Pope Francis has written a supportive note to a Catholic sister who works with transgender women.
Sr. Monica Astorga ministers to transgender women in Argentina, particularly those women who are in sex work or have substance abuse issues. Crux reported on her most recent interaction with Pope Francis, whom she has known for many years:
“Astorga wrote an email to Francis last Thursday, to update him on the new developments in the ministry she does in the southern Argentine province of Neuquen. It didn’t take long for her to hear back from the pope: She told Crux his answer came in the next day, on Friday.
“Astorga had written to the pope to inform him that the city had given her a plot of public land, where she planned to build 15 one-room homes for the transgender women she works with.
“‘I have you and the convent close to my heart, as well as the people with whom you work, you can tell them that,’ Francis wrote in his message.”
Pope Francis had visited Astorga in 2009 when he was then-archbishop of Buenos Aires. At the time affirmed her work, telling the sister in a note, “don’t leave the frontier work you were given” because transgender women were the “lepers of today.” In that 2009 note, Crux reported, the future pope notably used female pronouns for the trans women.
Church leaders, including the local ordinary, Bishop Virginio Bressanelli, have supported Astorga’s ministry, even when the local community has rejected and even harassed some of the women Astorga helps.
The ministry began over a decade ago when Astorga first encountered a trans woman, Romina. Bondings 2.0 covered her work in 2015, which you can read about here. The nun described the experience of meeting Romina:
“I listened to her for two hours without being able to say a word. . .I invited her to search for others who wanted to leave prostitution, and she came back five days later with four more. I invited them to pray, and then asked them to tell me their dreams. . .I felt stabbed when Katy told me, “I want a clean bed where I can die.”‘”
The ministry has cared for 90 transgender women in various ways, including housing, addiction recovery, and employment help. Astorga also keeps growing the ministry:
“[S]he’s received a house where some of the transgender women live on a temporary basis, and she’s now working on building a home for the elderly managed by transgender women, because they ‘have a special sensibility but also the strength needed.’. . .her ministry is now growing beyond those who look for her in the convent. She’s been added to several Facebook groups around the world by transgender women in similar situations.”
Sr. Astorga’s faith and Carmelite community have helped her branch out into this ministry, but she also notes the role that trans women’s faith has had on her, saying:
“They’ve always told me that ‘without believing in God, we wouldn’t survive. Each night, before going out on the street, we light a candle and ask God to take care of us.’ “
Trans women, especially those involved in sex work, are extremely vulnerable in Argentina, as in many places around the globe, where there are high rates of abuse and violence against them. But Astorga presses onward, and offers these wise words that should inform the global church’s respond to trans people:
“I always say that to accompany one of them, we have to listen to them from the heart.”
Pope Francis’ note to Sr. Astorga is a positive mark for the pontiff’s mixed record on transgender issues. Last fall, the pope responded to a reporter’s question about how he would care pastorally for a person who is gender dysphoric. Francis answered by saying he had “accompanied people with homosexual tendencies,” even since being elected pope. He also spoke about meeting a transgender man, Diego Neria Lejárraga, in 2015. In his response, the pope used the man’s correct pronouns, and said at one point, “He that was her but is he.”
In that same interview, however, Francis’ joked that the press should not report “the Pope blesses transgenders.” He criticized as well, as he has done repeatedly, undefined concepts of “gender theory” and “ideological colonization.” The pope told a strange anecdote of a father who found out his child was being told in school that gender could be chosen.
When Pope Francis follows the path of Sr. Astorga, listening from the heart to trans voices, his response is always pastoral. The pope’s trans-negative moments seem to come when he stops listening from the heart and, despite his own critiques of such thinking, speaks about ideological theories that are entirely separated from lived realities.
It is good that Pope Francis wrote to Astorga and affirmed her ministry; it would be great if he learned from her witness, too.