ROME, Italy–The news from the Vatican’s synod on marriage and the family yesterday contained an important lesson about the power of Catholic parents advocating for their LGBT children.
Bishop Mario Grech, bishop of Gozo, and the president of the bishops’ conference of Malta, gave a talk to the synod in which he called for a church that is more accepting of its’ LGBT members. What was not apparent from his speech, though, is the fact that much of his evolution in thinking about these matters happened because he has been in dialogue with a group of Maltese Catholic parents of LGBT people for several years. (You can read his entire talk by clicking here.)
Drachma Parents, the affiliated organization of Drachma, Malta’s Catholic LGBT organization, which is coordinated by Joseanne and Joseph Peregin, has been meeting with the bishop for several years to share their stories of love, struggle, and acceptance of their LGBT children. Joseanne shared the story of the organization’s work at the October 3rd international theological conference “The Ways of Love,” held in Rome. (You can read two previous blog posts about this conference by clicking here and here.)
At the Synod, Bishop Grech told his brother bishops:
“We know very well that, as our Lord himself promised to give his Spirit to guide us to all truth (cfr. Jn 16:13) and in a spirit of complete trust in his word, the doctrine of the faith is capable of progressively acquiring a greater depth. We must not change or twist the Gospel of the Family in such a way that would lead to its disfigurement. Today’s family, however, also quite commonly includes the following scenarios: the situation of a man and woman, both divorced and who now live together in a second relationship; or the case where a son or a daughter profess to be gay; or that given context whereby the exercise of responsible fatherhood proves to be a constant hurdle; relationships that are torn apart by failure; or the challenge of having to live in a framework which renders incomprehensible the very concepts of natural law… We need to know our families very well if we are to offer them the Gospel in a practical way. A good point of departure would be in our choice of language – may it be the language of a Church that is both merciful and brings healing. I must confess to facing the urgency of this need while listening to families of homosexuals as well as to the same persons having such an orientation and who feel wounded by the language directed towards them in certain texts, for instance in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997 edition, §2358); these persons consequently struggle both with maintaining their faith alive as well as cultivating their sense of filial belonging to the Church. It is necessary to learn to speak that language which is known to contemporary human beings and who acknowledge it as a way of conveying the truth and the charity of the Gospel: “If we wish to adapt to people’s language and to reach them with God’s word, we need to share in their lives and pay loving attention to them.” (Evangelii Gaudium [EG] 158).”
He also urged the synod participants to be creative in finding new ways to address contemporary family situations:
“Creativity in both the language as well as in the pastoral attitude towards persons who find themselves in difficult pastoral situations requires far more than a mere external modification. On the contrary, it demands the sustained pursuit of new answers alongside new pastoral approaches some of which can be extracted from the teachings of the Church Fathers. It is desirable that such situations be closely examined with theological erudition together with a pastoral mindset, in order for suitable pastoral solutions that are built upon deepened doctrinal considerations to be obtained.”
He concluded on a note of urgency:
“At the very heart of the Gospel of the family is found the salvation of every human person, even of those who find themselves in uncomfortable pastoral situations. It is our duty as Pastors to proclaim the Gospel of salvation even to them. This is an urgent duty because humans are going through such trajectories today: therefore the time to answer to this plea from God’s People is now. “
I had the pleasure of spending a few days and meals in Rome with Joseanne and Joseph Peregin, and I found them to be people of deep faith, prayer, and love. They reminded me of the many Catholic parents I meet in the United States who are part of Fortunate Families. Joseanne credits New Ways Ministry’s Sister Jeannine Gramick with the inspiration for forming the Drachma Parents group. It was after hearing Sister Jeannine give a talk in Malta in 2004 that Joseanne and other parents decided to form the group.
