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Fr. James Martin, SJ, on Building Bridges Between the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community

by Tracey Primrose

November 2, 2016 — From the very first days of his papacy, Pope Francis has called on both Catholics and the Catholic hierarchy to share God’s merciful love by building bridges and tearing down walls. Fr. James Martin, SJ, editor at large of America magazine, expanded on that theme during an Oct. 30 speech before New Ways Ministry, a group that advocates for, and ministers to, LGBT Catholics, by outlining specific ways that the Church and the LGBT community could build a “two-way bridge.”

Francis De Bernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, present Fr. James Martin, SJ, with the Bridge Building Award.

Acknowledging the often complicated relationship between the Church and the LGBT community, Fr. Martin meditated on what it might look like if both groups treated each other with, in the words of the Catechism, “respect, compassion and sensitivity."

“The Church has a special call to proclaim God’s love for a people who are often made to feel like damaged goods, unworthy of ministry,” Fr. Martin suggested during his speech at the gathering held near Baltimore. Respect, he said, begins with recognizing that the LGBT community exists and that it brings unique gifts to the Church. Respect also includes calling a community by the name it desires to be called and letting LGBT people know that they are “beloved children of God.”

And speaking directly to the LGBT community, Fr. Martin called on them to listen to the bishops, not just on LGBT issues. “And when they speak about LGBT matters in a way you don’t agree with, or that angers or offends you, listen anyway” because “the hierarchy deserves simple human respect.”

Fr. Martin also articulated a vision of compassion. Reminding the audience of the many parts of the world where LGBT people are subject to discrimination, violence and even murder, including the recent massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, he called on Church leaders to “stand for their LGBT brothers and sisters when they are persecuted.”

He asked the LBGT community to respect the teaching authority of the bishops and to see them “in their humanity, in their complexity and amid the great burdens of their ministries … so perhaps the LGBT community can give the institutional Church the gift of patience.”

Sensitivity, Fr. Martin said, is also critical for the bridge to work. “You cannot understand the feelings of a community if you don’t know the community. One reason the institutional Church has struggled with sensitivity is, in my opinion, that many Church leaders still do not know many gay and lesbian people.”

And for their part, LGBT people must recognize that when the Church speaks, it does so to the whole world and not just to the West, Fr. Martin said. When some LGBT people read papal encyclicals and think that the Church has not gone far enough, they need to remember that “what is bland in the United States is incendiary in other parts of the world.”

Fr. Martin, who spoke for nearly an hour, was recognized by New Ways Ministry with its Bridge Building Award “in recognition of his ministry of communication, which has helped to expand the dialogue on LGBT issues in the Catholic Church.”

Fr. Martin with Yayo Grassi, a married gay man who spoke about his friendship with Pope Francis at the event.

For Fr. Martin, one of the best moments of the day came out of the blue. "It was a delightful surprise to hear from a man named Yayo Grassi, who was the married gay man who had an audience with Pope Francis during his trip to the U.S. last year. He stood up and asked a question and I realized who he was and handed him the mic, and Yayo spoke movingly about his deep and honest friendship with the pope, who was a friend from Argentina, and about how much Francis had supported and cared for him.  It was a surprising and powerful moment,” said Fr. Martin.

"I was really very moved to be among a group of Catholics who for so long have felt so marginalized in our Church. There were many parents of LGBT Catholics; gay, lesbian and transgender Catholics themselves; as well as pastors, sisters and pastoral workers from parishes from around the country. It reminded me how much they long for a feeling of welcome in our Church."

Click here to read Fr. Martin’s speech on the America website.

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