Pope Francis praises priest’s work with LGBTQ Catholics

Rev. James Martin. (Photo via HRC / Youtube)

Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large for America Media, is the priest most LGBT+ Catholics have always wanted to have. Since the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June 2016, Martin has been ministering to LGBT+ Catholics.

Now even Pope Francis is lauding him for that work.

Martin wrote a book about his ministry to gay and trans people in 2017 “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.”

A documentary film about Martin’s LGBT ministry, also called “Building a Bridge,” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on June 17. The film was produced by Oscar-winning director Martin Scorcese.

In 2017, Pope Francis appointed Martin as a consultant to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications. And now Pope Francis has praised Martin’s LGBT outreach in a handwritten letter to the Jesuit.

The letter comes only a week after the Vatican voiced its opposition to an LGBT+ rights bill in the Italian senate, as PGN reported June 23.

In a letter written in his native Spanish, Pope Francis thanked Martin for a June 26 conference that Martin oversaw with 1,000 attendees about ministry to LGBTQ Catholics.

“I want to thank you for your pastoral zeal and your ability to be close to people, with the closeness Jesus had, and which reflects the closeness of God… Thinking of your pastoral work, I see that you are continually seeking to imitate this style of God,” Francis wrote. “And I pray for your faithful, your ‘flock,’ and all those whom the Lord places in your care.”

Martin, who has a large social media following, shared the original text of the letter and its English translation on Facebook and linked it on Twitter.

In the letter, Pope Francis called Martin a “priest for all men and women” and wrote that he prayed that Martin “protect them” “in the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Martin called the Pope’s message a “beautiful encouragement” to those who minister to LGBTQ Catholics.

In an email to CNN, Martin said, “Moreover, it’s a reminder to LGBTQ people everywhere that God loves them with, in Pope Francis’ words, ‘closeness, compassion and tenderness’.”

Martin has often questioned why church teachings like the ban on artificial birth control that most Catholics disagree with aren’t a focal point of the church the way teachings on LGBT+ people are.

In a June 16 interview with The Washington Post, related to the documentary’s premiere, Martin explained that he “doesn’t challenge church teachings.” Rather, Martin said he focuses providing forums for Catholic clergy, who are celibate, to talk about their sexual identity and to make Catholics more familiar with real life gay people.

In his Facebook post about the Pope’s letter, Martin explained that he’d written to the Pope to tell him that his nephew had chosen the name Francis for his confirmation name.

As an addendum, Martin also told the Pope to remember the Outreach LGBTQ Catholic Ministry Webinar, a virtual conference for LGBTQ Catholics and church leaders who oversee LGBTQ ministries.

The exchange between Martin and Pope Francis continued when the Pope responded the next day, asking Martin to “congratulate [his nephew] on the socks,” a reference to Martin’s nephew’s Pope Francis-themed socks. “That made me laugh,” the Pope wrote.

Pope Francis then wrote, “Regarding your PS, I want to thank you for your pastoral zeal and your ability to be close to people, with the closeness that Jesus had, and which reflects the closeness of God. Our Heavenly Father comes close with love to each one of his children, each and every one. His heart is open to each and everyone. He is a Father.”

The Pope continued, “Thinking about your pastoral work, I see that you are continually seeking to imitate this style of God. You are a priest for all men and women, just as God is a father for all men and women. I pray for you to continue in this way, being close, compassionate and with great tenderness.”

Pope Francis has a mixed legacy on LGBT+ rights. When asked about gay members of the clergy soon after his 2013 appointment to the papacy, he said, “Who am I to judge?”

In 2016, Pope Francis said that the church owed gay people an apology. “I believe that the church not only should apologize to the person who is gay whom it has offended,” he added, “but it has to ask forgiveness.”

At the time, Martin called the Pope’s apology to gays and lesbians “a groundbreaking moment.”

“While St. John Paul II apologized to several groups in 2000 — the Jewish people, indigenous peoples, immigrants and women, among them — no pope has ever come close to apologizing to the LGBT community,” Martin said.

Martin added, “And the Pope is correct of course. First, because forgiveness is an essential part of the Christian life. And second, because no group feels more marginalized in the church today than LGBT people.”

On a flight to Rome in 2018, Pope Francis said children who show “homosexual tendencies” should be “treated with understanding and not be condemned or ignored.”

In an appearance in a documentary released in October 2020, Pope Francis indicated support for same-sex civil unions, calling gay Catholics “children of God” who “have a right to a family.”

But in March, the Vatican said that while LGBT relationships might have “positive elements,” that “cannot justify these relationships and render them legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing.”

The Vatican said bestowing a blessing on a same-sex couple’s relationship would also be an “imitation of the nuptial blessing. God does not and cannot bless sin.”

Pope Francis did not contradict those statements.

The Washington Post reported that Aurelio Mancuso, former head of Arcigay, Italy’s leading gay rights group, said that Pope Francis’s words are vital to Catholics, even if the Vatican does not codify them formally.

“[Francis] said, regardless of catechism, tradition and theology, that these [LGBT+] people are finally within the church,” Mancuso said. “From condemnation to reception.”

In the new documentary about his work, Martin says that the Pulse nightclub shooting galvanized him to action. “I think what really struck me was the lack of response from most of the bishops in the United States,” he said.

Martin explained, “In other gun tragedies, the U.S. bishops and local bishops will say we stand with the victims of wherever it is. I couldn’t believe that there was only a handful of bishops that said anything. It was at that time the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. And they were silent.”

Martin said, “It just really angered me that even in death, these people were largely invisible to the church.”

The Vatican’s official news organization reported on the note to Martin from the Pope.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.