In an interview with America magazine, Sister Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, has shared about her experiences and hopes as she marks 50 years in LGBTQ ministry.
In the interview, available here, Gramick said her “primary feeling is gratitude and joy” for the “long way” that the movement for LGBTQ equality has come in five decades.
She explained how she came into this work when she encountered a young gay man, Dominic, and developed a friendship with him. Her ministry evolved from apartment Masses to more formal educational and advocacy work, as her own understanding of homosexuality and gender issues developed.
Asked about any trepidation she may have had starting out, Gramick replied:
“No. I’m simple-minded in that sense; I don’t really look ahead or anticipate a lot. I kind of go with the flow. I knew this was something that the church needed to do because these were Catholics who were afraid to come to church.
“I did, of course, talk to my religious superiors in Baltimore. Thank God, I had women of vision. Some of my provincials knew more about homosexuality than I did. They encouraged me to do what I could. They said: ‘This is a group of people the church has neglected. Do what you can because the church needs to be there for them.’
“And to see the light in their eyes after those Masses, the happiness on their faces, it was wonderful.”
Gramick also detailed the story of how she and Salvatorian Fr. Robert Nugent started New Ways Ministry. The duo, aided by lay and religious staff members began conducting educational works. By the 1990s, they had “been to three-fourths of the diocese of the United States.” Gramick said of these earlier years:
“In the late ’60s, the ’70s and the early ’80s, people were really fired up about Vatican II and social justice. There was hesitation on the part of bishops, but the priests, nuns and lay people who were in charge of Catholic institutions were more ready, I would say, to embrace something controversial or new.”
Gramick also spoke about her troubles with the hierarchy, having endured an 11-year investigation and subsequent sanction from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. She said of this experience, particularly the 1999 Notification censuring her and Nugent:
“In a sense I felt excommunicated. Because what does excommunication mean? It means being outside of the community. It’s being shunned. And after the 1999 rebuke, that’s how I felt. There were places that I wasn’t welcome where I would have been welcomed before. . .
“At that meeting [in Rome with her religious superiors], I realized I felt like a battered woman. I hadn’t been physically battered, but emotionally, I’d been battered from 1985 to 1999. But going around the country telling my story, I had gained strength. I think that’s true for battered women, and for L.G.B.T. people, too. Each time they tell their story they gain more strength.
“And I realized, I will continue to tell not only my story with the Vatican, but my story with L.G.B.T. people. I needed to continue to advocate for them because they had no advocate in the institutional church.”
One notable anecdote about this ecclesial process Gramick shared was her chance encounter with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who headed the Congregation investigating her at the time. While she was making a pilgrimage to Germany in 1998, the two ended up on the same flight, and conversed for twenty minutes. She explained:
“We get on the plane, and I see that the seat next to him is empty. I just plopped myself next to him and started talking to him. I said, ‘I’m a School Sister of Notre Dame going to our motherhouse in Munich.’ He says, ‘My aunt was a School Sister.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘What was her name?’ He says, ‘Ratzinger.’
“‘Oh,’ I say, ‘Are you Cardinal Ratzinger?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Oh. Well, I’m Sister Jeannine Gramick.’
“He smiled. ‘Oh, yes, I have known you for 20 years.’ . . .
“After that meeting, I thought of that reading from the Gospel of John, the Last Supper discourse where Jesus says, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches.’ But instead of a vine, I visualized a huge tree with lots of branches all around it. Cardinal Ratzinger is way out there on one branch, and I am way out there on a branch probably 180 degrees around that tree. We couldn’t have been farther apart in our theological thinking. But we are rooted in that one tree. We have a common faith in Christ, and that’s what draws us together. We’re all around that tree somewhere.
“I love Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict. I think he’s a holy man. I really do.”
Regarding another pope, Gramick was asked about the personal correspondence she has had with Pope Francis, as well as supportive letters he sent to New Ways Ministry. She responded:
“I was overjoyed that he knew about us, that he liked what we were doing, that he saw that we were participating in the mission of the church.
“Honestly, I wish you’d write this whole article on Pope Francis. He’s my inspiration.
“As he lay dying from cancer at the end of 2013, Bob said to me, ‘I am so happy to die under this pope.’ Because Bob was a good priest who had given his whole life to people who were on the margins, and here he had a pope who was doing the same thing.”
Looking forward, Gramick expressed a lot of hope about future changes because “the laity are beginning to stand up.” Gramick said:
“Gay people say to me, ‘Pope Francis is wonderful, but he hasn’t changed the teaching of the church.’ Well, that is not his job right now. Eventually, it’s his job, but right now it’s up to us, the people, to articulate the faith. What do we believe?
“We have to stand up for what we believe in and not pass the buck. We have to follow our consciences. We need people in the pews to start writing letters to their bishops saying they are withdrawing donations until you start treating L.G.B.T. people as human beings and stop ostracizing them because you’re hurting not only them but the whole body of Christ.”
Gramick concluded the interview with these words:
“My hope for L.G.B.T. Catholics is that they all feel welcome and comfortable in any parish in the world. That they might feel just as much a part of the church as anyone else.
“What matters is how you follow the Beatitudes. Are you for the poor? Do you clothe people if they are naked? Do you visit those in prison? Are you merciful? That’s what I would hope would matter, not one’s gender, gender identity or sexual orientation.”
To read the full interview, click here.
For more information about Pope Francis’ letters to Sr. Gramick, click here.
If you would like to learn more about Sr. Jeannine Gramick’s 50 years of LGBTQ ministry, click here to view a photo gallery of her work over the years.
—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, January 11, 2022