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, responded to New Ways’ request for a papal meet-and-greet by reserving tickets for the group at Francis’ weekly public audience in St. Peter’s Square. It’s not a private meeting — which is tough for anyone to get — but it’s not nothing.

“The pope’s ambassador to Washington forwarded a similar request to Rome. Even San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone — point man for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ battle against gay marriage — had written a letter to the Vatican on their behalf.

“Last December, Cordileone had a constructive meeting with Frank DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, a co-founder of New Ways and a longtime advocate for LGBT inclusion in the church. But they were still surprised by the archbishop’s willingness to write a letter for them.”

Sister Jeannine Gramick and Francis DeBernardo in St. Peter's Square following the Ash Wednesday audience.

Sister Jeannine Gramick and Francis DeBernardo in St. Peter’s Square following the Ash Wednesday audience.

Gibson also noted that a British cardinal has given similar prestigious recognition to an LGBT Catholic pilgrimage which is also in Rome this week:

” . . . British Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster sent a warm blessing to a group of LGBT Catholics from London who are joining up with New Ways in Rome. ‘Be assured of my prayers for each and every one of you,’ Nichols wrote. ‘Have a wonderful pilgrimage. God bless you all.’ “

Reuters story published on Huffington Post captured the response of New Ways Ministry’s leaders just after they left the papal audience:

” ‘What this says is that there is movement in our Church, movement to welcome people from the outside closer to the inside,’ Gramick said in St. Peter’s Square. . . . “DeBernardo said Catholic gay and lesbian couples and other non-traditional families should be invited to the meeting, known as a synod, to speak to the bishops about their faith and their sexuality.”

An Associated Press video also reported their reactions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhM3UMRl830 Several of the LGBT pilgrims were visibly moved by the welcome they received and by the experience of seeing the pope in person.  Several noted that they felt this was one more step in the progress–albeit, slow–that LGBT Catholics have been making in the Church for several decades.  All agreed that this day will never be forgotten.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles:

Associated Press: “Gay Catholics Get Vatican Welcome, but No Papal Shout-Out”

New York Daily News:  “American gay Catholic group welcomed to Vatican”


Will Pope Francis Meet With Sister Jeannine Gramick and LGBT Catholics?

January 26, 2015
Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Since becoming pope in March 2013, one of Pope Francis’ most endearing habits has been making phone calls or writing notes to ordinary people, and even sometimes meeting with them in a personal encounter.

Sister Jeannine Gramick

Sister Jeannine Gramick

So, is it too much to hope that he might meet with friends of New Ways Ministry when Sister Jeannine Gramick, co-founder, leads a pilgrimage of LGBT and ally Catholics to Rome in February?

Well,  knowing from first-hand experience that stranger things have definitely happened,  and that God truly does move in mysterious ways, Sister Jeannine has written to Pope Francis asking him if he had some time in his busy papal schedule to meet with these 50 people who are traveling to Italy to visit shrines, churches, and monuments in not only the Eternal City, but Florence, and Assisi, as well.

In her December 23, 2014, letter to the pontiff, Sr. Jeannine wrote, in part:

“I am one of your multi-billion+ fans! On my computer is a round decal with your picture and the words, ‘This Pope gives me hope!’  On my car is a bumper sticker that says, ‘I ♥ Pope Francis.’ . . .

“In February, I will be leading a pilgrimage to Rome, Assisi, and Florence for 50 Catholics, who are lesbian/gay or are parents, family members or friends of lesbian/gay Catholics. They are so very heartened by your words of mercy and welcome. They believe, as you say, that receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is spiritual nourishment that we need to grow in our love-relationship with God, not a prize to be awarded those who are worthy.

“We will be in Rome from February 17 to February 20 and plan to attend your general audience on Ash Wednesday. The pilgrims would like to meet personally with you for a few minutes, either after your general audience, or at another time at your convenience.

“Would it be possible for you to meet personally with these faith-filled Catholics who have felt too long excluded from their Church?”

Back in the 1990s, when on a flight from Rome to Munich to pray at the tomb of her religious congregation’s foundress, Sister Jeannine serendipitously ended up on the same flight as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), who at the time was directing an investigation of Sister Jeannine’s ministry with lesbian and gay people. The two shared a delightful conversation, and Sister Jeannine has stated that it helped her see the human side of a man whom many considered to be her greatest adversary.  Indeed, on his part, Cardinal Ratzinger acknowledged several times during their talk that this chance meeting had to be the work of Providence.

