Last month, Newark, New Jersey’s Cardinal Joseph Tobin welcomed a pilgrimage of LGBT Catholics to the archdiocese’s Cathedral of the Sacred Heart—a gesture that is being hailed as a major step forward in the pastoral care of LGBT people here in the U.S. one participant going so far as calling it “a miracle.”
One participant even called it “a miracle.”
A New York Times article entitled “As Church Shifts, a Cardinal Welcomes Gays; They Embrace a ‘Miracle’ “ captured not only the spirit of the May 21st event but also the reactions to it of some Catholic leaders who address LGBT issues.
For example, one New York gay Catholic leader described what the action meant to him personally:
"It felt like a miracle," Ed Poliandro, a member of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Manhattan and a clinical social worker. "It was a miracle to have church leaders say, 'You are welcome; you belong.' And I felt, after a lifetime of struggle, that we are home."
Similarly, a New Jersey gay deacon spoke of the power of this symbolic gesture:
"He brought [Pope] Francis to us," said Thomas M. Smith, 66, a deacon who serves the deaf community at the Newark cathedral. "I’ve been waiting 25 years for this. I’m a deacon in the church and I’ve had to be careful. And afraid."
He teared up, remembering how his parents had died thinking he would go to hell if he found someone to love. "This is amazing to me," he said.
New Ways Ministry’s director also commented on the significance of this event:
"It’s the beginning of a dialogue," said Francis DeBernardo, the executive director New Ways Ministry, a group that ministers to and is an advocate for gay Catholics. "The church leadership, for the past 40 years, has just been so silent, and unwilling to dialogue, and unwilling to pray with L.G.B.T. Catholics that, even though this isn’t the ultimate step, it’s a first step."
The Times story also noted the very personal and scriptural way in which Cardinal Tobin welcomed the LGBT pilgrims:
"I am Joseph, your brother," Cardinal Tobin told the group, which included lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics from around New York and the five dioceses in New Jersey. "I am your brother, as a disciple of Jesus. I am your brother, as a sinner who finds mercy with the Lord."
The welcoming of a group of openly gay people to Mass by a leader of Cardinal Tobin’s standing in the Roman Catholic Church in this country would have been unthinkable even five years ago. But Cardinal Tobin, whom Pope Francis appointed to Newark last year, is among a small but growing group of bishops changing how the American church relates to its gay members. They are seeking to be more inclusive and signaling to subordinate priests that they should do the same.
While in the Cathedral, the pilgrims participated at a Mass celebrated by Fr. Francis Gargani, CSsR, who was one of the organizers of the pilgrimage. Auxiliary Bishop Manuel Cruz, the cathedral’s rector, was also on the altar at the Mass and added his welcome to the pilgrims.
DeBernardo noted that this event was in line with a changing attitude toward LGBT people in the U.S. Catholic church, offering the following examples:
The diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., for example, last month said it would permit transgender students in its Catholic schools. In October, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego held a diocesan synod on the family that called for improved ministry toward gay and lesbian Catholics. At a New Ways Ministry national conference in April, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., said he admired and respected lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who remained steadfast to the church even though the church had not always been as welcoming.
Perhaps the most significant detail about the event is the following observation made by the Times reporter:
But Cardinal Tobin’s welcome to Mass on May 21 has been the most significant of such recent gestures, because of the symbolism of a cardinal welcoming a group of gay Catholics, some of whom were married to same-sex spouses, to participate in the Sacrament of Holy Communion at the center of a cathedral, no questions asked.
Fr. James Martin, SJ, whose new book, Building a Bridge, about Catholic LGBT issues is being positively received, and Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a national organization of LGBT Catholics, were also quoted in the Times story.
Cardinal Tobin’s action was a simple one, yet a very profound one.
It is definitely one that can be replicated by bishops across the U.S. If bishops would first open their hearts and minds to LGBT people, they will find it much easier to open their cathedral doors to them, as Cardinal Tobin has done.