The Conference of Major Superiors of Men, which is the association of the leaders of vowed men’s religious communities in the U.S., met in Assembly last week in Columbus, Ohio, to listen to speakers and to discuss common issues of concern. During the prayer times at the four-day meeting, Scriptural reflections were offered by Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv., the bishop of Lexington, Kentucky. Stowe’s reflections focused around the theme of God’s mercy, as the conference title was “Consecrated Life: Rich in Mercy.” Bondings 2.0 obtained a copy of the bishop’s first reflection remarks.
In these opening remarks, Stowe mentioned LGBT issues several times in his remarks, a sign that these topics are becoming much more a part of the mainstream conversation in the church. The fact that his comments on these topics were all positive is a sign of the greater acceptance that LGBT people and issues are receiving in the Church these days.
Recalling St. Francis of Assisi’s mission to bring the Gospel to outcasts, Stowe made the following comments about modern-day outcasts:
“Saint Francis found Christ by serving the outcast lepers. Risking contamination and isolation he was healed interiorly through his encounter with the suffering Christ and overjoyed by the relief he brought the lepers by merely drawing close. How fitting that religious brothers and priests should be found among the lepers of our times: gang-infested barrios in the inner-city; AIDS clinics and drug rehabilitation centers, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and places of safety for migrants and refugees. Providing oases of prayer and reflection in the midst of a bustling and competitive world that does not pause for reflection, modeling lives of interdependence – and providing a willing ear are fruitful ways of being in the midst of sinners. And genuinely living our religious calling as prophetic also aligns us with the marginalized within the church: GLBT persons, our sisters in religious life who insist that the interior life is more important than the external signs and who fall under suspicion when they attempt to listen and give voice to other women, those who have failed at marriage and tried again, and so many others who long to have Jesus stand next to them as they wait in line to be cleansed.”
Recalling Pope Francis’ famous July 2013 comment referring to gay priests, Stowe suggested that this lesson be applied to all:
“Pope Francis caused quite a controversy, and simultaneously aroused hope in some circles, with his famous phrase, ‘who am I to judge?’ Was it not an echo of what we heard in this gospel verse [Luke 6:36-37] immediately after the charge to be merciful like our Father: ‘Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.’ How can we communicate the richness of our Catholic tradition and its relevance for life today if everything that is pronounced is received as judgmental?”
He answered this last question by recalling Pope Francis’s comment to U.S. bishops during his apostolic visit to Washington, DC, in September 2015: “Let everything the Church says and does be seen as merciful.” And then he challenged the Assembly of vowed religious men to take up that call:
“I think bishops need some help to know how—and I think I am in the midst of a group who has the capacity to model this. For every blunt statement of doctrine and categorical condemnation uttered by the church, may religious men be willing to stand with the sinners and gently walk with them on the path of conversion. For every pronouncement about intrinsic evils and disordered sexuality, may religious men be ready to wipe tears and heal wounds and help to rediscover goodness and dignity. For every insensitive reaction to circumstances or perceived threats, may religious men bring the fruit of contemplation and discernment of the Spirit’s movement.”
His reference to intrinsic evils and disordered sexuality can only be a reference to the magisterium’s use of “intrinsic evil” to describe gay and lesbian sexual activity and committed relationships, and also to “objective disorder” to describe a homosexual orientation. At the 2015 synod on the family in Rome, we heard many bishops call to eliminate this pastorally harmful language. It is good to see that that call is being echoed on pastoral levels in the U.S. church.
Bishop Stowe, only 50 years old, was appointed by Pope Francis as Bishop of Lexington, Kentucky, in 2015. Stowe’s comments may sound very much like the message of Pope Francis, and that is surely intentional on the bishop’s part. Indeed, he set his comments in the context of Pope Francis framework of evangelization:
“As evidenced in his first Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis observes far too much of the legalism that Jesus rejected to be at work in the Church today. When the Law of God is handed down in ways that become burdensome instead of as a path to freedom and a joyful relationship with God, something is wrong. Like Judaism trying to preserve itself in the midst of a hostile empire, Christians in an age of secularism should definitely be concerned about not disappearing and not being absorbed. But the way of Jesus is always a way of invitation, a call to conversion and Christianity should be a joyful response to that vision of an all-inclusive kingdom and the teaching of the Church should be the guidepost along the way, always pointing to Jesus. Pope Francis has described a “logic of the Gospel” which acknowledges that God’s judgement is real and celebrates that God’s judgement (unlike so much of human judgement) is merciful. “
These reflections by a relatively new bishop signal a new direction for the Church. They offer hope for people concerned with LGBT equality, but they also offer hope for the whole Church. The fact that they were spoken at a gathering of the leaders of men’s religious communities means that Stowe’s–and Pope Francis’–messsage is being spread to the “middle managers” of the church, the people who can make policy and pastoral practice changes. His words indicate that a message of tenderness is beginning to flower in our Church.
(To read the entire text of Bishop Stowe’s remarks, click here.)
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry