In response to numerous questions over the past two weeks about Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, I have prepared the following reflection.
Many years ago I was invited by the Archdiocese of San Francisco to preach the annual Parish Mission at Most Holy Redeemer Church in the heart of the “Castro”, the gay district of that city. I was told that I had been invited to preach the mission because of my own Scripture studies, teaching and work at Newman Centre at the University of Toronto. At that time, the majority of parishioners of Holy Redeemer Church were homosexual and HIV positive. They knew what it meant to live on the fringes of society. I remember my reticence in accepting the invitation from the then-Archbishop’s office – thinking that no one would really come and listen to a Gospel message of hope and joy in the midst of a devastating epidemic, or that those who would come would have many difficulties with Church teaching. I was uncomfortable with the thought of being protested, dismissed or rejected by what I had believed to be left-wing radicals and Church dissidents in California! I was in for quite a surprise!
What I experienced at Holy Redeemer Parish that week was a very powerful and moving week of prayer, dialogue and openness to the Word of God. If ever I felt to be a bridge-builder and healer, it was that week. I learned that Most Holy Redeemer Church is a vibrant parish community consisting of many retired, elderly people of Eastern European communities as well as their new neighbours who were members of the gay community of San Francisco. But not just the gay community, but practicing gay Catholics! The very fine, elderly pastor of the church at that time told me that he ministered to the "gays and the grays", and I heard many touching stories from the elderly men and women of various ethnic backgrounds and their gay friends who ministered together to HIV/AIDS patients at home or in hospices, worshipped together, and served the homeless poor together in the neighbourhood. As part of that week-long mission, I spent hours hearing confessions and visiting those who were sick and alienated from the Church for various reasons. I shall never forget the moving celebration of mass and the anointing of the sick that drew hundreds to the Church one summer evening.
Many of the gay persons who I met that week revealed a deep spirituality and faith. And most interesting of all, the people I met asked that we, as ministers of the Church, be people of compassion and understanding, and not be afraid to teach the message of the Gospel and the Church with gentleness and clarity even in the midst of ambiguity of lifestyle, devastation, despair and hostility. As a Church and as pastoral ministers, we still have a long journey ahead of us as we welcome strangers into our midst and listen to them. Authentic teaching can only begin when we welcome others and listen to their stories.
Over the past weeks, I read many of the critical comments of Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s book, ‘Building a Bridge.’ I shook my head in bewilderment several times as I read venom and vitriol in some of the critiques. It is one thing to critique and raise questions. It is another to condemn, disparage and dismiss. I sensed palpable fear and anger in some of the negative commentaries. I made it a point to read the book in one sitting last weekend. I was astounded that what I read in commentaries, blogs, some bishops’ messages, had very little to do with what I considered to be very mild, reflections offered by a well-known Jesuit priest who simply invited people to build bridges with those who are on distant shores. Fr. Martin’s book is not dogma or doctrine. It is by no means revolutionary It is merely an invitation to sit down and talk, face-to-face with people we consider to be different. It is a point of departure rather than a door slammed shut. Some of the criticisms reveal more about those writing them, about their own deep fears, confusion, uncertainties, anger and frustration, than they do about those for whom this book is written. Whereas Fr. Martin and Pope Francis invite us to build bridges and become instruments of dialogue, critics of both Fr. Martin, the Pope, and many of us who support Pope Francis thrive in erecting high, impenetrable walls and noisy echo chambers of monologue. That two very significant Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church welcome this book and praised the need for it is not to be overlooked! Yet once again, the dark, dysfunctional side of the Catholic blogosphere also condemns those Cardinals! In the biblical lexicon of many Catholic bloggers, the stunning words St. Paul’s magnificent hymn on love (I Corinthians 13) are absent.
The Church promotes the defense of upright behavior, in addition to the changing of what should be changed, but everyone is a sinner, and the Church calls everyone to conversion, repentance, and determination. Throughout my 31 years of priestly ministry, having ministered to many persons who are L.G.B.T., gay, or all the others words we have used to describe their conditions: persons of same-sex attraction, homosexual, intrinsically disordered persons, I have tried my best to reach out, build bridges, invite people to genuine conversion, fidelity in chaste relationships, and a desire to be good citizens and good Christians. I have also realized that our language is extremely important.
At the last Synod of Bishops on the Family, I was inside the Synod and watched how some courageous bishops and Cardinals of the Church challenged their brother bishops and Synod delegates to be attentive to our language in speaking about homosexual persons. At that historic 2015 Synod, Bishops spoke about homosexuality. The very fact that this topic was being discussed so openly is a change from previous synodal discussions. I can honestly say that the Synod Fathers were genuinely trying to find a way to recognize those who live a homosexual lifestyle, but were in no way comparing such a union to Christian marriage between a man and a woman. I am especially grateful to New Zealand Cardinal John Dew who made a fervent plea to examine our ecclesial language of “intrinsically disordered” to describe homosexual persons. Such vocabulary does not invite people into dialogue nor does it build bridges. No matter how well-intentioned scholastic theology tries to describe the human condition, some words miss the mark and end up doing more harm than good. Reality is more important than lofty theological or philosophical ideas.
In Jesus we have a God who cares about Jews and Greeks, Syro-Phoenicians, Muslims, Gentiles, Christians, Buddhists, Palestinians, Italians and Serbs, Native Peoples, gay persons, single persons, women and children. We have a God who especially loves those who live on the fringes and peripheries of life. The Gospel is for each of them. To preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ without acknowledging the necessity of profound personal conversion and the free gift of God's mercy is to deny the central Christian message of conversion. To preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ without having a passion to build bridges, enter into dialogue and listen to others is to fail in our mission. To preach the Gospel and claim to be a faithful Catholic while using blogs, videos and messages to disparage, condemn and denigrate attempts at building bridges has nothing to do with Christianity. To use clerical status, episcopal authority, or other forms of leadership to dismiss, disparage or slam the efforts of those who simply want to reach those on the peripheries is not befitting of shepherds, pastors or servants of the Lord. It has nothing to do with the Gospel! It is not who we are!
One of my favourite quotes from the beloved disciple John is found in I John 4:18: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
After reading many of the critiques of Fr. Martin’s book, I think that we have a way to go yet to dispel many fears around the topic of homosexuality and arrive at perfect love among us.
I invite you to read Fr. Martin’s response to 5 common questions about his book:
Father James Martin answers 5 common questions about ‘Building a Bridge’: