By Francis DeBernardo
Gene and Bill had been partners for more than 50 years when I first heard their story. The two men met and fell in love when they were both 22. Because of the socially oppressive climate, it was not safe to live together as a couple, so they moved in as ‘roommates’. After one brief year, Bill developed a debilitating disease that required full-time nursing care, and he moved to a skilled facility. He remained there his entire life.
Gene visited him every day, but was unable to let staff or residents know the true nature of their relationship. He also attended Mass daily, but his relationship was hidden from fellow parishioners. Even though their relationship was invisible, it was a model of commitment and fidelity for all Catholic couples.
While his soulmate lay paralyzed, Gene remained faithful to him for more than 50 years, until Bill died.
When I heard the news that Pope Francis had made a strong public statement in support of civil unions, my first thought (after “Hallelujah!”) was of Gene and Bill. If a pope or any Catholic leader back then said that they have “a right to be part of a family,” as the pontiff remarked in a new documentary film, their lives would have been greatly eased.
Pope Francis’s support for legal protections for same-sex couples can’t change the past, but it will definitely have a great impact on the future. As the director of New Ways Ministry, I’ve been involved in educating and advocating Catholic leaders and lay people about LGBT+ issues since 1992.
I’ve seen the power that a pope’s words have on the church’s atmosphere, policies, and pastoral practice.
The words of the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, too often wounded LGBT+ people, damaged their faith lives, and pushed them from the church. Worse yet, the popes’ words often encouraged political leaders and garden variety thugs to socially and physically harm LGBT+ people. The words of these two popes are summed up in two letters: ‘NO’.
Pope Francis’s message to LGBT+ people, however, is an emphatic “Yes!”
Since he arrived at the Vatican in 2013, I have seen that his positive tone has encouraged pastors in parishes to be more welcoming to LGBT+ people, has allowed Catholic high schools to affirm their LGBT+ students, and has opened up the theological conversation on doctrine concerning gender and sexuality in bold new ways. His latest statement will push these initiatives even further.
Was the pope’s support all that I have hoped for? No, but it is a step in the right direction – and a big one at that! Change happens slowly in the church, and it happens step by step.
I hope for the day when a pope will support not only civil unions, but full and equal marriage rights, in the civil realm and in the church. I want popes and bishops to speak out against laws that criminalise LGBT+ in more than 70 nations worldwide. I want LGBT+ people, who work in church institutions, to be free of the fear they will be fired for their identity or relationship.
Those changes will come. It’s just a matter of time. Pope Francis is making that time shorter and shorter. Already in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, Catholic bishops, priests, theologians, and lay people are speaking out for the church to recognise and bless same-sex couples. More than 15 predominantly Catholic nations have legalised civil unions or marriages for lesbian and gay couples.
Gene and Bill said ‘Yes’ to their love decades ago. That ‘Yes’ is heard today in Pope Francis’s positive words. Both of these affirmations will echo into the future, in a Catholic Church where LGBT+ people can live openly, faithfully, and equally.
Francis DeBernardo is Executive Director of New Ways Ministry, a ministry of advocacy and justice for LGBT+ Catholics.
[Via Thomson Reuters Foundation]