Two bishops have pushed back against anonymous claims that, during an ad limina visit with U.S. bishops, Pope Francis expressed concern with Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s LGBT ministry.
Late last week, a conservative Catholic news outlet claimed that Pope Francis told bishops from the southwest U.S. doing their ad limina visit that he was displeased with how Martin acted following a September 2019 meeting between the pontiff and the Jesuit priest. The outlet, Catholic News Agency, also reported that Martin had received a “talking to” about how the story of the meeting was reported in the press.
It is worth noting that this report was based on unnamed bishops and that the editor-in-chief of the conservative outlet had, just days before the news story broke, published a tirade against Martin’s LGBT work.
Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, who was present at the ad limina meeting, responded to these reports by penning an essay for the National Catholic Reporter. Wester said that he normally would not respond but the he had “an obligation” to do so in this case because his “understanding of the facts differs from what was reported anonymously.” Wester explained:
“Our meeting with the Pope lasted almost two hours and forty-five minutes, so it is difficult for anyone to remember with precision anything that was said. However, the general tone of the Pope’s responses to issues raised with him was never angry, nor do I remember the Pope saying or implying that he was unhappy with Father Martin or his ministry.
“It is not my place to speak for the Pope in these matters; I am simply saying that my distinct recollection is that during our meeting the Pope never spoke of Father Martin or his ministry in a negative way.”
The archbishop responded to five claims in the conservative outlet’s report. First, it was bishops, not Pope Francis who raised the issue of Martin’s ministry, his meeting with Francis being only a side item. Second, regarding claims the pope was displeased with Martin, Wester wrote:
“My recollection is that it was not Father Martin the Pope was talking about, but the way others tried to use that encounter, one way or the other. In my view, the language subtlety, yet incorrectly, leads the reader to believe that Father Martin was the issue while in fact, it was how others used their meeting that was in play. Furthermore, I have no memory at all of the Pope being angry, upset or annoyed. He spoke gently and patiently throughout our meeting. . .
“In paragraph ten, it is said that the Pope did not mean for Father Martin’s meeting with him to convey any significance. I do not remember him saying that.”
Finally, addressing the claim that Martin received a “talking to” for how he treated his meeting with Pope Francis, Wester replied:
“Not at all true from my vantage point. The Pope never said Father Martin was given a ‘talking to,’ nor did he say that he spoke to his superiors regarding him. I vaguely remember some mention of people in leadership trying to clarify any misunderstandings about his ministry. This may refer to an article he wrote in America about a year ago regarding his ministry. In it, as I recall, he detailed the ways in which his ministry was not contrary to Church teaching but in keeping with the Church’s mission and Gospel mandate.”
Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne endorsed Wester’s account of the ad limina meeting in which Biegler participated. National Catholic Reporter quoted Biegler as saying that Wester “accurately describes the tone and substance of the short dialogue regarding Fr. James Martin.”
When asked by Catholic News Agency for a comment, Fr. Martin responded:
“I can’t comment on what the Holy Father told me, since he asked me not to share the details with the media, other than to say that I felt profoundly inspired, consoled and encouraged by our half-hour audience in the Apostolic Palace, which came at his invitation.”
Archbishop Wester and Bishop Biegler are to be commended for speaking out against the unjust defamation of Fr. Martin who frequently endures vicious right wing attacks for his basic claims that LGBT people should be welcomed and respected. Conservative media and money are too often allowed to control the Catholic narrative in the U.S., frequently to the detriment of LGBTQ people. More bishops should follow Wester and Biegler’s footsteps by saying enough to the nasty, punishing tactics of the right.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 27, 2020