So, who knows how Pope Francis will respond?  As everyone knows, he has already made several important statements and gestures in regard to greater Catholic openness towards LGBT people, including writing a personal note to Kairos, a Catholic LGBT group in Florence, Italy.

And just yesterday, a Spanish-language news report announced that it seems Pope Francis recently met with a transgender man and his fiancee from Spain in a private audience at the Vatican. The story reports that Diego Neria Lejárraga wrote to the pontiff a month ago describing the ill-treatment he received from fellow parishioners. Bondings 2.0 will provide more details as the story emerges.

The members of Sister Jeannine’s pilgrimage will be meeting with members of Kairos when they visit that beautiful Renaissance city.  Five years ago, she brought another group of pilgrims to Florence and established a friendly relationship with the Kairos leaders and members.

This year, the American group will also be meeting with members of Nuova Proposta, a Catholic LGBT group in Rome, and Sister Jeannine will be giving a talk to the Italian members.

The 10-day pilgrimage coincides with a similar journey being made by LGBT Catholics from Westminister in London, England, under the leadership of longtime pastoral advocate, Martin Pendergast.  The British pilgrims and American pilgrims will meet several times for liturgy and socializing.

Because Sister Jeannine’s pilgrimage group is visiting both Rome and Assisi, and since the present pope has often alluded to St. Francis of Assisi, the pilgrimage is entitled “Rebuild My Church:  St. Francis and Pope Francis.”  In addition to visiting and praying at holy sites and meeting with Catholic LGBT Italians, the pilgrims will also reflect on the ways that they can rebuild the church in their local communities.

Please keep Sister Jeannine and all the pilgrims in your prayers during February.  Bondings 2.0  will update you on any special events that happen during the trip.  And, if Pope Francis does grant the pilgrims a private audience, you will read it here first!  Stay tuned!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

 


Ten Years Later: Sister Jeannine and Her Documentary Keep Marching On

November 12, 2014

It’s hard to believe that it has been over ten years since In Good Conscience:  Sister Jeannine Gramick’s Journey of Faith, a documentary chronicling the life and ministry of New Ways Ministry’s co-founder, was released and met with applause, ovations, and awards at film festivals around the world.   And what a decade it has been!  Marriage equality is rapidly becoming the norm in the United States and in many parts of the globe, a new pope is in the Vatican, and Catholics in growing numbers are standing up for justice and equality for LGBT people.

TEN YEARS AGO: Sister Jeannine Gramick and Barbara Rick

To mark this anniversary, there will be a special screening of the inspiring film on Saturday, November 15th in New York City, as part of Believe Out Loud’s Level Ground film festival. (You can purchase tickets by clicking here.)  Both Sister Jeannine and Barbara Rick of Out of The Blue Films, who produced and directed the documentary, will be available for a Q and A session after the film.

Another way that the anniversary is being observed is that Out of The Blue Films is releasing a special tenth anniversary edition which brings viewers up to date with some of the remarkable things that have been happening in the church and the world.  And most importantly, the new version shows that Sister Jeannine is still actively ministering with LGBT people, continuing to resist the Vatican’s 15-year old order that she end such work.

The National Catholic Reporter’s  Jamie Manson interviewed Rick recently to discuss the impact of the film and a need for an update of it.  Rick explained what motivated her to undertake the project in the first place:

“I stumbled across something in The New York Times about an American nun who was refusing to be silent over her ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics. I remember just sitting up as straight as can be in my chair. I was like, ‘Oh my God, she is really doing something powerful.’

“This is a woman who is doing something revolutionary by refusing to be silenced by the patriarchal hierarchy of the Vatican. That just resonated very deeply with me: a woman standing up without fear (or in spite of fear) and saying, ‘I refuse to collaborate on my own oppression.’ That just hit such a deep chord in me.”

Rick reflects on what she learned about Sister Jeannine as she made the film:

“Her ability to speak truth to power and to deal with her enemies who outrank her really sets her apart. I’m so impressed by her persistence and her humor, her love for humanity, her dogged nature. She’s just determined. She just doesn’t give up. I really think she is a prophet. She has been fighting the way forward many decades. She was inspired by her friend Dominic, who asked, ‘Sister, what is the Catholic church doing for my gay brothers and sisters?’ That is the question that has hounded her for whole life.”

