Orlando Pulse one year later: a Catholic Priest "builds a bridge" to the LGBT community

Father James Martin says "For Jesus, there is not 'us' and 'them.' There is only 'us.''

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 12, 2017 6:58PM (EDT)

Artwork and signatures cover a fence around the Pulse nightclub (AP/John Raoux)
Artwork and signatures cover a fence around the Pulse nightclub (AP/John Raoux)

You won't find too many institutions with a worse track record toward the LGBTQ community than the Catholic Church. But over the past few years and under the leadership of Pope Francis, progressive values have gained some ground — offering a sliver of cautious hope for more reform down the line.

When an assailant entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando one year ago today and murdered 49 LGBT individuals and allies for no true reason other than homophobia, the response from the Catholic hierarchy in America was mixed. But author and Jesuit priest James Martin, SJ, took to Facebook to issue a swift and clear call for the Catholic community to "stand in strong and public solidarity" at a moment of grief and loss.

The rare call for understanding earned an outpouring of positive responses. Since then, Father Martin has written a new book, "Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity."

Salon spoke recently to Father Martin about his challenge to unity, about hope, and about what kind of change is possible.

You decided to write this book as a response to what happened in Orlando last year, although this certainly is an outgrowth of your ministry and your work for a long time. Tell me a little bit about what made you decide this was something you wanted to get out there and as quickly as possible.

For many years, I had done what you might call informal ministry with LGBT Catholics. They would come to me for spiritual counseling, confession, just plain old conversation after masses, after retreats, after talks that I would give, or they would contact me through social media. I’ve done that like many priests, brothers and sisters, and lay workers for years. I feel like I’ve gotten to know the community and their struggles pretty well, particularly in the Church. Orlando really galvanized me because I noticed that in the wake of the massacre, only a handful of Catholic bishops even used used the word "gay" or "LGBT" when speaking about the massacre, which I found really revelatory.

You also are very clear in identifying those who did and what they said.

Some were very forceful, particularly Cardinal [then Archbishop] Cupich and Bishop Lynch in Florida, with Lynch even going so far as to say religion contributes to this kind of hatred, which it does. I put out a video, I think a day or two afterwards, which got a lot of hits on my Facebook page.  Subsequent to that, I was contacted by New Ways Ministry, which is a group that ministers to and advocates for LGBT Catholics, to accept their Bridge Building Award. I thought that was a good opportunity to finally be a little more public about all of this. Now, in the past I’d written about it from time to time in America Magazine  and other places, but I thought this was a good opportunity to do something that was more systematic. I gave this talk and that formed the basis of the book. The other part of the book is a series of spiritual resources for the LGBT Catholic. The book is twofold. It’s first an invitation to dialogue, and second, a series of Bible passages and meditation questions specifically for LGBT Catholics and their families and friends.

Your approach is very dialogue-based. It really is about, how do we meet each other on the road? You also issue a challenge to members of the LGBT community about how they can participate in the life of the Church.

Yeah, because bridges take people in both directions. It’s a pretty rotten bridge if it only takes you in one direction. I want to be clear that the onus is really on the Church here, that the Church is really the party that’s responsible for doing most of the reaching out, because the institutional church has made LGBT people feel ignored, unwelcome and excluded. By the same token, those virtues from the catechism of respect, compassion and sensitivity can be used by LGBT community, because the LGBT Catholics, some of them, at times have been disrespectful to the bishops.

It’s clear that the group that needs the to go farther is the institutional church, but it’s a two-way bridge. The LGBT community can take a few steps forward as well. I think that the LGBT community will probably think this book doesn’t go far enough, and some of the bishops will think it goes too far, which is probably the right place to be.

As encompassing as your work is, I’m sure you are met with a fair degree of skepticism and distrust. What do you say when you talk about building bridges, and you talk about respect, and you talk about compassion? Those are also words that have been used in the past to kind of soften the real exclusion. I’ve heard Christians say they can love gay people, and respect gay people, and that’s not the same as saying they are inclusive towards people.

What I’m calling for is real respect, and I elaborate that. That means, for example, calling LGBT and gay people what they want to be called. I’m calling for an end to the firings of LGBT people. It’s just based on the fact that they’re entering into same-sex marriages, because it’s highly selective. We don’t do that for the sexual morality of straight people who work for the Church. It is real respect. It’s respect with teeth.

One thing you also say that’s very clear is that gay people are already here. They’re already part of the Catholic Church. They are within the Catholic Church. They are part of the ministry. They are part of our schools. Yet as straight people, it’s hard to talk about a “they” because we want to be talking about an “us.”

For Jesus, there is not “us” and “them.” There is only “us.” For Jesus ,there is no one who is “other.” His own ministry is about inclusion and going out to people who feel like or are treated as other and bringing them into the community through healing, through talking to them.

LGBT people are part of the Church by virtue of their baptism, period. They’re as much a part of the Church as me as their local bishop or as the Pope. I submit that they are sometimes better Catholics because they put up with so many hateful comments, and they still persevere in their faith. That to me is real faith. The people that I know who have persevered in the Church in the face of horrible comments, who have forgiven pastors for insulting them, and who continue to participate in the life of the Church, is extraordinary. Their perseverance and their forgiveness is a real gift.

Let’s talk about the second part of the book, where you really start to walk the walk and lay out some steps for finding comfort, for finding hope, for finding self-validation. You talk about not just the violence and the exclusion that the LGBT community has felt from without, but then how that gets turned inward. You talk about the self-harm and suicide rates, and how that is something that we need to address as well, in a very real and concrete way. Tell me how you structured that and what you were looking to do in that part of it.

