When President Barack Obama welcomes Pope Francis to the White House later this month, he will do so accompanied by a young gay Catholic. At the same time, though, many other LGBT Catholics and allies are still trying to encourage the pope to engage in dialogue with this community while in the U.S.
Aaron Ledesma, 23, who blogs at The Gay Catholic and recently graduated from Marquette University, a Jesuit school in Milwaukee, will be at the White House to welcome Francis. Raised Catholic, Ledesma came out at 21 though he knew he was gay long before that and is now returning home to the church.
It is this experience of “finding what I can be in the church” about which Ledesma wrote to the White House about several weeks ago, hopeful that these two leaders who have spoken so positively about LGBT people were meeting. Speaking of Pope Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” remark, Ledesma told the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel:
” ‘When Pope Francis said that…I thought, you know, if every Catholic practiced that, I’d have nothing to fear. I’d have nothing to worry about’ . . .I just said it would be quite moving to see these two [President Obama and Pope Francis] come together, both of whom had voiced support for the LGBT community.’ “
Ledesma’s return to his Catholic roots was also aided by his mother Patti McNeil who helped allay her son’s fears. Though she opposes marriage equality, McNeil, who teaches at a Catholic high school in Texas, said:
“But my hope is that he would be accepted. . .That he and his family could walk into a Catholic church, sit in the front pew, and not be stared at and not be the focus of a homily about why he should not be there.”
For his part, Ledesma has decided to “just focus on my faith” instead of being concerned with the judgments of others or letting them define his relationship to God. When asked by reporter Joe St. George of CBS 6 what he would say to Francis, Ledesma said:
” ‘I would tell the Holy Father how much it means to someone to hear you are loved, you are supported. . . you can be Catholic and be gay.’ “
Whether Aaron Ledesma will speak with the pope is uncertain, but calls continue to grow for Francis to meet more intentionally with LGBT people during his U.S. visit. The latest comes from Nicholas Coppola and GLAAD, who began a Change.org petition for such a meeting.
Coppola was removed from parish ministries after marrying his husband in 2012, an experience he says was “horrible,” “shocking,” and uniquely discriminatory in his life. Pope Francis’ comments in the last two years have encouraged Coppola, but they are not enough:
” ‘We continue to have LGBT people removed from their posts within the church, and I struggle with the fact that the Pope has not addressed these things specifically. . . I genuinely believe that if the Pope sat with us, he’d realize that gay people in relationships have the same struggles as any other loving couple; we have the same joys as any other loving couple, that our love is the same for each other.’ “
Coppola expresses a cautious optimism, hopeful that Pope Francis would turn to his Jesuit background and recall St. Ignatius’ words, “Love is best expressed in deeds and not in words.”
In the petition, he adds that Pope Francis meeting with LGBT Catholic families would help the pontiff address the daily and manifold crises faced by such families due to the church’s current teachings.
Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. will be a whirlwind, but his main reason for the visit is to attend the World Meeting of Families. Finding time to hear from all Catholic families, whatever their makeup, should be essential to the trip and would make his encounter with faithful LGBT Catholics more than a handshake and a “hello.”
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry