Sr. Jeannine Gramick Writes About Providential Encounter with Benedict XVI

Sister Jeannine Gramick

As Benedict XVI was laid to rest this week, Sr. Jeannine Gramick again recounted her chance meeting with the former pope, who at the time was serving as a top Curia official overseeing an investigation against her ministry.

Gramick wrote in Outreach about how she met by chance then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), during a 1998 flight. At the time, the CDF had been investigating Gramick and her co-founder of New Ways Ministry, Fr. Robert Nugent, for over a decade due to their work in lesbian/gay ministry. Of the encounter, Gramick explained:

“I had a chance encounter with Cardinal Ratzinger on a plane ride from Rome to Munich in 1998. The cardinal was seated by a window with two empty seats beside him, so I sat down next to him and began a conversation. When he discovered my name, he said with a twinkle in his bright blue eyes, ‘I have known you for 20 years!’ He had collected several bulging files about me and my ministry during those years.

“We talked about my teaching background, how I became involved in pastoral outreach to LGBTQ people, the decrease in vocations to religious life and a document for parents of lesbian and gay children that the U.S. bishops had just distributed at their recent meeting. When I told him I had copy, he quipped, ‘I do not yet have a copy.’

“‘Well, if I knew I was going to meet you, I would have brought you one!’ I bantered back.”

Gramick asked Ratzinger if he had ever met lesbian or gay people, to which the prelate responded he saw some LGBTQ+ protestors in Germany when accompanying Pope John Paul II there. Of this, Gramick noted, “What a pity that he had encountered LGBTQ people only in confrontational settings” because “[p]ersonal experiences draw out the pastoral heart.”

The brief conversation on that plane was providential; indeed, Ratzinger used the term “providence” three times during their conversation to describe the encounter. Until then, the cardinal refused to meet with Gramick despite the intense investigation to which she and Nugent had been subjected. For her part, Gramick wrote that meeting the cardinal “put a human face on the institutional church.” She found him to be a man who was “warm, sincere, gracious, gentle and humorous.” She added, “I experienced the humanity of someone who had the power to disrupt my life.”

Gramick also reflected not only about this chance encounter, but on the legacy of the former pope and curial official for LGBTQ+ people. Ratzinger oversaw the publication of damaging documents that denigrated lesbian and gay people, including introducing the term “objective disorder” about a homosexual orientation in 1986. Gramick stated: “The 1986 letter did a colossal amount of pastoral damage and, until recently, played an enormously strong role in repressing discussion of sexual ethics on the magisterial level.” There were other texts, too, in which Ratzinger caused pastoral harm. Of all this, Gramick wrote now:

“Is it any wonder, then, that their advocates mourn the irreparable pastoral harm caused by the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI?”

Gramick ended her piece tying together her 1998 conversation in view of the former pope’s broader impact. She concluded:

“In my meeting with the former pope, I believe each of us sensed that the other had a deep commitment to the church, in the service of God’s people. Though I did not agree with his ecclesiology or moral theology, I felt how wrong it is to demonize someone you disagree with. No person is all good or all evil. Each of us is a combination of light and darkness. And what I judge as darkness in another, someone else may perceive as light. . .

“In his discourse with his disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus told us that he is the vine and we are the branches (Jn 15:1-8). Pope Benedict and I were on different branches, but we were both rooted in the same vine—the vine of Christ.

“In the final analysis, our theological differences are less significant than the resolve each of us has to fulfill God’s call in our lives as best we can, despite disagreement or the opinion of others. I learned that it is vital to see the humanity of others—to see what unites us, instead of what divides us.”

Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, January 7, 2022

7 replies
  1. Ginny King
    Ginny King says:

    That article was profound Jeanine. Your experience has taught you a lot. You are very generous to Pope Benedict’s legacy. Thank you for this reminder. Blessings and new year’s greetings! Ginny King OP.

  2. Barry Blackburn
    Barry Blackburn says:

    This is a powerful encounter Sister Jeannine describes and her analysis is itself very pastoral. When I worked with a very holy Sister years ago she would declare that we must “fix our eyes on Jesus”. This always struck me as a trite saying until a deeper reflection on my part. Sister Jeannine is a perfect example of one who with eyes on Jesus had her eyes firmly also on herself, her convictions and conscience. Her example must teach us to be people of Faith in our own lives and experience and not a life lived through any institution or ideology. Let us all keep our eyes fixed!

  3. Patti Boman
    Patti Boman says:

    Sister Jeannine is full of Christ’s love even in the face of an oppressor and teaches us all a big lesson even now when we have such a divided country with opposite views on everything. It is very hard for me to see the good but will keep trying🙏🏻

  4. James Pawlowicz
    James Pawlowicz says:

    re: “What a pity that he had encountered LGBTQ people only in confrontational settings” because “[p]ersonal experiences draw out the pastoral heart.”

    I couldn’t agree more! I will have to read the Outreach article.

  5. Ann B Fessler
    Ann B Fessler says:

    The author is more generous and forgiving than I am. How can this man (Benedict)seem so generous and engaged in this encounter and remain so narrow and fixed in response to a whole segment of the peole of God? To deny that LGBTQ people total acceptance by the Catholic Church says his apparent openness was totally disingenuous.

  6. Diana Rawlings
    Diana Rawlings says:

    Thank for the reminder of you and Benedict are on the same vine, Christ, but different branches. Great image and insight.


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