The former head of a well-regarded Catholic school has explained that “the Gospel commandment of love” was what persuaded her to allow same-gender union announcements in the school’s alumnae magazine.
Sr. Mary Berchmans wrote to the Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School community about the policy change earlier this month. In her email, the president emerita and current head of the Visitation sisters’ monastery there, shared that a fellow religious “invited me to reflect upon what it means to Live Jesus in relationship with our LGBTQ alumnae.” She continued:
“As a professed Sister of the Visitation for 67 years, I have devoted my life in service to the Catholic Church. The Church is clear in its teaching on same-sex marriages. But, it is equally clear in its teaching that we are all children of God, that we each have dignity and are worthy of respect and love. I have been blessed to live my vocation here at Visitation, where I have welcomed and come to know, respect, and love thousands of unique, intelligent, passionate, and faithful women, each made in the image and likeness of God.
“As I have prayed over this contradiction, I keep returning to this choice: we can focus on Church teaching on gay marriage or we can focus on Church teaching on the Gospel commandment of love. We know from history – including very recent history – that the Church, in its humanity, makes mistakes. Yet, through the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, it learns and grows. And so, we choose the Gospel commandment of love.”
Berchmans shared that the school’s mission as a Salesian institution meant it must value diversity, which includes LGBTQ students, alumnae, and families. She concluded with a quote from St. Francis de Sales, “Be who you are and be that well to honor the Master Craftsman whose handiwork you are.”
The Washington Post reported that the decision came after feedback from several hundred alumnae who voiced their concerns to the school upon learning a fellow graduate was barred from listing her same-gender union a few years ago. Now, Georgetown Visitation’s Director of Communication, Caroline Coleman Handorf, said the response to Berchmans’ decision “has been huge” and “overwhelmingly and heartwarmingly positive.” One gay graduate, Christina Peters, said she was “really emotional and grateful” about the decision.
Beyond the school community, Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, told The Washington Post that Berchmans’ email was “beautiful and very powerful” and noted:
“‘This is a really big step forward. . .This is something that all Catholic schools are eventually going to have to deal with, sooner rather than later. Marriage equality is a reality. Too often, Catholic leaders try to bury their heads and pretend this is not a reality, but it is.'”
Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Washington acknowledged that while Georgetown Visitation is independent of the archdiocese’s authority, it was “especially disappointing” there had been no prior consultation with the chancery ahead of Berchmans’ announcement.
What is striking about this story is not only that an LGBTQ-policy has been chosen, but that it has come from what is clearly a place of deep prayer and reflection on the part of Sr. Berchmans. Her path follows that of the many Catholics who have chosen to emphasize Christ’s love first as the standard by which Church teaching and prudential judgments are weighed. And it is this path of prayer that allows her to readily confess the Church’s own frailties, too. Sr. Berchmans offers a consummate witness to Georgetown Visitation’s students of how to live one’s faith in the complexities of the world. Imagine what the Catholic community could be if all Church officials made decisions from such a prayerful and loving place?
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 15, 2019