By Michael O’Loughlin
When Carol Baltosiewich was a Catholic nun, she spent 10 years caring for young men dying from AIDS. Even so, the first time I spoke to her, in 2016, I was terrified to tell her I’m gay.
As a reporter who covers the church, I had started interviewing Catholics who worked and fought during the height of the H.I.V. crisis in the United States, roughly 1982 to 1996. People like Ms. Baltosiewich persisted amid frequent hostility from church leaders toward gay people and the broader stigmas of the time. A poll in 1987 found that 43 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, “AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior.”
A Catholic myself, I’d long internalized that being honest about my sexual orientation could be dangerous. L.G.B.T. people have been fired from their jobs at Catholic organizations. Some groups supporting L.G.B.T. Catholics have been barred from parishes. So even someone like Ms. Baltosiewich, who has loved and served countless gay men, could feel risky.
But my conversations with Ms. Baltosiewich and others like her — the fellowship, gratitude and moments of revelation we exchanged — had a profound effect on my own faith. So much so that recently, I wrote a letter to Pope Francis to share the book I wrote based on those conversations, and even to tell him a little about myself as a gay Catholic. To my surprise, he wrote back. His words offer me encouragement that dialogue is possible between L.G.B.T. Catholics and church leaders, even at the highest levels.
When I first learned about Ms. Baltosiewich’s work, I was tempted to describe her as a hero nurse-nun who showed compassion to gay men with AIDS at a time when so many other people refused to help. And she was. But what gets lost in that framing of her story is the reality of how the individuals she met through this ministry broadened her understanding of God’s love and ultimately made her a better Christian.
Ms. Baltosiewich can trace this change to a particular moment. She had moved to Manhattan from her home in Belleville, Ill., to learn about AIDS ministry. She was sitting on the stoop of the convent in Hell’s Kitchen where she was staying when she noticed a young man, Robert, walking toward her. He was visibly upset. Ms. Baltosiewich recognized him from the hospital where she volunteered and asked what happened.
His partner was dying from AIDS and there was nothing he could do to help. Robert broke down in tears. Ms. Baltosiewich held him.
She knew what her church taught about homosexuality. She remembered her own initial discomfort at the thought of romantic love between two men. But in that moment, as she held Robert, she thought about the love and concern he showed his partner and, she remembers thinking, “You couldn’t say it was wrong.”
I’ve felt isolated and alone at times as a gay Catholic trying to find a place in the church. I stay partly for cultural reasons, taking comfort in practicing the faith of my ancestors. I also find order and meaning in Catholicism, especially when life feels unpredictable. With U.S. bishops meeting in Baltimore this week, following months of debate about the worthiness of some Catholics to receive Communion, I’ve realized that personally, I stay in the church mostly for the Eucharist, that ritual during Mass when I believe the divine transcends our ordinary lives and God is present. I haven’t found that elsewhere.
Still, there have been moments when I felt that I had no choice but to leave, that the hypocrisy and judgment were too great. I once went so far as to begin the process of being received into the Episcopal Church but didn’t follow through. I sometimes wonder if I should have, like the time I sat at a dinner in Rome and listened to another Catholic criticize Pope Francis and suggest that despite the pope’s “Who am I to judge?” attitude, gays would, in fact, burn in hell.
But my encounters with people like Ms. Baltosiewich have been transformative, so much so that when I decided this past summer to write a letter to Pope Francis about my book, the fear I had once felt with Ms. Baltosiewich was gone. I told him that I am a gay Catholic journalist and that these stories of encounter have the power to change lives. I told him about the many L.G.B.T. Catholics I’ve interviewed, who are barely hanging on to their faith.
Later, when I saw the white envelope with the return address of the Vatican Embassy in Washington, I froze. Pope Francis had written back.
“Querido hermano,” began the letter. The letter was in Spanish, Pope Francis’ native tongue, but it’s been translated into English for this article. “Dear brother. I thank you for the letter and the book, which you wrote.”
“As I finished reading your letter,” the pope continued, invoking the Gospel of Matthew, “I was spontaneously struck by that through which we will one day be judged: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me.’”
I read on.
“Thank you for shining a light on the lives and bearing witness to the many priests, religious sisters and lay people, who opted to accompany, support and help their brothers and sisters who were sick from H.I.V. and AIDS at great risk to their profession and reputation.”
Then he offered a decades-delayed papal blessing on the work undertaken by people like Ms. Baltosiewich.
