In a pastoral letter released Ash Wednesday, a Catholic bishop apologized to those hurt and alienated by the Catholic Church, including lesbian and gay people.
Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, addressed his Lenten message to those outside the church, as well as the diocese’s Catholics. Writing about the Jubilee Year of Mercy now underway, the bishop said he should “first apologize and ask your forgiveness” before asking anything of the letter’s audience. Among those to whom Rozanski apologized are:
“[Those] who have distanced themselves because they feel unwelcomed. The reasons here can vary, but key among them are race and cultural differences, a sense of gender inequality as well as sexual orientation.”
The bishop admitted that many Catholics hurt “from the pain caused by our past failings as a diocese, as well as the grievous actions of some who ministered in our Church.” Rozanski apologized, too, to victims of clergy sexual abuse, the first formal apology from the diocese, and those whose parishes were closed during recent consolidations.
Bishop Rozanski’s apology to lesbian and gay people is progress, particularly when one considers that he harshly criticized marriage equality in August 2014. As a newly appointed bishop in Massachusetts, which legalized equal marriage a decade before, Rozanski told a reporter that marriage equality contributed to society’s disintegration like crime and substance abuse.
So how do we evaluate Bishop Rozanski’s apology?
Admission that intense and painful marginalization have been experienced by LGBT Catholics, their families, and many others in the church, is a first step too many Catholic leaders cannot or will not make. In that sense, this is firm progress upon which bridges can be built and reconciliation can occur.
But in another sense, this apology is only a first step. Will Bishop Rozanski now encourage LGBT parish ministries? Will churches host educational workshops on gender identity issues? Will the bishop meet with LGBT Catholics and hear their stories? Will he still work against equality for LGBT people in the civil arena as he has done in the past? If the letter is not backed by concrete actions which restore right relationships and pursue reconciliation, the apology will become ring hollow.
There is a third angle, however, and it is what I find most notable about this letter. Michael O’Loughlin of Crux explained:
“The letter’s tone was dictated by a questionnaire the Diocese issued last fall, which drew over 3,000 responses from both current parishioners and people outside the Church, Rozanski said. Many responses evinced concerns about the Church, but also a desire to reconnect with the Catholic faith, according to Rozanski. . .
“The survey also included comments from LGBT Catholics who are committed to their faith but feel alienated by the Church’s long-running battle against extending legal recognition for same-sex marriage. . .The church’s position has not changed, Rozanski said, but he included welcoming language in the pastoral letter in the hopes of winning back those Catholics.”
Rozanski admitted there is “much truth to these honest reflections” submitted to the survey, quoting several at length in his letter, including this from one respondent:
” ‘The gay community feels that they aren’t welcome. They don’t want to espouse another religion; therefore, they don’t attend church at all. Hopefully, a special outreach could be done to them.’ “
Refreshingly, Rozanski also acknowledged that many efforts for the New Evangelization are not substantive renewals but stylistic gimmicks. When marginalized Catholics return, they find nothing really changed and given this, the bishop concluded:
“Understandably this is a daunting task, but one we must challenge ourselves to undertake. We must make our parish communities places where people want to worship, meet Jesus, and form community. We must put the love of God foremost in all our efforts. We must walk beyond our parish boundaries, without fear, to demonstrate the faith we celebrate in liturgy takes form in the reality of the world around us.”
This effort of reaching out really is challenging if done correctly. Dialogue demands all parties be vulnerable, that they be open to receiving criticism and acting upon that criticism. Catholic officials and even local communities are frequently unwilling to do this.
But the model employed in this letter’s formation — of soliciting honest input from local Catholics, including those who are alienated or no longer practicing and then responding to it — is a way forward. It is very much in keeping with Pope Francis’ pastoral style. It is a model that every bishop should replicate in their dioceses: listening, discerning, apologizing, responding.
Lent is the perfect time to repent and turn away from sin, like the sins of exclusion and prejudice. May these forty days lead more bishops to act like Bishop Rozanski — and may there be more letters like his come next Ash Wednesday–and before then, too–as fruits of this Year of Mercy.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry