In an historic moment for the Catholic Church, members of a pilgrimage for LGBT+ Catholics and their families met with Pope Francis last week and participated in an Ash Wednesday service he led.
Following last Wednesday’s morning audience in St. Peter’s Square, the pope was introduced to pilgrims with the LGBT+ Catholics Westminster Pastoral Council group from the Diocese of Westminster (London). A press statement from the group explained:
“The Pilgrimage Leader, Martin Pendergast, a member of the LGBT+ Catholics Westminster Pastoral Council, introduced the group to the smiling Pope Francis, explaining that they formed part of the LGBT+ pastoral ministry outreach of Westminster Diocese. . .Each pilgrim received a gift of a rosary from Pope Francis who shook hands with the group’s members.
“Later, on Ash Wednesday afternoon, the group was able to take part in Pope Francis’ Mass & Imposition of Ashes in the Church of Santa Sabina. In the evening the Group was warmly welcomed at an Ecumenical Liturgy of the Word & Blessing of Ashes with English-speaking Anglicans, Catholics and Methodists, in the Church of St.Ignatius.”
Pendergast, who has organized and led two previous LGBT+ pilgrimages to Rome, commented to Bondings 2.0:
“We were taken completely by surprise to be told that we were going to have our photograph taken with Pope Francis. Although we had asked Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ office to obtain Papal Audience tickets for us, we certainly hadn’t requested this – not even thought about it!”
Another pilgrim, who had attended previous pilgrimages with the group, said, “This just keeps getting better and better!”
The LGBT+ Catholics Westminster pilgrimage also included Masses at several significant churches in Rome, and remembered victims of homophobia and transphobia at a morning prayer service at St. Bartholomew-on-the-Tiber, a church which commemorates modern martyrs. The group also met with Rome-based journalists, Christopher Lamb of The Tablet and Robert Mickens of La Croix International for perspectives on Pope Francis’ Church reform strategy. They were also met with American moral theologian, Professor James Keenan SJ, to learn more about the pope’s response to the 2014/2015 Synods on the Family.
Francis’ personal encounters with LGBTQ people, like meeting these pilgrims, have been a defining and more positive aspect of how he treats issues of gender and sexuality. The pope previously met with a transgender man from Spain who was excluded from his parish, with a former student who is gay, and with a French youth injured while defending a gay couple from a hate crime. In 2015, pilgrims with New Ways Ministry received VIP seating during the Ash Wednesday papal audience. (For the pope’s full record on LGBT issues since his election in 2013, click here.)
Pope Francis’ record is mixed. But with the sixth anniversary of the pope’s election tomorrow, LGBT advocates should not lose sight of the progress that has been made. It was unthinkable in 2012 that a pope would meet with a pilgrimage of LGBT Catholics and their families. Now we have a pope who expresses welcome to all, even if imperfectly, and perhaps more importantly, allows for groups like LGBT+ Catholics Westminster to do the work of building an inclusive Church. Martin Pendergast and the English group should be applauded for their faithful efforts from which the Holy Spirit has produced the great fruit of this bridge-building moment.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 12, 2019