“Instead of indifference, alienation and even condemnation,” Pope Francis continued, “these people let themselves be moved by the mercy of the Father and allowed that to become their own life’s work; a discreet mercy, silent and hidden, but still capable of sustaining and restoring the life and history of each one of us.”
“Again, I thank you and ask that the Father bless you and the Virgin Mary care for you, and please, don’t forget to pray for me,” he concluded, signing off, “Fraternally, Francis.”
I’m not under any illusions that a letter, even one signed by the pope, will heal the wounds some Catholics imparted decades ago. Or that this might finally be the moment when Francis changes church teaching on homosexuality. In fact, under his leadership, the Vatican has doubled down, releasing what many read as a reiteration of the ban on gay priests. More recently, the Vatican stated that while the church should welcome gay people “with respect and sensitivity,” God “does not and cannot bless sin” and thus declared priests cannot bless gay couples.
But Christians are called to have hope, and so for now, I still do.
Ms. Baltosiewich’s world was altered through her encounters with gay men more than 30 years ago. She has since left the order of nuns she was part of during her years of AIDS ministry and joined the Sisters for Christian Community, a non-canonical group, but remains a Catholic. When I called to read her the letter, she told me her eyes filled with tears.
My faith has been edified through my interactions with Ms. Baltosiewich. And now, with a papal blessing on this kind of work, perhaps church leaders — maybe even the pope — will be transformed in how they see L.G.B.T. people and others whose faith is lived on the margins. If they don’t, imagine what the church will have lost.
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Pope honors Catholic priests, nuns who cared for HIV victims
By Associated Press
Pope Francis has paid tribute to Catholic priests, nuns and laypeople who helped care for people with HIV and AIDS during the early period of the epidemic in the U.S. “at great risk to their profession and reputation.”
Francis offered the words of praise in a letter to Michael O’Loughlin, national correspondent for the Jesuit magazine America, who wrote the book “Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear,” out this month.
“Instead of indifference, alienation and even condemnation these people let themselves be moved by the mercy of the Father and allowed that to become their own life’s work; a discreet mercy, silent and hidden, but still capable of sustaining and restoring the life and history of each one of us,” Francis wrote.
O’Loughlin provided the text of Francis’ Aug. 17 letter in an essay published Monday in the New York Times, recounting his experience as a gay Catholic reporting the project and the tensions in the 1980s among the Catholic hierarchy, the gay community and AIDS activists to confront the epidemic.
In the letter, Francis thanked O’Loughlin “for shining a light on the lives and bearing witness to the many priests, religious sisters and lay people, who opted to accompany, support and help their brothers and sisters who were sick from HIV and AIDS at great risk to their profession and reputation.”
Francis’ letter was praised by the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit and editor at large of America who has advocated for the Catholic Church to build bridges with the LGBT community. In an email, Martin said Francis’ letter “is another significant step in the pope’s continual outreach to LGBTQ people.”
The Vatican holds that gay people must be treated with dignity and respect, but that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered.”
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Stop suppressing Catholics, outspoken nun tells Australian church leaders
An outspoken US nun who was recently embroiled in a censorship row with Melbourne’s Archbishop has warned Australia’s Catholic Church it faces an inevitable decline unless it stops suppressing rank-and-file members pushing for reform.
The nation’s bishops are under pressure to overhaul the church after years of sex scandals and internal unrest, and one of America’s most prominent Benedictine nuns, Sister Joan Chittister, has now renewed calls for women to be ordained and for laypeople to be given more power over their parishes, declaring that the church needs to “grow up” if it wants to thrive.
Such reforms were meant to be thrashed out at the most significant conference Australian Catholic bishops have held in 80 years, the Plenary Council, which is scheduled to take place in October.
However, working documents prepared for the event have prompted concerns that some of the more contentious issues on the agenda could be cast aside or not addressed properly by the bishops, despite past assurances that “everything is on the table”.
“Everyone knows that the church in Australia needs a major overhaul of its governance, culture and structures, but instead of setting out a clear, concise and coherent blueprint for reform, this document is a ground plan for inertia,” said Catholics for Renewal president Peter Wilkinson. “It is very disappointing.”
Sister Joan, who this month headlined an event by the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald she shared concerns that “suppression by the bishops” would impede much-needed improvements. This, she warned, would prompt more members to abandon their parishes.
