Earlier this month I attended a talk by Dr. Mary Healy, professor of Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, during the 2020 Encounter Conference on the topic of Christian unity. Dr. Healy proposed a wonderful image for ecumenism that I’ve been reflecting on since then. (To be clear, I’m recounting her talk from memory, so I will do my best to represent her ideas accurately.)
The image that Dr. Healy used to illustrate authentic ecumenism–which is working toward Christian unity–was a person with two outstretched arms. On one hand, this person holds the truth of the Church, while the other hand is reaching out, not to a religion or ideology, but to an individual. In this way, the Christian becomes a living bridge between the Church and another person.
Dr. Healy told the story of someone who approached her recently and told her that he had once been in an ecumenical group, but left after a while because he felt that he had sacrificed too much of his Catholic identity as a member. Her response was that if he was sacrificing the truths of the Church, then it wasn’t real ecumenism. True ecumenism takes place when the sacrifice is one of humility: the willingness to listen, to be open to receiving good things from another, and to resolve to go more than halfway to meet someone where they are. This is the sacrifice that genuine ecumenism requires.
A person with both arms outstretched is an image of a person crucified. Bringing others to Christ and His Church costs something. Being a bridge costs something. People on one side will say, “You’re compromising too much! You’re being too generous to these heretics and sinners!” On the other side you will hear cries of, “You’re being rigid and intolerant!”
While Dr. Healy’s talk was on the subject of unity with Christians of other denominations, I recognized that her ideas can be applied to an area even more contentious than dialogue with Protestants: accompaniment and ministry with LGBT Christians. During his pontificate, Pope Francis has often served as a model of the crucified man.
On one hand, our pope is uncompromising in his support for Catholic teaching. On multiple occasions he has referred to gender theory–particularly when it’s taught to children–as “ideological colonization.” In July of 2016, during a meeting with the bishops of Poland, the Holy Father said:
“In Europe, America, Latin America, Africa, and in some countries of Asia, there are genuine forms of ideological colonization taking place. And one of these – I will call it clearly by its name – is [the ideology of] ‘gender’. Today children – children! – are taught in school that everyone can choose his or her sex. Why are they teaching this? Because the books are provided by the persons and institutions that give you money. These forms of ideological colonization are also supported by influential countries. And this terrible!”
On the other hand, he refuses to conflate ideologies with persons. A few months after that statement, during an in-flight press conference, the pope was asked about how he would personally accompany a transgender person. The pope responded with a personal story:
“Last year I received a letter from a Spanish man who told me his story from the time when he was a child. He was born a female, a girl, and he suffered greatly because he felt that he was a boy but physically was a girl. He told his mother, when he was in his twenties, at 22, that he wanted to have an operation and so forth. His mother asked him not to do so as long as she was alive. She was elderly, and died soon after. He had the operation. He is a municipal employee in a town in Spain. He went to the bishop. The bishop helped him a great deal, he is a good bishop and he ‘wasted’ time to accompany this man. Then he got married. He changed his civil identity, he got married and he wrote me a letter saying that it would bring comfort to him to come see and me with his bride: he, who had been she, but is he. I received them.”
The pope condemns a false anthropology, but he also listened to a suffering person with compassion, and met him exactly in the place he was, even referring to someone born female as “he,” saying: “he, who had been she, but is he.” In this relationship, he became the living bridge between a flesh-and-blood person and Jesus Christ, without the expectation that this man should meet him halfway.
Similarly, Pope Francis has reiterated the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and has taught that same-sex unions are in no way “similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” Yet the Holy Father has referred to gay persons as “gay” and has shown incredible compassion for LGBT people throughout his pontificate. One moving example was last April when British comedian Stephen K. Amos visited the pope on a pilgrimage. When he told Francis that he didn’t feel accepted by religious people because he’s a gay man, the pope responded:
“Giving more importance to the adjective [gay] rather than the noun [man], this is not good. We are all human beings and have dignity. It does not matter who you are, or how you live your life – you do not lose your dignity. There are people that prefer to select or discard people because of the adjective. These people don’t have a human heart.”
Last year, an LGBT Catholic friend of mine confided that she was seriously considering leaving the Church, in part because she is wrestling with the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, but mostly because she simply felt deeply unwelcome and unwanted. She has had Catholic friends say rotten and hurtful things about “the gays” in front of her and she also felt personally attacked by all the rhetoric in Catholic circles blaming the abuse scandal on homosexuality. My friend said to me at that time that all she wanted from her local Catholic community was for someone to say, “We want you to stay in the Catholic Church, it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, we want you here.”
We can look to the pope as a model of being a living bridge to our LGBT brothers and sisters! Not taking them on as a project, but meeting them as brothers and sisters exactly where they are, listening to their stories, and learning from them. Yes, we have something to learn from LGBT people. They have the same truth, goodness, and beauty to offer the Church as any person created in God’s image. Every LGBT Christian has a unique place in this Church that only they can fill. This is their Church, and their baptism has made them a permanent member of the Body of Christ, but we have failed so many times to acknowledge their place here.
Will we be persecuted for responding to this call? Absolutely. The accusations will be thrown from all sides:
“You’re unfaithful to the Church’s teaching.”
“You’re a cafeteria Catholic.”
“You must be gay yourself.”
“You’re on the wrong side of history.”
“You’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
“You’re a hater.”
“You’re just a liberal.”
“You’re just a conservative.”
“You’re compromising too much.”
“You’re not compromising enough.”
Crucifixion is painful. Being a living bridge to our LGBT brothers and sisters may cost us our pride and our self-righteousness. It could also cost us our reputations or the seat of honor we may hold in our Catholic community. But this is a small price to pay for the sake of our LGBT brother or sister experiencing the mercy, healing, and freedom of Jesus Christ. In her short book titled “Scripture, Mercy, and Homosexuality,” Dr. Mary Healy says:
“Jesus’ demeanor toward people on the margins – including people living in immoral lifestyles – sets the standard for his disciples. He models a radically new attitude characterized by warmth, sincerity, welcome, and respect. We can get a glimpse of how counter-cultural his behavior was by observing the frequent accusations of his adversaries: ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’ (Luke 15:2). ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ (Luke 5:30; cf. 19:7). Jesus not only passively accepted socially marginalized people when they came to him, but actively reached out to them, spending time with them, enjoying their company, and sharing with them the good news of the kingdom. Those who are his followers are called to do no less.”
Take up that cross and follow Jesus.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.