The filmmaker also commented on why she thinks Sister Jeannine’s story is so compelling:

“I think she was a part of this transformation that has happened in the treatment of gay and lesbian Catholics and gay and lesbian people throughout the world. She is part of the realization that all people are deserving of love, rights, respect and marriage. There was no talk of same-sex marriage 10 years ago. It’s very powerful to see how much the world has changed. I like to think that this film had a very tiny part to play in all that. The world was in the process in of changing, and we were documenting a little piece of that change. It’s one of the reasons that we wanted to revisit the film.”

Rick says the new film will be shorter and more effective, while also updating some of the content to reflect the changes that have occurred in the world and the church.  The producer is still trying to raise funds to finish the new edition.  To find out more about the new version and to make a donation to its production, visit the film’s website by clicking here.

If you would like to order a copy of the original film, you can do so by visiting New Ways Ministry’s online bookstore, and clicking on the button below the In Good Conscience icon.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


Praying for Synod and for New Ways Ministry’s Presence in Rome and Portugal

September 28, 2014

One week from today, Pope Francis will open the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops to discuss the topic, The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.  For Catholic LGBT advocates, there has been great anticipation of the event, perhaps mainly because Pope Francis asked the bishops of the world to consult the laity on marriage and family topics, and, even more so, because pastoral care of families headed by same-gender couples was one of the areas for which input was sought.

Today has been set aside as a day of prayer for the Synod, and Pope Francis has composed a Prayer to the Holy Family for the Synod.   You can access this prayer, and other prayer intentions for the Synod, by clicking here.   Of course, we ask that you include in your prayer for the Synod that the concerns of families with LGBT members or those headed by same-gender couples will be heard and responded to pastorally by the bishops.

When the Synod opens on Sunday, October 5th, New Ways Ministry representatives will be in Rome.  Both Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder, and Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, will be traveling there to participate in several events surrounding the Synod, and also with the hope that they will be able to provide a pro-LGBT voice in the public discussions of the Synod that the media will offer.  In addition, DeBernardo will travel to Portugal for the first international meeting of Catholic LGBT groups.

Joining them, too, in Rome will be Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, retired auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Australia.  Bishop Robinson spoke at New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium in 2012, where he called for a total re-vamping of the Church’s system of sexual ethics.

The following are the various events that these three people will participate in:

  • “The Ways of Love: International Conference on pastoral care with homosexual and trans people,” Friday October 3, 2014, at the Waldensian Faculty of Theology, Aula Magna, via Pietro Cossa 40, Rome.  For more information, and to see the line-up of speakers, click here.    (For a previous blog post about this event, click here.)
  • “Lets’s witness our hope,”  a forum for Italian Christian LGBT groups, Saturday and Sunday, October 4-5, 2014, at Centro Pellegrini Santa Teresa Couderc, Via Vincenzo Ambrosio 9, Rome.  For more information about this event, click here.
  • “The Path from the 2014 Synod to the 2015 Synod: The Pastoral Challenges for Welcoming LGBT people,” a lecture by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Wednesday, October 8, 2014,  Via Marianna Dionigi, 59, Rome.  This lecture is sponsored by Nuova Proposta, a Christian LGBT organization in Rome.  For more information, click here.
  • “When Identity Becomes a Crime: Criminalization of Homosexuality Globally,” an international conference, Saturday, October 11, 2014, 4:30-6:3o pm, at the Capitoline Museum, Sala Pietro da’ Cortona, piazza del Campidoglio 1, Rome. The speakers will be Frank Mugisha, a Ugandan LGBT activist, Jules Eloundou, a human rights defender from Cameroon, André du Plessis, UN program and advocacy director for ILGA World, and Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry’s executive director. Dr. Michael Brinkschröder, a co-president of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups, will moderate.  Bishops participating in the Synod are invited to attend.   The event is sponsored by the City of Rome and Dutch Ministry’s Department of Education, Science & Culture.

While in Europe, New Ways Ministry’s Francis DeBernardo will also travel to Portugal to attend a meeting of Catholic LGBT groups from around the globe who are gathering to discuss the inauguration of a world-wide association for those who work for LGBT equality in the Church.  The meeting will be held in the city of Portimão on October 6-8, 2014.

