LGBTQ+ Ministry Means the Church Must Risk Beyond Its Comfort Zones

Pope Francis at the Wednesday general audience.

While many readers of Bondings 2.0 (including me) often think of Pope Francis as the most LGBTQ-friendly pope in modern times, I think that history will remember him also as someone who promoted pastoral action over doctrinal declarations as the true way to follow Jesus and the gospel.  His reflections on pastoral ministry are full of passion and compassion, and even when they do not specifically mention LGBTQ+ issues, these messages the pope sends are often readily applicable to LGBTQ+ ministry.

A case in point is a recent a recent talk Pope Francis gave at the regular Wednesday general audience at the Vatican on January 19, 2023. America magazine printed the text of talk, and a few paragraphs jumped out at me.  Commenting on Luke 15, where we find the parable of the good shepherd who searches for the one lost sheep, the pontiff said:

“. . . if one [sheep] leaves and gets lost, [the shepherd] does not abandon that sheep, but goes in search of it. He does not say, ‘You got up and left—it’s your fault—that’s your business!’ His pastoral heart reacts in another way: the pastoral heart suffers and the pastoral heart takes risks. It suffers: yes, God suffers for those who leave and, while he mourns over them, he loves even more. The Lord suffers when we distance ourselves from his heart. He suffers for all who do not know the beauty of his love and the warmth of his embrace. . . .

“. . . [D]o we have similar sentiments? Perhaps we see those who have left the flock as adversaries or enemies. ‘And this person? Hasn’t he gone to the other side? She lost her faith…. They are going to hell…’ and we are serene. When we meet them at school, at work, on the streets of our city, why don’t we think instead that we have a beautiful opportunity to witness to them the joy of a Father who loves them and has never forgotten them? Not to proselytize, no! But that the Word of the Father might reach them so we can walk together. To evangelize is not to proselytize. To proselytize is something pagan, it is neither religious nor evangelical. There is a good word for those who have left the flock and we have the honour and the burden of being the ones to speak that word. Because the Word, Jesus, asks this of us—to always draw near to everyone with an open heart because he is like that.

“Perhaps we have been following and loving Jesus for some time and have never wondered if we share his feelings, if we suffer and we take risks in harmony with Jesus’s heart, with this pastoral heart, close to Jesus’s pastoral heart! This is not about proselytism, as I said, so that others become ‘one of us’—no, this is not Christian. It is about loving so that they might be happy children of God. In prayer, let us ask the grace of a pastoral heart, an open heart that draws near to everyone, so as to bear the Lord’s message as well as to feel Christ’s longing for them. For without this love that suffers and takes risks, our lives do not go well. If we Christians do not have this love that suffers and takes risks, we risk pasturing only ourselves. Shepherds who are shepherds of themselves, instead of being shepherds of the flock, are people who comb ‘exquisite’ sheep. We do not need to be shepherds of ourselves, but shepherds for everyone.”

I’m not implying that LGBTQ+ people are lost sheep.  The pastoral importance of this message is not about the sheep, but about what the shepherd is called to do whether any sheep is lost or not.  Pope Francis calls on church ministers to give up the safety of their book-learned theology, and respond, not with ideas, thoughts, and abstract concepts, but with a heart that is willing to step out of its comfort zone and to take risks by venturing into the unknown.  Pope Francis does not want a church that keeps itself safe, where ministers shepherd themselves, but a church that risks trying new things, going beyond its traditional borders.

This call is directed to “professional” church ministers, but it is also directed to all of us in the church.  Those of us in LGBTQ+ ministry also must accept the pope’s challenge to reach beyond our comfort zones, to have conversations with people that we consider “lost,” perhaps because they do not accept LGBTQ+ people.  We cannot just compartmentalize people as adversaries or enemies.  Instead of keeping our communities pretty and safe, like exquisite sheep, we need to do what Pope Francis told the young people assembled at World Youth Day in 2013: go home and make a mess.  Let’s not keep our communities neat and ordered.  Let’s always venture out to risk and try new things with new people.

After all, who are we to judge?

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 28, 2023

3 replies
  1. Thomas Deely
    Thomas Deely says:

    Thank you to you both Francis’s: The one in Rome and the other one sending us this beautiful article on being good shepherd respectful shepherds as I am trying to be with all of your help


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