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:
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