28 organizations from 16 different countries will be attending this first World Congress of Catholic Homosexual Associations.   Organized by Rumos Novos,  a Portugese Catholic gay and lesbian group (whose name, incidentally, translates as “New Ways”), this meeting’s theme will be “Building Bridges.”  According to the meeting’s website:

“This congress invites us to look with serenity and deepness towards our Church and our life, allowing that on ‘both sides of the bridge’ light can brighten the view of all, often distorted  by prejudices, fears and sorrows.”

DeBernardo will be a speaker at the conference, addressing the topic of the gifts that LGBT people bring to the Church.

José Leote, the coordinator of the conference, in an interview with Algarve Daily News, said the meeting’s participants will send a letter to Pope Francis.  They will ask the pope, among other things, that gay and lesbian people will experience “integration at all levels of the Church and the possibility of working in parishes without the stigma of sexual orientation.”

The Portugal News described the two-pronged parts of this meeting:

“The congress will take part in two phases, the first being a public phase and open to anyone interested, and a second part reserved for representatives of the associations in which the basis of the future World Organisation is to be set.”

While New Ways Ministry asks for your prayers for the Synod, especially that LGBT concerns will be heard, we also ask your prayers for Sister Jeannine and Francis DeBernardo, as they journey to these events.  Please pray that God will bless them with wisdom, courage, and fortitude during these important events.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 


Parish Bulletin Tells the Story of a Lesbian Couple’s Commitment

August 25, 2014

Parish bulletins often tell a person a lot about the atmosphere of a Catholic community.  Even in many gay-friendly parishes, pastors and lay leaders are sometimes reluctant to mention, in print, their welcome of LGBT people. A recent example shows how one parish is working at breaking that wall of silence.

St. Francis Xavier Parish, Manhattan, N.Y., has long been known as a welcoming and affirming community.  They have marched in NYC’s Pride Parade many times, and they have two strong spirituality programs in the parish, one for gay men and one for lesbian woman.  LGBT people are integrated intimately in all aspects of parish life.

Earlier this summer, in the June 22nd, 2014 bulletin of St. Francis Xavier parish, a lesbian couple told the story of their relationship over the course of more than four decades.  Entitled “Forty-Four Years of Love and Commitment,” the short piece by Maria Formoso and Joan O’Brien, describes the difficult early years of their closeted relationship:

“We had the lucky fortune to meet in 1968 when we were employed as teachers in a Catholic high school in New York City. We became a couple in 1970 but we never disclosed it to our parents. It was difficult enough for ourselves to accept this relationship since we had been brought up Roman Catholic in Pre-Vatican II. We tried hard to reconcile our faith and our sexuality.

“Other people whom we suspected were gay were secretive and closeted as well, but we were eager to meet folks with whom we could openly share our lives and our values.”

Little by little, they began to reach out to others for support, including other Catholics:

“. . . at Dignity New York, we met Karen Doherty and Christine Nusse, who started the Conference for Catholic Lesbians in 1983. We were astonished and astounded to meet people from all over the United States who were struggling just like us to live their lives as Catholic lesbians.”

After praising a number of Catholic leaders including Sister Jeannine Gramick, Mary Hunt, Sister Theresa Kane, Father John McNeill, Barbara Zanotti, for their assistance in helping them to reconcile their lesbian and Catholic identities, the couple ended their essay with praise for St. Francis Xavier parish:

“Finally, Christmas Eve 1994, we, accompanied by Maria’s brother José, who also was gay, went to the Church of St.
Francis Xavier. Our good friends Anne and Frank Sheridan invited us. We had not attended mass in a number of years because, as lesbians, we did not feel welcome. The church was packed with people, many standing in the back. Sister Honora Nicholson came to our rescue, and we found ourselves seated on the left side of the altar. The service was beautiful. We were home! “

It was so refreshing to read such a positive piece about a lesbian relationship in a parish bulletin.  It’s quite an example of acceptance and affirmation, and also a wonderful way to educate the entire community about the lived reality of lesbian lives.  It’s a perfect way to let the rest of the parish benefit from the spiritual journey of two of their parishioners.

