THESE were the courageous words of the keynote speaker at this year’s annual conference of Quest, which offers pastoral support for LGBT Catholics in the UK.
Sister Jeannine Gramick has cared and campaigned for the LGBT community in the USA since 1971, two years before Quest was founded.
I first heard about Sister Jeannine in 1999 when, together with her colleague Fr Robert Nugent, she was ordered by the Vatican to cease this work, which had developed into a social justice centre working for reconciliation, called New Ways Ministry.
While Fr Nugent chose to comply with the order, Sister Jeannine did not. She rejected a request not to speak publicly about homosexuality, or about the Vatican investigation into her ministry, stating publicly,
‘I choose not to collaborate in my own oppression by restricting a basic human right, she says. To me this is a matter of conscience.’
Sister Jeannine is the subject of a documentary called In Good Conscience – watch a trailer here:
The website for the film includes another trailer, a link to buy the tenth anniversary edition with an updated personal message from Sister Jeannine, and a download of a shortened version of the film for use in education and group work.
I first saw this in 2007 at a meeting of the Quest Liverpool group, which I helped to run for five years until 2011. The scene which stayed with me most was when Sister Jeannine approached a conservative Catholic protestor outside the Synod of US Catholic Bishops, spoke with him and prayed with him in a beautiful act of non-violent resistance, then stood together with him against the anti-Catholic and homophobic hatred and verbal violence of protestors from the Westboro Baptist Church. Her example of how to love and build bridges with those with whom we profoundly disagree is a lesson for us all, whatever our faith or background.
So when we heard that Sister Jeannine was speaking at the Quest annual conference, we had to go and hear her speak for ourselves.
It was a delight to hear her in person. She spoke with passion, wit and charm, showing both the gentleness and determination which has seen her through the challenges of the call from her order to serve the LGBT community, which began while she was studying alongside a gay man who asked her:
‘What is the Catholic Church doing for my gay brothers and sisters.’
At the time, she didn’t know, so she began by arranging a mass in the young man’s home as a way to discern the answer together. Such a great oak from a little acorn!
Here are a few memorable quotes from her presentation.
On Pope Francis:
‘This Pope gives me hope. He shows us that change is possible, within us, within the Church. He’s got a lot to learn but he’s educable.’
On the Church’s use of the word ‘homosexual’ instead of ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual’,
‘If you name me the way I want to be called, you recognise my existence. Silence is violence – if you deny the existence of an individual or group, you do not have to recognise their rights.’
On the need for positive activism for LGBT rights within the Church:
‘Francis is on our team – he’s blocking the opposition from getting the ball, but he’s leaving it up to us to take the ball and run with it.’
On meeting Cardinal Ratzinger (head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which was investigating her, and later Pope Benedict)
‘It was a personal interaction with the face of the institutional Church – he was a kind, prayerful, respectful, humorous man, with beautiful blue eyes!’
On the importance of informing and following our conscience:
‘If we follow our conscience individually, that can contribute to the growth of the community and the development of doctrine.’
On discerning the truth as it emerges afresh in the experience of each new generation:
‘We have confidence in the Spirit of God that in time we will have the fullness of truth.’
When another European booking following the Quest conference was cancelled, Sister Jeannine had a gap in her programme which we were delighted to be asked to fill. She came to Liverpool with us to speak at St Bride’s Church, which hosts Open Table, the ecumenical worship community for LGBT+ Christians, family and friends which my husband Warren and I have helped to host since 2008. She took an informal approach, inviting people to share stories about how they came to be there as well as her own. You can hear a recording of her presentation and discussion here (1 hour 22 minutes):
Following her visit to Liverpool, Sister Jeannine wrote Called To Embrace The Other, a beautiful reflection which has just been published on the website of the Global Sisters Network.
She also stayed with us in our home, which we have named in honour of Fr Mychal Judge, the Franciscan chaplain to the New York City Fire Department who was the first recorded victim of the Twin Towers attack on September 11th 2001. His extraordinary ministry among homeless people and the LGBT community is an inspiration to me in my work with Open Table and as part-time chaplain to YMCA Liverpool.
Due to his selfless ministry and heroic death, Fr Mychal Judge has become known affectionately as ‘the Saint of 9/11’, which is also the name of a documentary in his memory. Sister Jeannine shared with us that New Ways Ministry is inviting people who knew him to submit stories in support of the official cause for his canonisation, the formal process by which the Vatican confirms a person as a saint. As he spent time on sabbatical at the Franciscan Study Centre in Canterbury in 1985-86, perhaps some people in the UK may know people who met him. If so, they can share their stories via the New Ways Ministry website – this article explains how.
Our next speaker at St Bride’s Liverpool, Revd Michael Ford, was the first published biographer of Fr Mychal Judge. I will share a report on and recording of his presentation on this blog shortly.