by Elise Ann Allen
ROME — Archbishop Zbigņev Stankevičs of Riga, Latvia, a participant in this month’s Synod of Bishops on Synodality, has said homosexuals are called to live in chastity in accord with Church teaching, but credited Pope Francis for what he called his own “personal conversion” on the issue, becoming less judgmental.
The remarks came just a day after Pope Francis met with longtime LGBTQ+ advocate, American Sister Jeannine Gramick, founder of the New Ways Ministry, at the Vatican.
Speaking to journalists during an Oct. 18 press briefing, Archbishop Stankevičs said the Church must first of all be faithful “to sacred Scripture and to what the Church in 2,000 years has discovered interpreting sacred Scripture.
“The official attitude of the Church regarding homosexuality is explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: They are invited to live in chastity,” he said, adding that according to official teaching the tendency of homosexuality in itself “is not a sin, but it must be faced.”
If a gay couple has already entered into a sexual relationship, this means, as it does for heterosexual couples engaged in sex outside of marriage, that “it’s a sin,” Archbishop Stankevičs said, saying, “Every sexual relation outside of marriage” is a sin.
On the issue of same-sex blessings, Archbishop Stankevičs offered one of the clearest responses among synod participants yet, saying that if a homosexual person comes and asks for a blessing as an individual, saying they want to live as the Church teaches, “I don’t see contradictions in praying for them and helping them.”
If a homosexual couple arrives and says they are committed to living in chastity as the Church teaches, recognizing that a sexual relationship “isn’t healthy,” Archbishop Stankevičs said “you can pray for them and also bless in order to help them live in chastity.”
However, if a couple who are cohabitating and are engaged in a sexual relationship with no intention of changing asks for a blessing, “Here I see a great problem because here we are blessing living in sin,” Archbishop Stankevičs said.
Recalling Pope Francis’s repeated insistence during World Youth Day in Lisbon that “everyone, everyone, everyone” is welcome in the Church, he said this means “there is room for everyone, it means no one is rejected.”
Archbishop Stankevičs recalled a conversation he had with a homosexual individual several years ago in which he apologized for the Church’s past treatment of the LGBTQ+ community, saying, “The Church is a mother for everyone, even for sinners, because we are all sinners.
“We must welcome those people with warmth, not judging them. The catechism says we must respect their human dignity, not discriminate against them unjustly,” he said, stressing the importance of welcoming LGBTQ+ individuals with “love and respect.”
However, “true love is not separable from the truth,” he said, saying that separating love and truth “becomes permissiveness and we do harm to people when a person is living in sin. … We do harm because this person is in danger. When they die, they are in great danger.”
Archbishop Stankevičs said a “new sensitivity” and a “new approach” is needed on the part of the Church when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community.
Speaking at a personal level, Stankevičs said that he himself “passed through a pastoral conversion” on the issue, “because before I only judged these people,” but he said he was inspired by Pope Francis’ attitude of welcome and his insistence that, “Who am I to judge?”
“Little by little I began to understand what is evident, but I had to go through a process to discover it, because Jesus says we must love our brother, but not only, we must also love our enemy,” he said.
A moved Archbishop Stankevičs said he experienced an “illumination” on the issue and realized that “also the homosexual is my neighbor, and I must love them, but how? Love in truth, a true love, not a love that allows everything.”
Archbishop Stankevičs’ remarks came the day after Pope Francis met with well-known LGBTQ+ advocate Sister Jeannine Gramick, a Sister of Loreto after having left her original community, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, in 2000, following a request to discontinue public statements on homosexuality.
The meeting took place Oct. 17 at the Santa Marta residence in the Vatican and was attended by three staff members of New Ways Ministry, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group co-founded by Gramick in 1977 with Salvatorian Father Robert Nugent.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Sister Gramick, according to a New Ways Ministry press release, thanked Pope Francis for his openness to blessing same-sex unions and for his public opposition to the criminalization of LGBTQ+ individuals.