“There are one of two ways that this can end. The bishops can embrace the concerns and the need for resolution or they continue to ignore the laity – at which point the church will some day wake up in the morning and find out that the church is in fact gone.”
In a speech to a 3000-strong audience this month, Sister Joan added: “Catholicism must grow up, beyond the parochial to the global, beyond one system and one tradition to a broader way of looking at life … Why not married priests, women priests, or women cardinals?”
Sister Joan is a writer, feminist and theologian who has spent 50 years advocating for social justice and church reform. However, the prominent US nun found herself at the centre of an Australian censorship saga two years ago, when she was disendorsed from speaking at a Catholic education conference soon after Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli learnt of plans to include her.
The snub prompted a fierce backlash from rank-and-file Catholics, but the Archdiocese initially sought to dismiss the matter as a misunderstanding, saying the Archbishop had simply requested “that more names aligned to the themes of a national Catholic education conference be considered”.
Sister Joan disagreed, describing the episode as an “insult” to the Catholic education system.
“Of course it was censorship; there wasn’t any doubt about that,” she said this week. “Nobody has a right to tell anybody else what to think. That is not helpful to any organisation – state or church. You’re only burning it down from the bottom up if you do that.”
Sister Joan’s appearance in Australia comes at a critical moment for the church ahead of October’s Plenary Council. Expectations were high in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, which found the hierarchical nature of the church, coupled with its lack of governance, had created “a culture of deferential obedience” in which the protection of paedophile priests was left unchallenged.
However, rank-and-file Catholics have become increasingly concerned about the church’s will to change. Such fears were compounded in March when a working document prepared for the Plenary Council did not give enough credence to critical issues that members have been seeking to address.
Peter Johnstone, the head of the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, urged Australia’s bishops to use the Plenary Council to genuinely tackle the “existential crisis” the church faces.
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Vatican women’s magazine blames drop in nuns on abuses
By Nicole Winfield
The Vatican women’s magazine is blaming the drastic drop in the number of nuns worldwide in part on their wretched working conditions and the sexual abuse and abuses of power they suffer at the hands of priests and their own superiors.
“Women Church World” dedicated its February issue to the burnout, trauma and exploitation experienced by religious sisters and how the church is realizing it must change its ways if it wants to attract new vocations.
The magazine published Thursday revealed that Pope Francis had authorized the creation of a special home in Rome for nuns who were kicked out of their orders and all but left on the street, some forced into prostitution to survive.
“There are some really tough cases, in which the superiors withheld the identity documents of the sisters who wanted to leave the convent, or who were kicked out,” the head of the Vatican’s religious orders congregation, Cardinal Joao Braz di Aviz, told the magazine.
“There were also cases of prostitution to be able to provide for themselves,” he said. “These are ex-nuns!”
“We are dealing with people who are wounded, and for whom we have to rebuild trust. We have to change this attitude of rejection, the temptation to ignore these people and say ‘you’re not our problem anymore.’’”
“All of this must absolutely change,” he said.
The Catholic Church has seen a continuing free fall in the number of nuns around the world, as elderly sisters die and fewer young ones take their place. Vatican statistics from 2016 show the number of sisters was down 10,885 from the previous year to 659,445 globally. Ten years prior, there were 753,400 nuns around the world, meaning the Catholic Church shed nearly 100,000 sisters in the span of a decade.
European nuns regularly fare the worst, Latin American numbers are stable and the numbers are rising in Asia and Africa.
The magazine has made headlines in the past with articles exposing the sexual abuse of nuns by priests and the slave-like conditions sisters are often forced to work under, without contracts and doing menial jobs like cleaning for cardinals.
The drop in their numbers has resulted in the closure of convents around Europe, and the ensuing battle between the remaining sisters and diocesan bishops or the Vatican for control of their assets.
Braz insisted the assets don’t belong to the sisters themselves, but the entire church, and called for a new culture of exchange, so that “five nuns aren’t managing an enormous patrimony” while other orders go broke.
Braz acknowledged the problem of nuns being sexually abused by priests and bishops. But he said in recent times, his office has also heard from nuns who were abused by other nuns — including one congregation with nine cases.
There were also cases of gross abuses of power.
“We’ve had cases, not many thank goodness, of superiors who once they were elected refused to step down. They went around all the rules,” he was quoted as saying. “And in the communities there are sisters who tend to blindly obey, without saying what they think.”
The international umbrella group of nuns has begun speaking out more forcefully about the abuses of nuns and has formed a commission with its male counterpart to take better care of their members.
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70 Catholics arrested in D.C. protest over Trump immigration policies
The Lord’s Prayer filled the marble dome of the Russell Senate Office Building on Thursday as 70 Catholic sisters, clergy and parishioners were led away in handcuffs.
“Forgive us our trespasses,” the demonstrators recited, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
On a day they dubbed the “Catholic Day of Action,” hundreds of Catholics gathered outside the Capitol to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies and its treatment of migrants.
“We hope that by being here and putting our bodies on the line, we can give people, members of Congress, courage to do the right thing,” said Sister Marge Clark, from the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “It’s important to go beyond words, to put your body where your words are, where your beliefs are.”
In their hands and fastened to their bodies, demonstrators carried photographs of migrant children who died in federal custody into the Russell building, where more than 30 senators have offices. As five protesters lay on the floor of the rotunda to make the shape of a cross with their bodies, the group recited the children’s names:
“Darlyn,” protesters chanted in unison. “Jakelin. Felipe. Juan. Wilmer. Carlos.”
Thursday’s demonstration was the second protest this week in which people of faith decried Immigration and Customs Enforcement and called for an end to the federal practice of detaining migrants at crowded detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ten Jewish demonstrators were arrested Tuesday for refusing to leave the lobby of ICE headquarters in Southwest Washington. More than 100 others locked arms and formed barriers around the building’s doors and garage, disrupting the agency’s daily operations.
Thursday’s protest, which called for an end to child detention, was organized by a coalition of more than 15 Catholic groups, including the Sisters of Mercy, Faith in Action and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
“We are here today because of our faith. The gospel compels us to act,” Sister Ann Scholz, associate director for LCWR’s social mission, told the crowd. “We are outraged at the horrific treatment of families and especially children. The inhumane treatment of children being done in our name must stop.”
Though Pope Francis and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have long affirmed their support for migrants and refugees, Catholic voters are split on the issue of immigration, according to surveys conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center.
Catholic Democrats are more likely than Catholic Republicans to view immigration as a boon rather than a burden to the United States — 86 percent to 47 percent — and are more likely to oppose expanding a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We can and must remain a country that provides refuge for children and families fleeing violence, persecution and acute poverty,” the Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in a statement last month. “All people, regardless of their country of origin or legal status, are made in the image of God and should be treated with dignity and respect.”
Claribel Guzman, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, bounced her 17-month-old daughter in her arms Thursday as demonstrators read aloud the words of migrant children detained at federal facilities.
Guzman, afraid of being deported to a country she fears and of being separated from her child, said she has been weighing her options. Maybe, she said, she would seek sanctuary at a local church.
Later, as Franciscan brothers in brown robes were arrested alongside Catholic sisters, Guzman looked on, her head shaking slightly.
“This is my fight now, for my daughter,” she said in Spanish. “It’s very frustrating, very difficult. I am alone here. But in this moment, seeing people like this helps me.”
The demonstration came less than a week after President Trump promised a crush of immigration raids in cities around the country. Though they failed to materialize Sunday as the president promised — Trump said he wanted agents “to take people out and take them back to their countries” — several sisters who work with immigrants said they have seen a lingering fear grip their communities.
“It’s so much worse now. So much worse than we’ve ever seen it, and every day my stomach sinks when something new comes out,” said Sister JoAnn Persch, 85, a Chicago nun with the Sisters of Mercy. “But you know what I’ve learned? I’ve learned that nuns have power. And that’s why we’re here.”
Persch and Sister Pat Murphy, 90, began working with immigrants in 1990, when they took over Su Casa, a Chicago refuge for Central American women, children and torture survivors. In 2007, they began sitting vigil outside the Broadview Detention Center, an ICE facility near Chicago that is often a last stop before immigrants are sent back to their home countries.
They return every Friday — no matter the weather — to pray the rosary.
“Those little children and their mothers and fathers coming across the border, those who are here in the United States, are maligned, called names. It’s rude, crude, disgusting,” Murphy said. “The climate in the country now is very sad, and it’s scary. It’s a scary time.”
The sisters were among about 50 nuns who participated in Thursday’s act of civil disobedience.
As police officers led the last group away, hands zip-tied behind their backs, the demonstrators sang a hymn.
All that remained were photographs of the deceased children, scattered across the Capitol’s hard, cold ground.
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