Pope Francis surely sends many personal letters that don’t land in the headlines, but his remarkably warm and encouraging letter, sent in response to a note from Father James Martin about his nephew’s confirmation, certainly did. After Francis expressed his prayers and warm wishes for Fr. Martin’s nephew, he spent the rest of the letter responding to Fr. Martin’s postscript about the LGBTQ Catholic Ministry Webinar. On Sunday, Fr. Martin posted copies of the letter—including the original handwritten Spanish version and an English translation—on his social media accounts, and it was later reported in the Vatican News, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. In his letter, Pope Francis explicitly affirmed Fr. Martin’s “pastoral zeal” and his “ability to be close to people, with the closeness that Jesus had, and which reflects the closeness of God.”
Understanding the significance of this letter requires consideration of both Francis’s message to Fr. Martin and its meaning in the broader context of Pope Francis’s vision for the Church. This is something that many in Catholic media appear to be uninterested in doing.
In recent years, Fr. Martin has been the subject of criticism for many Catholics, and is very often the target of what Nathan Turowsky describes as “relentless personal attacks” deriving from suspicion and sometimes overt hostility towards the focus of his ministry to gay Catholics. This broad distrust and even disdain only escalated with the publication of his 2017 book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity. Since then, his activities, writings, and social media posts have been subject to scrutiny by certain Catholic media outlets, who casually describe him as “controversial,” and imply that he rejects Catholic teachings.
Even rumors about Fr. Martin have made headlines. In February 2020, EWTN-owned Catholic News Agency published an article based on the claims of a few anonymous US bishops, who suggested that Pope Francis had expressed negative opinions about Fr. Martin and his ministry to gay Catholics during their ad limina visit to the Vatican. Even after the story was described as baseless by two other bishops (Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe and Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne) who were present at the meeting and were willing to put their names behind their words, the suspicion has remained, damaging Fr. Martin’s reputation in the eyes of many American Catholics. This has all transpired although Fr. Martin has insisted that he does not reject the teachings of the Church on sexuality and marriage, and he has promised submission to his own superiors, including the pope.
One common criticism of Fr. Martin’s ministry to LGBTQ Catholics, is that he creates “confusion” among his flock. In his writing and public speaking, he chooses not to lead with (or frequently bring up) the Church’s teachings on the morality of same-sex sexual activity. Instead, he focuses on how the Church can show compassion and openness to the LGBTQ community. This criticism has also been leveled against Pope Francis since the early days of his papacy, when comments like “Who am I to judge?” still received “explainers” in mainstream Catholic media. This criticism hasn’t gone away, for neither Martin nor Francis. In fact, the notion that they want to change Church doctrine on sexual morality has become the bedrock assumption animating the reactions of many conservative Catholics to both of them. Complaining of “confusion” about their pastoral approach seems to be another way of expressing disagreement with any Catholic response to LGBTQ issues that does not begin with the articulation of Catholic teaching on sexual morality.
The truth is that many Catholics are unwilling to accept Pope Francis’s pastoral method—and Martin’s. They think that not to give a full-throated defense of God’s design for human sexuality is a sign of weakness and doctrinal dissent. Pope Francis has frequently taught that this kind of rigorism hinders evangelization in our contemporary, polarized, post-Christian culture. Instead he has advocated an approach that begins with an invitation and seeks to “build bridges” to men and women today. This is how Francis says we can prepare fertile soil where the seed of faith can take root.
Francis’s approach is rooted in the programmatic text of his pontificate, Evangelii Gaudium. He identified in the section on pastoral ministry in a missionary key (25-39) the dangers inherent in a presentation of the Gospel that becomes unbalanced due to inordinate focus on a narrow range of virtues or moral teachings without regard for the whole:
Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others. … If this invitation does not radiate forcefully and attractively, the edifice of the Church’s moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards, and this is our greatest risk. It would mean that it is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options.
The public response in conservative Catholic media to the news of Francis’s letter to Fr. Martin has ranged from incredulity to denial that the Holy Father really knows what Fr. Martin is up to. But there is absolutely no reason to believe that Pope Francis is unfamiliar with Fr. Martin or his pastoral approach. They have met on multiple occasions, most notably a one-on-one meeting in September 2019 that Fr. Martin described as “a clear sign of [Francis’s] deep pastoral care for LGBT Catholics and LGBT people worldwide.” According to a source close to Pope Francis, the pope read Building a Bridge prior to this meeting. Martin was also appointed to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications. This most recent letter was a personal, handwritten note that leaves no reasonable doubt that the two men are familiar with one another. To continue to suggest otherwise defies reason.
The content and the context of this brief letter are clear: Pope Francis has explicitly affirmed Fr. Martin’s approach to LGBTQ ministry, which leads with “closeness” rather than doctrinal teaching, as exemplifying the qualities of God’s care for us. The letter is certainly not an imprimatur for every statement Fr. Martin has ever made or will make, but it is a clear sign that Francis is not terribly concerned about whatever “confusion” might arise from his ministry. In fact, this letter is an indication that Pope Francis sees Fr. Martin as an example of the type of priest that the Church needs today.
