Pope Francis writes to controversial nun, thanking her for 50 years of LGBTQ ministry

Sister Jeannine Gramick, the co-founder of New Ways Ministry recently received a handwritten letter from Pope Francis congratulating her on “50 years of closeness, of compassion and of tenderness” in a ministry that he described as being in “ ‘the style’ of God.”

Pope Francis has sent an encouraging letter to an American nun thanking her for her 50 years of ministry to LGBTQ Catholics, more than two decades after she was investigated and censured by the Vatican for her work.

In his letter dated Dec. 10, Francis wrote that Sister Jeannine Gramick has not been afraid of “closeness” and without condemning anyone had the “tenderness” of a sister and a mother. “Thank you, Sister Jeannine, for all your closeness, compassion and tenderness,” he wrote.

He also noted her “suffering … without condemning anyone.”

Gramick, who lives just outside of Washington, D.C., in Mount Rainier, Md., said that the letter felt like it was “from a friend.”

“Of course, I was overjoyed,” she said. “It felt like a turning point in the church, because for so long, this ministry has been maligned and in the shadows.”< For decades, Gramick and her New Ways Ministry co-founder, the late Rev. Robert Nugent, were considered controversial by some church leaders for the workshops they did about the science and theology around LGBTQ topics. Gramick said she would not provide her opinion, but she would present the Catholic Church’s teaching, as well as doctrinal positions from more moderate and liberal theologians. Gramick said she was under scrutiny from the Vatican for about 20 years before officials issued a declaration that she would be barred from ministry. “The ambiguities and errors of the approach of Father Nugent and Sister Gramick have caused confusion among the Catholic people and have harmed the community of the Church,” the 1999 statement from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith said.

Gramick later transferred to another religious order to keep doing her work.

A spokesman for the Vatican did not respond immediately Friday to a message seeking to confirm the authenticity of the pope’s letter to Gramick. The letter, first published on Friday in the Catholic publication America magazine, is the latest in a series of several letters the pontiff has written this year to gay Catholics and others who are serving and advocating for LGBTQ people.

The pope’s letter follows actions by the Vatican on gay rights that have frustrated Francis’s more liberal supporters. Early in his papacy, he famously declared: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” But he has upheld church doctrine that calls LGBTQ acts “disordered.” Last year, the Vatican’s doctrinal body said that Catholic priests cannot bless same-sex unions.

In December, a Vatican official apologized to New Ways Ministry for having pulled a reference to it on the Vatican website, drawing praise from the group as a rare and “historic” apology and for restoring the reference. New Ways revealed that Pope Francis had written them two letters earlier in 2021 praising their ministry. In those letters, Francis noted Gramick’s work, that he knew “how much she has suffered,” describing her as “a valiant woman who makes her decisions in prayer.”

The Rev. James Martin, a New York City-based priest known for his ministry affirming LGBTQ Catholics, said he has received a few letters from Pope Francis but made one of them public in July 2021. Gramick’s letter, he said, is significant because she has been censured by the Vatican.

“For most LGBTQ Catholics, Sister Jeannine is a real hero, so they’ll be delighted. They’ll rightly see this as one of Pope Francis’s steps forward,” Martin said. “He doesn’t change church teaching on this but take steps … added up, all the steps, we’ve come a long way.”

Gramick said official investigations came after the late Cardinal James Hickey, the former archbishop of Washington, wrote to the Vatican asking officials to pressure Gramick and Nugent to stop their ministry. An investigation was launched in 1988 and in 1999, the Vatican issued its censure.

“It was devastating,” she said. “What can I say? It didn’t feel good.”

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese of Washington did not immediately return a request for comment on the letter.

Gramick said she and others from New Ways Ministries met with Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, in October and told them about the letters Pope Francis had sent the ministry. “Sounds like you’re pen pals,” Gregory told them, according to Gramick.

Gramick said she started her ministry when she was 29 while studying in graduate school and befriended a gay man who had left the Catholic Church for the Episcopal Church. In his apartment, she organized Mass for gay and lesbian people who had left the Catholic Church.