 I wanted something that someone could give an LGBT person who is struggling with their relationship with God or with the Church and say, “Here.” I selected the Bible passages that in my experience have been most helpful for LGBT people in their journey towards self-acceptance and in their deepening of their relationship to God. I take some Bible passages, some of which were mentioned in the essay, and I present the whole passage and then offer my own meditations on how it relates to LGBT people, and offer reflection questions for the LGBT person and also for their family and friends. It’s an invitation to prayer, and I really haven’t seen anything like it before and I thought it was really necessary.

My Jesuit training helps me to understand how to invite people into a particular kind of prayer and a particular kind of reflection on Scripture, where you find yourself in the Scripture passages. Frankly, it wasn’t hard to find them because there are so many examples in the New Testament of Jesus reaching out to people in the margins.

The other thing is there are so many stories that I’ve heard of LGBT youth feeling rejected by their families, or their churches, who need a bit of a life raft, and that’s what I’m trying to throw them.

You wrote this book very much out of an act of terror, an act of very targeted violence. Then in the year since, as we all know, things have changed a great deal in our nation and it feels like a time of even greater fear, of even greater hostility, of even greater emboldening of people who feel that they can use religion as a weapon. That includes Christianity as a weapon. And yet you very much in the book talk about hope. How do we do that? How do we hang on to hope and how do we all speak up for hope?

Well, it’s a choice. I mean we can choose hope or we can choose despair. The Christian choice is always hope. I mean when you think of the apostles on Good Friday and Holy Saturday cowering behind closed doors, all they could see was darkness after the crucifixion, but the story of the resurrection is a story of hope, that there is always hope, and that God can always bring something good out of darkness. We have to hold on to that message as Christians.

You’re right. The country has become much more divided in the last year and so this is even more of an opportunity for us to choose hope and to choose union and reconciliation instead of disunion and discord. I mean what other choice do we have? For me as a Christian, I can’t choose to despair, negativity or darkness. Also, I have a responsibility as a Jesuit priest to these LGBT Catholics.

The other thing I wanted to say is that one of the things that surprised me most of all last year has been that ministry to LGBT Catholics is also ministry to their families and to their friends. I’ve been stunned by the number of people who have come up to me after talks, not on this topic, who know about the book and who say, “Thank you for doing this for my family.” I’ll never forget. I was speaking at Yale, at the Catholic center up there and this woman came up to me who looked like she was out of central casting for grandmothers. She leaned down and she said, “I want to tell you something, Father.” I thought she was going to say "I was on a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land," or "I loved your book on the saints." Instead, she said, "My granddaughter is transgender, and I love her so much and I just want her to feel like she’s part of the Church.”

I thought, the ministry to the LGBT Catholic is a ministry to a much wider group of people: grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters especially and their friends. It’s a much greater group to minister to than one would think; at least that I had thought.

And what’s happened just over the last 10 years is that, as more and more people have come out, that means that more and more people are affected. Whereas before this grandmother might not have ever known about her granddaughter’s identity, now because people are more open, she is. As more people come out, more people are affected by issue and so there’s more of a need for ministry to this entire population and about this particular issue.

As someone who has been watching the Catholic Church for your whole life, what do you hope for? What do you hope for out of our current Vatican? What do you hope is realistically possible in Catholic Church administration in terms of what we can see? When I look at the Vatican right now and I feel very hopeful about the message coming out of there. I also feel like, is there ever going to come a moment when we can recognize same-sex marriage in a Catholic Church?

It’s going to sound pious, but really what’s possible is that the Church can more and more invite people to truly encounter Jesus Christ. That’s the most important thing and I think that’s what the Pope understands. Once we encounter Jesus — not the Jesus as proposed to us in the political world, not Jesus as proposed to us in small-minded interpretations of him, not Jesus as proposed to us as a traffic cop, or a parole officer, or a cruel judge, but the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus who is with us through the Spirit — everything becomes easy and everything becomes clear. I think that’s one of the things that Pope Francis is doing and through this culture of encounter and finding Jesus in the poor, and rediscovering Jesus in the Gospels, and in our prayer life. That’s the beginning and all these questions are much easier to answer in the light of knowing Him.

I agree. But also as a woman and as someone with many friends and allies in the LGBT community, I do also long for — and am not optimistic about — those of us in those groups attaining a greater legitimacy, a greater recognition for where we can be placed within this hierarchy, where we can be placed visibly. That is something I don’t know, and it’s hard as a parent to be raising children. I think many of us still struggle that while the faith feels really solid, the belief system feels really solid, then you go, “But do I believe in my life that we will have that kind of recognition from the highest authority?"

On that position, even the discussion of women deacons is a huge step forward, as it shows Pope Francis’ desire to put more women in leadership roles.It’s also important to say that it is still a human institution. A friend of mine who is close to the Pope asked him once about all these things and the Pope said to him, “One thing at a time.” He also has to balance the responsibility of those kinds of moves ahead, but also being careful not to leave the rest of the Church behind. It’s a difficult balancing act between the prophetic role and the essentially conservative role — and I mean that literally — conserving the Church. The message of Christianity really is nothing is impossible with God. Period. Here’s a great example. This book could never have been written five years ago.

But Jesus Christ is not going to change. The question is how we interpret his teachings and how we interpret the "signs of the times." And then we’re people of hope.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Building A Bridge Catholic Father James Martin Lgbtq Orlando Shooting Pulse Shooting Religion