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