“When the liturgy was over, they had tears in their eyes because they felt they were being welcomed home again,” she said.

Gramick said she hopes the church will eventually change its position on sexual ethics and listen to the growing number of parishioners who have become more LGBTQ affirming.

“What would I say to LGBT Catholics is, ‘Hold on, it will change,’ ” she said. “We have to make our views known so that the officials of the church can properly express that change.’ ”

Francis also wrote to America magazine national correspondent Michael O’Loughlin, who is a gay Catholic, commending him for reporting on Catholic responses to the HIV/AIDS crisis.

From the earliest days of his papacy, O’Loughlin said, the pope has reached out to individuals in a personal way by calling people on the phone and writing the string of LGBTQ-related letters.

“There’s a lot of hurt and pain in the LGBT community and a single letter or group of letters is not going to fix that,” O’Loughlin said. “He’s interested in highlighting Catholics living out their faith even in areas that have been historically difficult for the church.”

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Catholic nuns lift veil on abuse in convents

By Philip Pullella

When young nuns at a convent in Eastern Europe told their Mother Superior that a priest had tried to molest them, she retorted that it was probably their fault for “provoking him.”

When African nuns in Minnesota asked why it was always they who had to shovel snow they were told it was because they were young and strong, even though white sisters of the same age lived there too.

As the Roman Catholic Church pays more attention to the closed world of convents, where women spend much of their time in prayer and household work, more episodes of psychological, emotional and physical abuse are coming to light.

A new book, “Veil of Silence” by Salvatore Cernuzio, a journalist for the Vatican’s online outlet, Vatican News, is the latest expose to come from within and approved by authorities.

Cernuzio recounts experiences of 11 women and their struggles with an age-old system where the Mother Superior and older nuns demand total obedience, in some cases resulting in acts of cruelty and humiliation.

Marcela, a South American woman who joined an order of cloistered nuns in Italy 20 years ago when she was 19, recounts how the indoctrination was so strict that younger sisters needed permission to go to the bathroom and ask for sanitary products during their menstrual periods.

“You are always complaining! Do you want to be a saint or not?” Marcela, who later left the convent, quotes the Mother Superior as shouting when she suggested changes in the daily routine.

Therese, a French woman, was told “you have to suffer for Jesus” when she asked to be spared physically demanding chores because of a back condition.

“I understood that we were all like dogs,” recounted Elizabeth, an Australian. “They tell us to sit and we sit, to get up and we get up, to roll over and we roll over.”

BURNOUT SYNDROME

Last year, Father Giovanni Cucci wrote a landmark article about abuse in convents in the Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica, whose texts are approved by the Vatican.

He found that most of it was abuse of power, including episodes of racism such as in the Minnesota convent. Cucci said the problem needed more attention because it had been overshadowed by the sexual abuse of children by priests.

In 2018, the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano exposed the plight of foreign nuns sent by their orders to work as housekeepers for cardinals and bishops in Rome with little or no remuneration.

It later chronicled a “burnout” syndrome, where younger women with good educations were held back by older superiors reluctant to relinquish a boot camp-style tradition of assigning them menial tasks, ostensibly to instill discipline and obedience.

“Whatever may have worked in a pyramidal, authoritarian context of relationships before is no longer desirable or liveable,” wrote Sister Nathalie Becquart, a French member of the Xaviere Missionary Sisters and one of the highest-ranking women in the Vatican.

Becquart wrote in the book’s preface of the “cries and sufferings” of women who entered convents because they felt a calling from God but later left because their complaints too often fell on deaf ears.

Some were stigmatized as “traitors” by their orders and had great difficultly getting jobs in the outside world.

Last year, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, who heads the Vatican department that oversees religious congregations, revealed that Pope Francis had opened a home in Rome for former nuns abandoned by their orders.

The cardinal, who has launched investigations into a number of convents, told the Vatican newspaper he was shocked to discover that there were a few cases where former nuns had to resort to prostitution to live.

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