In what is surely the most official welcome from Church officials that New Ways Ministry has received in its 38-year history, and one of the warmest welcomes the LGBT community has received, a pilgrimage group of 48 LGBT Catholics and supporters led by our co-founder, Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, received VIP seating at the papal audience in St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, on Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015.
Sister Jeannine had written to Pope Francis in December 2014, asking him to meet personally with the group when they visited Rome as part of their ten-day pilgrimage to Florence, Assisi, and the Eternal City.
Two weeks before departure on February 12th, she received a letter from Archbishop Georg Ganswein, Prefect of the Papal Household, letting her know that he had reserved tickets for the group for the Ash Wednesday audience. She assumed that these were the general seating tickets. On the night of February 17th, when the group picked up the tickets at St. Peter’s, they learned that they were VIP seating.
When the group arrived at St. Peter’s Square in the morning, we were guided by papal ushers to the level of the Square where the pope sits. All were astonished!
While we were not able to shake the pope’s hand personally, it is very significant that the Vatican responded so positively to an LGBT group by giving us such a prominent place at the audience.
When the pope passed by our group, we all sang “All Are Welcome,” a popular hymn which calls for an inclusive church.
We also called out several times that “We are LGBT Catholics!”
Although Sister Jeannine Gramick has led two other pilgrimages to Rome under the two previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, their presence was ignored at the papal audiences.
A Religion News Service story in The Washington Post noted that it was not just Vatican recognition that was significant, but that several other Church leaders helped the process along the way:
…Archbishop Georg Ganswein, head of the papal household and the top aide to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, responded to New Ways’ request for a papal meet-and-greet by reserving tickets for the group at Francis’ weekly public audience in St. Peter’s Square. It’s not a private meeting — which is tough for anyone to get — but it’s not nothing.
The pope’s ambassador to Washington forwarded a similar request to Rome. Even San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone — point man for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ battle against gay marriage — had written a letter to the Vatican on their behalf.
Last December, Cordileone had a constructive meeting with Frank DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, a co-founder of New Ways and a longtime advocate for LGBT inclusion in the church. But they were still surprised by the archbishop’s willingness to write a letter for them.
Gibson also noted that a British cardinal has given similar prestigious recognition to an LGBT Catholic pilgrimage which is also in Rome this week:
…British Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster sent a warm blessing to a group of LGBT Catholics from London who are joining up with New Ways in Rome. “Be assured of my prayers for each and every one of you,” Nichols wrote. “Have a wonderful pilgrimage. God bless you all.”
A Reuters story published on Huffington Post captured the response of New Ways Ministry’s leaders just after they left the papal audience:
“What this says is that there is movement in our Church, movement to welcome people from the outside closer to the inside,” Gramick said in St. Peter’s Square….DeBernardo said Catholic gay and lesbian couples and other non-traditional families should be invited to the meeting, known as a synod, to speak to the bishops about their faith and their sexuality.
An Associated Press video also reported their reactions: Several of the LGBT pilgrims were visibly moved by the welcome they received and by the experience of seeing the pope in person.
Several noted that they felt this was one more step in the progress–albeit, slow–that LGBT Catholics have been making in the Church for several decades.
All agreed that this day will never be forgotten.