May other parishes do likewise!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


Under the Vatican’s Dark Cloud, Nuns Continue to Suppport LGBT People

August 19, 2014

Last week, I attended the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ (LCWR) meeting in Nashville, Tennessee.  Over 800 nuns were there for their annual gathering, and this year, the number one item on the agenda was the discussion of how to respond to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which has required that the LCWR be overseen by Archbishop Peter Sartain.    The CDF’s directive comes after a doctrinal investigation of the LCWR, and their support for lesbian and gay ministry (and their support for New Ways Ministry was singled out as one of the problems), was cited as a problem.

The Sisters were undaunted.  Although understandably concerned about the Vatican’s judgment (at stake is whether LCWR will be canonically recognized, i.e., have an official relationship with the Holy See), this did not stop them from expressing their support for LGBT people, and New Ways Ministry.

Sister Jeannine Gramick, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder, and I staffed an exhibit table at the conference, as we have done for over 20 years.  Scores of nuns stopped by our table and encouraged us in our ministry and expressing gratitude that we were there at the conference.  Many told stories of attending New Ways Ministry programs over the years, and how the attitudes of the women in their communities have grown more positive.  Some told us stories of the personal struggle of LGBT family members who have been hurt by the church, and of the sisters’ efforts to maintain some connection with these alienated individuals.

“Keep going!” they told us,  “Our church needs this kind of outreach!”

So, despite being under a dark cloud of Vatican suspicion, the nuns were standing firm in regards to LGBT issues.  For them this is not a question of sexual ethics, but a question of justice, and, even more so, a question of relationship.  It is their relationships and dialogues with LGBT people that have opened their hearts and minds.  It is their long-standing relationship and support of New Ways Ministry that keeps them welcoming us to their conference every year, even when they are dealing with their own troubles.

Sister Jeannine Gramick

Sister Jeannine Gramick

On Sunday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, published an essay entitled “Sister Acts” in which he praised nuns for their courage, resilience, humility, and forthrightness in proclaiming the gospel through their actions. One of the nuns he cited is New Ways Ministry’s own Sister Jeannine Gramick, of whom he writes:

“Another remarkable nun is Sister Jeannine Gramick, who, while working toward a doctorate in mathematics, met a gay Catholic man who asked for religious help. She organized a home service for him that grew into a regular liturgy for gay Catholics in private homes.

“In 1977, she helped found New Ways Ministry to support gay and lesbian Catholics. The Vatican tried to suppress her, and her order, the Loretto Sisters, was instructed at least nine times to dismiss her. It passively resisted.

“ ‘The Vatican tried to silence me,’ Sister Jeannine told Piazza, ‘and it just didn’t work.’

“At a time when much of Christianity denounced gays and lesbians, Sister Jeannine was a beacon of compassion and struggled to educate the church she loved.

“ ‘People always emphasize sex, sex, sex,’ Sister Jeannine told Piazza. ‘And it isn’t about sex. It is about love. It is who you fall in love with that makes you lesbian and gay. Love is the important thing here, not sex.’ ”

Sister Jeannine’s story and opinion reflects the ideas of the majority of American nuns.  As I mentioned above, relationship with people is what is important for these women, and Sister Jeannine’s ministry began with the friendship she developed with a gay man.  And for her, like for so many nuns, love, not sex, is the important quality of a romantic relationship.

Kristof praises the nuns, saying:

“. . . in a world of narcissism and cynicism, they constitute an inspiring contingent of moral leaders who actually walk the walk.”

The sisters’ example of “walking the walk” with LGBT people is an exercise that many bishops should emulate.  If bishops would open their hearts–and their ears–the way nuns have, the Church’s inequality for LGBT people could dissolve overnight.

I am always very fond of telling people that New Ways Ministry has been able to thrive for over 37 years because we have always had the support of the sisters in our church.  They have hosted most of our educational programs, and they have continually supported with us with prayers, financial contributions, and hospitality, not to mention the frequent messages of support that I described above.

When the LCWR meeting ended, Sister Jeannine and I traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee, with the hope of meeting with priests there to advise and encourage them to develop LGBT ministry and outreach there.  As it turned out, no priests materialized, but, not surprisingly, a community of Sisters of Mercy, the youngest of whom was in her 60s, welcomed us, offered us hospitality, and were open to doing what they can to support the LGBT community in eastern Tennessee.

The nuns continue to lead the way for an inclusive and welcoming church!  Let’s pray in gratitude for their lives and love!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related post:

May 19, 2014: “U.S. Catholics Stand with Nuns As Vatican Crackdown Re-Emerges


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