Sr Jeannine Gramick: “What Can WE Do?”

Following her formal address to conference, Sr Gramick followed up on her thoughts on how LGBT Catholics could “run with the ball” in advancing LGBT ministry and doctrines, in a formal conference Q&A, and also in a personal interview with myself (concerning a project for the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups).

One question asked how we could move from the traditional, toxic “parent/child” model of the hierarchy/laity relationship, to one which comes closer to a more adult, non-hierarchical form. Sr Jeannine’s response was that we should simply seek to keep the conversation growing, At times, this can bear fruit in unexpected ways. She described one example from the Archdiocese of San Francisco, where Archbishop Cordileone has been widely viewed, since his appointment to succeed Wlliam Levada, as hostile to LGBT Catholics. In spite of the apparently poor prospects for success however, New Ways had sought and obtained a meeting with him, in his office. Instead of trying to argue their case over points where they knew there would be disagreement, they rather sought out areas of agreement, on how to achieve a loving, pastoral relationship with LGBT Catholics. One of the outcomes of this meeting, was that Archbishop Cordileone was instrumental in securing for a New Ways pilgrimage to Rome, an letter of introduction to Pope Francis. When they got to Rome, the group was not simply given a shout out of welcome during the general audience, but were specifically invited to come up to the front, and seated on the stage.

A further question concerned New Ways’ specific model of operating, their history and their funding. The reply was that they are not a membership organisation. It began, as is widely known, as a personal, part-time ministry in response to a challenge from a young gay student that Sr Jeannine had met in her work at college. With the support of her religious community, this developed into a full-time ministry in partnership with the Jesuit priest Robert Nugent SJ, as an extension of his Justice and Peace work. Today, funding from a institutional donors, religious sisters and individuals, has allowed expansion to provide for two full-time and two part-time staff.

Later, in a personal interview I asked Sr Jeannine for her thoughts on a project of the European Forum Catholic Working Group, to offer some form of training or workshop on how to make most effective representations to Catholic bishops, to expand pastoral provision and full LGBT inclusion in church.

I began with a story from the European Forum Gdansk conference earlier this year, where a similar question was put to Ms. Ewa Hołuszko, who had been prominent inn the Solidarity trade union movement. She was asked, based on her experience attempting to change a repressive political regime, for her thoughts as a transwoman of faith, on strategies to change the equivalent problem in the churches. She proposed three key principles:

  • Take small steps
  • Don’t give up
  • Respect the opposition

Sr Jeannine agreed fully with this as a framework. Expanding on this, she suggested that one possibility open to all of us, is simply to talk with our own pastors and parishioners. There are opportunities also in small gestures and symbols. One example she gave, was of a woman she knows who makes a habit of wearing a small badge or brooch in the form of a rainbow fish. This sometimes invites other people to strike up a conversation with her, when people ask what the symbol is about, and she has a ready made opportunity to talk a about the importance of support for LGBT Catholics.

We could also write letters to our bishops – our opposition are notoriously frequently writing to complain about us, which is one of the reasons so many otherwise supportive bishops are reluctant to say so publicly. When we do, get to meet with them, it’s important that we concentrate, as New Ways did with Archbishop Cordileone, on what unites our concerns: constructive pastoral support for LGBT Catholics.  But above all, it’s important that it is we who should take the first steps: there is no point in waiting for them to approach us – it may never happen.

We must also avoid the mistake, she said, of talking only to those that we believe will be supportive. Of course, it is with our natural allies that we will make the greatest progress – but they can sometimes help us to gain introductions to others. Even with those who are known to be hostile, there is value in speaking. Like Archbishop Cordileone, Archbishop Charles Chaput is another who is widely regarded as hostile to our cause. Yet New Ways had been able to secure a meeting with him and a group of six parents of LGBT people. There was not yet any concrete positive outcome to this meeting, but he did listen attentively (which is always the first step), and the group had an invitation to return. In his book “Building a Bridge”, Fr James Martin SJ tells a similar story of a father of a gay son, who responded in anger to something said or done by a particular Catholic bishop. He wrote to him and secured a meeting, where both sides made their case, without coming to any agreement. However, he was invited back, and the two have continued to meet monthly ever since.

The lessons for Quest are clear. We have already begun a process of reaching out in dialogue to selected bishops. We need to continue and expand this process, but also encourage our members to do the same, in their own spheres of competence, by speaking to local parishioners and pastors. We need to concentrate on talking about the areas where we agree rather than those were we are in conflict, and should attempt to engage those that are perceived to be hostile, as well as those known to be supportive. As we do so, we must bear always in mind the three principles suggested by Ewa Hołuszko:

Take small steps

Don’t be discouraged

Respect the opposition