That Pope Francis responded at some length to Fr. Martin’s postscript about the LGBTQ Ministry Outreach Webinar and encouraged him to continue in this specific ministry is significant. Francis thanks him for his “pastoral work” in which he is “continually seeking to imitate this style of God,” and prays he continues ministering well to his “flock.” “I pray for your faithful…so that you protect them, and make them grow in the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is also—as Fr. Martin tweeted—a sign of encouragement to the LGBTQ community. Martin tweeted: “May the Holy Father’s warm message encourage and inspire all those in the church who minister to LGBTQ Catholics.”
The qualities Francis identifies in Martin’s spiritual fatherhood are prominent themes in his preaching: “God’s ‘style’ has three elements: closeness, compassion and tenderness. This is how he comes closer to each one of us.” Francis has long encouraged pastors to be close to their people and to “smell of the sheep,” unafraid to be “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets” (EG 49). This pastoral closeness is so important, Francis writes to Fr. Martin, because it models how God approaches all of us—as a Father who unconditionally loves: “Our Heavenly Father comes close with love to each one of his children, each and everyone. His heart is open to each and everyone. He is a Father.”
Fr. Martin’s focuses are to “build a bridge” between the LGBTQ community and the Church, and to foster familiarity and a sense of belonging for the LGBTQ Catholics he serves. He wants to help the Church become a place where they are welcomed. This sense of being part of a family, a child of a loving Father who continually seeks out and provides for his children, is what Francis has called all fathers—spiritual and otherwise—to cultivate. After all, it is in the family of God, the Church, where life with Christ and conversion take place. It is where the invitation to deeper life with Christ begins, with all that entails. Francis’s vision of spiritual fatherhood is modeled after God the Father, who always “comes closer to each one of us,” not a father who constantly lectures and makes demands.
Francis writes that Fr. Martin is “a priest for all men and women, just as God is a Father for all men and women.” This is where many Catholics express confusion about both Fr. Martin and Pope Francis. To put it simply, they have a different understanding of how God regards his children. But God loves each of us and doesn’t merely stand at a distance, waiting for prodigal children to return. He is the shepherd who goes out to find his lost sheep, approaching and inviting them to respond to his love.
The same day the letter was published, Pope Francis delivered a Sunday Angelus reflection on chapter 5 of the Gospel of Mark, about the healing of “the nameless woman” with a hemorrhage. This continuous menstrual flow, Francis reminded us, would have rendered her ritually impure for years, resulting in her exclusion from the community: “She was a marginalized woman; she could not have stable relationships; she could not have a husband; she could not have a family, and could not have normal social relationships, because she was ‘impure,’ an illness that rendered her ‘impure.’” This brings to mind Fr. Martin’s marginalized ‘flock,’ who today may feel excluded from the Church community because they are made to feel ‘impure.’
Francis described the suffering this condition surely caused the woman, resulting in “her wounded heart.” But her heart was opened to the Lord—she turned “a face and a heart full of faith” towards him and asked for healing. Jesus wants to heal us, Francis insists, and to do this he invites us to open ourselves to his healing. “The Lord waits for us to encounter him, to open our hearts to him, to touch his garment in order to heal.”
In the address, Francis repeated the same qualities he described in his letter to Fr. Martin: “Jesus’ style was closeness, compassion and tenderness.” Jesus was close enough for the nameless woman to touch him, close enough to look upon her with a “tender gaze”:
If you have already felt His tender gaze upon you, imitate Him, and do as He does. Look around: you will see that many people who live beside you feel wounded and alone; they need to feel loved: take the step.
Encounter with Jesus is central to Christian life, and we are called to encounter others in our own encounter with Jesus, who has healed us. On Tuesday, speaking to new archbishops on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, Francis reiterated his call not to judge, but to minister with closeness, as Jesus did. Francis said that Jesus “assures us of his closeness by praying and interceding for us before the Father, and gently reproaching us whenever we go astray, so that we can find the strength to arise and resume the journey.”
Having experienced the closeness and tenderness of God, pastors are able to offer that same care to others: “Tenderness is the best way to touch the frailty within us,” Francis wrote in his apostolic letter on St. Joseph, Patris Corde. “Pointing fingers and judging others are frequently signs of an inability to accept our own weaknesses, our own frailty.”
Pope Francis’s approach causes discomfort for many people because it begins with regard for how the other person feels rather than explicit doctrinal clarity. But pastoral tenderness towards others is essential. People need to feel loved in order to be open to Jesus’ love for them.
Pope Francis’s letter, praising Fr. Martin’s pastoral ministry to the LGBTQ community, is an invitation for those who look upon Fr. Martin with skepticism or suspicion to take a second look at what they can learn from him. For many, this will demand a great deal of humility and a reassessment of some deeply entrenched ideas. But this is what Francis believes God is asking of us: “Let us stop judging others—Jesus asks us for a non-judgmental gaze. Because love alone heals life… God loves everyone! Do not judge; let others live and try to approach them with love.”
Photo: Vatican Media