By Inés San Martín
ROME (Crux) — On September 30, Pope Francis met with Jesuit Father James Martin, an American priest who has dedicated most of the past three years to ministering to LGBT Catholics, whom he describes as the “most marginalized group” in the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis and Fr. Martin spoke for half an hour, in between two other meetings the pontiff had that day: The conference of bishops from the Pacific, currently in Rome for their regular ad limina pilgrimage to the Holy See, and a delegation of missionary institutes founded in Italy.
Speaking with Crux, Fr. Martin said that the pontiff was an “incredibly attentive listener” who, based on the questions he asked his fellow Jesuit, “clearly cares for” LGBT people.
One of the highlights of my life. I felt encouraged, consoled and inspired by the Holy Father today. And his time with me, in the middle of a busy day and a busy life, seems a clear sign of his deep pastoral care for LGBT Catholics and LGBT people worldwide. (Foto@VaticanMedia). pic.twitter.com/1BeaiVh0Q4
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) September 30, 2019
Fr. Martin is the author of the 2017 book ‘Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.’
According to New Ways Ministry, an advocacy group for LGBT Catholics, the meeting “refutes the unjustified barrage of criticism [Martin] has received from a minority of church leaders and other anti-LGBTQ sectors of the church.”
“It is a clear signal that Pope Francis is calling the church to conversion away from the negative messages it has sent in the past about LGBTQ people,” the group said in a statement released on Monday. “It is a day of celebration for LGBTQ Catholics who have longed for an outstretched hand of welcome from the church that they love.”
Fr. Martin’s book ‘Building a Bridge’ is based on a talk he gave in 2016, when he received an award from New Ways Ministry.
The Jesuit has been in Rome since Sept. 21 to participate in a meeting of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication and will remain in the city until Oct. 6.
Fr. Martin spoke with Crux about the meeting, the reaction it received among some Catholics who find his work to be controversial, and what he would say to LGBT Catholics who think Pope Francis has been too strong in condemning gender theory.
What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
It’s been five hours. Can you believe it happened?
No. It’s almost a miracle for me. But more importantly, I think that it will be seen as a real sign for his pastoral care and concern for LGBT Catholics and LGBT people worldwide.
What would you say to those who think that Pope Francis, when he talks about LGBT people, is being discriminatory or is too strong in his condemnation of gender theory, calling it “an abomination”?
I would say to them to look at this person as a pastor who’s trying to reach out to people in their experiences as marginalized people. And who’s trying to move the Church ahead in its pastoral care for people. So I would say to take all of what he does together.
He could not have been more attentive, welcoming and warm. And the topic of our meeting was pastoral outreach of LGBT people.
How did you prepare for the meeting?
The preparations were really the last two or three years of ministry. What I brought to him were the experiences of LGBT Catholics whom I’ve met, their joys and hopes, their struggles and challenges, their experiences as a way of giving them a voice with the pope.
He was an incredibly attentive listener, and from the questions he asked, you could tell that he cares for these people. To me, it felt like a very easy conversation, like you might have with your favorite pastor. I never had such an extensive conversation with any pope before, yet he put me at ease and I felt completely comfortable.
At the beginning, I gave him a note from my nephew who’s taking the name Francis for confirmation and he immediately grabbed a pen and wrote back to him.
Are you going to share the content of that note?
Yeah, that I might post. It was basically a note saying thank you and pray for me. It was a very simple note, but my nephew is over the moon.
I would say that what struck me today was that before me, there was an entire bishops’ conference, and after me was a dicastery. So to give this topic 30 minutes of his schedule in the middle of an incredibly busy day and right before a synod is a sign of his commitment to LGBT people.
You mentioned that the pope is a man trying to move the Church forward when it comes to ministry of LGBT people. Assuming he had asked you about it, what would you have said to him?
I would make it clear that this is not what I said to him. But for me, it’s a church that welcomes LGBT Catholics as much as it welcomes every other Catholic. A place where they don’t feel like they’re lepers in the Church, where they don’t have to wonder how they’re going to be treated when they come in, and a place where they are welcomed, because they are baptized Catholics and it’s their church, too.
How can we make that happen when the Church sees some behaviors as sinful?
Here’s the thing. If the Church was only open to people whose life reflected the Gospels and the Catechism, there would be very few people in the pews. As Francis says, the Eucharist is a medicine for the sick, not an award.
Unlike any other group of people, they are excluded, targeted and marginalized in a way that no other group feels. The other group that feels marginalized is women, but at the Vatican there are Women’s Days, people talk about putting more women in leadership roles, but you rarely hear that invitation from bishops in terms of LGBT people because they’re seen as always and everywhere sinful.
I don’t think there’s anyone who feels as marginalized in the Church as the LGBT Catholic. A couple of months ago I heard a story from a lesbian woman whose pastor actually said to her, “your kind is not welcome here.”
I would hope that LGBT Catholics see this meeting as a sign of Pope Francis’s love and concern for them.
A lot of people – after it came out that you met with the pope – called you controversial …
No, I don’t think so. Unless preaching the Gospel is controversial.
Why do people think you are?
Out of fear of the LGBT person as the other, for what it might mean for the Church to change it’s pastoral approach, and sometimes out of fear of their own complicated sexuality.
But seeing that I’m not advocating for any sort of change in church teaching but for a spirit of welcome, inclusion and love, I don’t know why that should be controversial.
What do you say to those who say the pope shouldn’t have met with you?
I would say “talk to the pope.”
How did the meeting come to be?
Some mutual friends had alerted him that I would be in town, and when I saw him during the audience for the dicastery of communications, he said to me, “I want to have an audience with you.” And the next day a formal invitation arrived at the Jesuit Curia.
And you cleared your calendar?
I did … It wasn’t RSVP! The contrast between the formal setting and the warm conversation was striking.