During Joseanne’s talk at the October 3rd international theological conference, she described the experience of herself and her husband’s coming to acceptance of their gay son, and then she explained:
“It seems almost all parents feel this initial shock. Confusion and fear paralyze most parents. But for us Roman Catholics, an added concern is what the Church says about homosexuality. I realized that, when it comes to the LGBT reality, there are many misconceptions and myths that enwrap people in doubt and fear. Although we may have some laws in place that protect the rights of homosexuals, there is still a long way to go until we see the change in culture and mentality that is needed. One of the very first challenges parents of gay children must face is: ‘What will people say?’ but then in Catholic Malta, the second one is: ‘What does the Catholic Church say?’ Unfortunately, this is where many parents get confused and this is where pastoral care is felt most lacking.”
Joseanne also offered some wisdom about pastoral care:
“To me, pastoral care is about meeting people where they stand and building a friendship with those who feel isolated, distant or cut-off from the Church or even their families – with those who are on the periphery of society – focusing therefore on emotional support and spiritual care.
“As Christians we must stand by the side of the poor and rejected, even if it causes us discomfort and humiliation. But there is still a lot of hostility and judgment out there. Our Christian communities need to build bridges and dialogue with those who are at the periphery of society. We need to offer them a SAFE SPACE where they can continue their faith journey. A SAFE SPACE where they can share their vulnerabilities.”
And she also gave advice for advocacy, which, as Bishop Grech’s talk illustrates, was very effective in her case:
“Something else that works is sending emails to the Bishop. Whenever I listened to a priest’s homily that was delivered with a prejudice tone against gays or whenever the Drachma Community celebrated a wonderful Christmas or Easter Mass, I would write to my Bishop to inform him and give him a most vivid description of the event.
“Like me, other members of Drachma took different initiatives. Eventually, this led to building enough interest in the pastoral work of Drachma and some important follow-up meetings were held with the Bishops. Last February the Drachma Parents Group wrote a letter to the Bishop with specific recommendations for the upcoming Synod. And on May 17th IDAHO [International Day Against Homophobia] Mass was celebrated by the Bishop and was made public in the media. This was an important pastoral gesture by our Bishop which also helped to heal some wounds (especially after the Civil Union Law). Recently, I was also invited to give my input during a consultation meeting with the Bishop representing Malta at the Synod and I was one of 20 such advisors – so these humble initiatives are helping to build bridges, gain credibility and strengthen dialogue in the church.”
Joseanne concluded with pastoral advice that I pray all the synod bishops–indeed, all bishops and pastoral ministers–would follow:
“In my view, taking the hostility experienced by LGBTIs upon ourselves, and choosing to defend them instead of judge them, is perhaps the need I see most urgent and universal right now in the life of the church. We need to help stop the bullying that goes on in schools. We need to help persuade countries to change their laws starting with those countries that still consider homosexuality to be a crime. The Church can lead by example.
“It needs to address this phenomenon by first showing it is on the side of gays and ready to defend them, with the same determination as when we defend the unborn child. It is important that we reduce the number of attempted suicides by educating people, so as to respect diversity. Immediately following the Bishops’ Synod, the Catholic Church would do well to implement better ways of expressing its support in a concrete and outward way. We should insist on this. If we don’t, who will?
“Yes, our church is tired of pompous judgmental statements – it is tired of clashing symbols and empty words – people want to see real people, real testimonies of hope and love, people who listen, who make themselves available and who are ready to offer their time and their friendship.
“So whoever feels lost, hidden or forgotten in the church would be pleased to find us busy right now, (like the woman in the Drachma parable in Luke 15) sweeping up the whole house of God and causing a household stir. They would be happy to know that we value and celebrate their worth and are doing whatever we can to build an inclusive Church. And hopefully, we will REJOICE with our friends, including the Bishops and the Pope!”
(You can read the entire text of Joseanne’s talk by clicking here.)
It is wonderful that the bishops in the synod are finally starting to talk in more compassionate and realistic ways about lesbian and gay people. But we must remember that their episcopal voices have often been taught about the ways of love from parents, pastoral ministers, and LGBT people themselves.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry