In what New Ways Ministry’s executive director, Francis DeBernardo, called a “singular honor,” a group of LGBT Catholics on a pilgrimage to Rome were today, for the first time of any LGBT group, given VIP seats near Pope Francis himself for the pontiff’s weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square.
DeBernardo is visiting Rome in the company of about 50 LGBT Catholics — about twice the number that have embarked on the journey in years past. DeBernardo helms New Ways, an LGBT Catholic group that was cofounded by Sister Jeannine Gramick, the leader of the pilgrimage.
Gramick, who has a “This Pope Gives Me Hope!” decal on her computer, chalked up the unprecedented VIP treatment to “the Francis effect,” according to a Reuters story. In an email to The Advocate, DeBernardo lauded the pope for “[raising] the level of discourse on LGBT issues in the Church.” Hence the larger number of travelers than have joined for the past 15 years, he said: “Pope Francis is a big draw for them!”
Though Gramick’s appeal to the pope for a meeting with the LGBT travelers hasn’t been fulfilled, this year still represents marked change; the New Ways leaders told Reuters their group was ignored under the leadership of previous popes. Gramick told the Associated Press that “to me, this is an example of the kind of willingness [Pope Francis] has to welcome those on the fringes of the church back to the center of the church.”
Pope Francis has walked an apparent fine line on LGBT issues — perhaps well-symbolized by the fact that the Vatican’s own list of attendees for the audience dubbed the New Ways folks a “group of lay people” without identifying them as coming with an LGBT organization.
Lauded for his “Who am I to judge?” remark (about gay priests) and other seeming overtures on LGBT issues (such as a private meeting with a transgender man and his fiancée), the pope has also been criticized for a lack of policy changes (which most observers grant are unlikely) and critical statements about same-sex marriage and nontraditional families.
Some conservative forces view Pope Francis as having attempted to push through a more welcoming approach to LGBT Catholics at last year's Synod of Bishops on family issues. The synod's final report used more cautious language than an interim one, disappointing many LGBT activists. Now those on both sides of various family-related issues are looking ahead to synod this October that will continue the discussion.
The New Ways Ministry group left the U.S. Thursday and visited Florence and Assisi before arriving in Rome. The audience took place Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent.