Of the many different reviews and assessments of Fr. James Martin’s new book, Building a Bridge, this summer, none was more personal than Fr. Thomas Rosica’s, CSB.
Fr. Rosica is the head of Salt and Light Media, a Catholic Canadian ministry which provides education, information, and inspiration through television, radio, print, and online materials. He also serves as the English language media liaison for special events at the Vatican. In that former role, he became well-known in U.S. Catholic media during the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family.
In a blog post on Salt and Light Media website, Fr. Rosica introduces his comments on Fr. Martin’s book by telling telling a story about the trepidation he initially experienced a few decades ago as he prepared to deliver a week-long mission at Most Holy Redeemer parish, San Francisco, which by then had already become known as having a mostly gay congregation. Rosica explained that he thought the parishioners would be dismissive of Catholic ideas, and he also worried if he would have a relevant message to the many parishioners who at the time had HIV/AIDS. As he explains it:
“They knew what it meant to live on the fringes of society. I remember my reticence in accepting the invitation from the then-Archbishop’s office – thinking that no one would really come and listen to a Gospel message of hope and joy in the midst of a devastating epidemic, or that those who would come would have many difficulties with Church teaching. I was uncomfortable with the thought of being protested, dismissed or rejected by what I had believed to be left-wing radicals and Church dissidents in California!”
But Rosica said he experienced a “surprise”:
“What I experienced at Holy Redeemer Parish that week was a very powerful and moving week of prayer, dialogue and openness to the Word of God. If ever I felt to be a bridge-builder and healer, it was that week. . . . .I heard many touching stories from the elderly men and women of various ethnic backgrounds [at the parish] and their gay friends who ministered together to HIV/AIDS patients at home or in hospices, worshipped together, and served the homeless poor together in the neighbourhood. As part of that week-long mission, I spent hours hearing confessions and visiting those who were sick and alienated from the Church for various reasons. I shall never forget the moving celebration of mass and the anointing of the sick that drew hundreds to the Church one summer evening.”
Rosica said he learned a powerful lesson from the experience:
“Many of the gay persons who I met that week revealed a deep spirituality and faith. And most interesting of all, the people I met asked that we, as ministers of the Church, be people of compassion and understanding, and not be afraid to teach the message of the Gospel and the Church with gentleness and clarity even in the midst of ambiguity of lifestyle, devastation, despair and hostility. As a Church and as pastoral ministers, we still have a long journey ahead of us as we welcome strangers into our midst and listen to them.”
What I consider the most important sentence of his reflection is this one:
“Authentic teaching can only begin when we welcome others and listen to their stories.”
That sentence, so filled with true Catholic wisdom, serves as the transition to Rosica’s reflection on Fr. James Martin’s book. He notes that the book has received many vicious attacks. I don’t think he was discussing reviews which have had some criticism of specific points in the book, but other screeds whose tone and approach are angry and destructive. Rosica writes:
“I shook my head in bewilderment several times as I read venom and vitriol in some of the critiques. It is one thing to critique and raise questions. It is another to condemn, disparage and dismiss. I sensed palpable fear and anger in some of the negative commentaries. I made it a point to read the book in one sitting last weekend. I was astounded that what I read in commentaries, blogs, some bishops’ messages, had very little to do with what I considered to be very mild, reflections offered by a well-known Jesuit priest who simply invited people to build bridges with those who are on distant shores. . . . Some of the criticisms reveal more about those writing them, about their own deep fears, confusion, uncertainties, anger and frustration, than they do about those for whom this book is written.”
Rosica focuses in on one of Martin’s major points: the use of proper language to refer to sexual and gender minorities. In doing so, he notes that Martin’s proposal for more humane language is actually one that bishops around the world have also suggested:
“At the last Synod of Bishops on the Family, I was inside the Synod and watched how some courageous bishops and Cardinals of the Church challenged their brother bishops and Synod delegates to be attentive to our language in speaking about homosexual persons. . . .I am especially grateful to New Zealand Cardinal John Dew who made a fervent plea to examine our ecclesial language of ‘intrinsically disordered’ to describe homosexual persons. Such vocabulary does not invite people into dialogue nor does it build bridges. No matter how well-intentioned scholastic theology tries to describe the human condition, some words miss the mark and end up doing more harm than good. Reality is more important than lofty theological or philosophical ideas.” [Editor: Link to blog post in this section was added by Bondings 2.0 staff for informational purposes.]
Rosica concludes with a plea for Catholics who criticize other Catholics to do so civilly and constructively. His powerful words are instructive for all of us:
“To preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ without having a passion to build bridges, enter into dialogue and listen to others is to fail in our mission. To preach the Gospel and claim to be a faithful Catholic while using blogs, videos and messages to disparage, condemn and denigrate attempts at building bridges has nothing to do with Christianity. To use clerical status, episcopal authority, or other forms of leadership to dismiss, disparage or slam the efforts of those who simply want to reach those on the peripheries is not befitting of shepherds, pastors or servants of the Lord. It has nothing to do with the Gospel! It is not who we are!”
Fr. Rosica’s message should be heeded not just in regards to discussions of Fr. Martin’s book, but in all Church discussions about LGBT issues. As Fr. Rosica noted, authentic teaching will only develop when we listen to each other’s stories.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, July 24, 2017