She described the meeting as “very emotional,” saying she has admired Pope Francis since his election “because of his humility, his love for the poor and for those shunned by society. He is the human face of Jesus in our era. Pope Francis looks into your heart and his eyes say that God loves you.”
The two have apparently exchanged correspondence for the past two years, with Pope Francis in one letter apparently calling Sister Gramick a “valiant woman,” and later writing to congratulate her on her 50 years of LGBTQ+ ministry, according to New Ways.
Over the years, Sister Gramick has been criticized by both Vatican and American Church officials. In 1999, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the future Pope Benedict XVI barred her and Father Nugent from pastoral work with LGBTQ+ individuals over what were described as “errors and ambiguities” in their work.
Sister Gramick had previously bumped into then-Cardinal Ratzinger by accident on a flight from Rome to Munich in 1998.
In her own description of the meeting, Sister Gramick said they spoke for around 20 minutes about her teaching background and how she came to be involved in LGBTQ+ ministry. She said she also asked if he had ever met any gay people.
“I believe that Church officials’ approach to LGBTQ persons would be more understanding and compassionate if they knew that some of their students, co-workers, relatives or friends were LGBTQ. Personal experiences draw out the pastoral heart,” she said.
Sister Gramick said she walked away from the brief encounter being “able to put a human face on the institutional Church,” saying she found then-Cardinal Ratzinger “to be warm, sincere, gracious, gentle and humorous. He was prayerful, praying his breviary when I first sat down next to him. … I experienced the humanity of someone who had the power to disrupt my life.”
During Wednesday’s press briefing, Cardinal Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, archbishop of Manaus in Brazil, also weighed in on the issue of homosexuality, saying the topic has been addressed in the synod hall in small groups and individual interventions.
However, he cautioned that the synod “is not going to lead to conclusions or determinations,” saying, “It’s the wish of the Holy Father that the next session will look to that, but it’s a good thing that the debate has come up on these topics.”
Cardinal Steiner spoke about indigenous rights and the role of women in the Amazon, especially in remote indigenous communities where there is a shortage of priests and women often take the lead in local Church initiatives.
Women in the Amazon “are calling for more formation to better carry out their leadership role. They ask for their proper ministries,” especially in communities that rarely see a priest, he said, saying baptism is in demand and is one sacrament that “doesn’t need a priest.”
Wyatt Olivas, a student at the University of Wyoming who is 19, making him the youngest synod participant, told journalists that he was excited to attend the synod and feels that the gathering is serious about the listening process.
In terms of differences in perspective and in priorities between the Anglo and Latino Catholic communities in the United States, Olivas said “there were some different ideas” in the lead-up, “But I think coming together was an important part, and listening to each other was an important part, and praying on the conversation itself.”
The Holy Spirit, Olivas said, “crushes” any personal agenda.
Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan in the Philippines spoke of the country’s vast diaspora and the pastoral challenges to having 10-15% of Filipinos living abroad, including being distant from their families and integrating into host communities. Even children of Filipino migrants born in host countries are often divided, he said, saying many are integrated into the local social scene, but are still “segregated” in the ecclesial community.
However, despite these challenges, he said many Filipinos abroad have become “reluctant missionaries.”
“They don’t go out to engage in mission, they are workers and they usually come from the poorest sector of Philippine society, and there you see how God works through the Church of the poor,” Bishop David said.
Many Filipino families are not serious about their faith, but when they find themselves in a new culture in which they feel “alienated,” they often “hold onto their faith as their only source of strength and moral courage.”
“That’s how they become ‘accidental missionaries,’ when they witness to their faith and through their host countries. They don’t go out to proselytize, it’s the attractiveness of their effort to live the Gospel as Christians, it sometimes influences other people,” he said.
An image from the Synod of Bishops on Synodality. (Photo: Vatican News.)