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Rome’s no doesn’t stop Mass at New Ways conference

Louisville, Ky.

In the 25 years since its founding, New Ways Ministry has never been informed by any church officials that it was under investigation or sanction by the church. So its endorsers greeted with astonishment and anger the news that a Vatican official had requested the local bishop here to forbid the celebration of the Eucharist during the group’s fifth national symposium, whose theme was, “Out of Silence God Has Called Us.”

New Ways Ministry describes itself as a national Catholic ministry of justice, dialogue and reconciliation for lesbian and gay Catholics and the wider church community. But according to Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, New Ways “does not promote the authentic teaching of the Catholic church.”

So Bertone wrote to Louisville’s Archbishop Thomas Kelly directing him to forbid eucharistic celebrations during the March 8-10 gathering. “Because of the confusion and scandal which will inevitably arise from this event, this congregation asks your excellency to inform organizers of the symposium that they do not have permission to celebrate the Eucharist as part of their conference,” Bertone wrote.

New Ways Ministry leaders, after conferring with canon lawyers, decided to celebrate the Eucharist at the conference with retired Bishop Leroy Matthiesen of Amarillo, Texas, presiding.

“I was not given any instructions from the Vatican or Archbishop Kelly not to do the Mass,” Matthiesen said. “The example of Jesus was not to exclude but to include.” He added that presiding “seemed such a natural thing to do.”

Kelly, who did not attend the symposium, encouraged participants to attend Mass at the Cathedral of the Assumption, located a few blocks from Galt House, the hotel where the conference was held.

After consulting with canon lawyers, New Ways leaders determined that, in accord with Lumen Gentium, a Second Vatican Council document, they did not need permission to celebrate the Eucharist. “The local ordinary [bishop], not the Vatican, is the regulator of the Eucharist in a particular diocese,” the group said in a news release.

The congregation “was trying to deny permission” when such “permission was not needed,” explained the organization’s executive director Francis DeBernardo.

A number of symposium endorsers and participants expressed anger that the Eucharist was used as a “weapon” or “reward,” DeBernardo said. He explained, however, that intercessory prayers would be offered during the Mass for church unity. DeBernardo said that it was the organization’s hope that all church members, “specifically gay and lesbian Catholics, will always feel welcome at the table of Jesus.”

More than 500 persons attended the Mass at the symposium, and most received Communion.

It did not go unnoticed that Matthiesen wore a rainbow-colored alb, or that rainbow-colored banners graced the background of the conference stage. Rainbow colors are a symbol of the gay and lesbian community and gay pride.

“I experienced a feeling of unity and solidarity,” said Fr. Richard P. Lewandowski, pastor of St. Camillus de Lellis Parish, Fitchburg, Mass., and campus minister at nearby Fitchburg College.

Hailing from the Worcester, Mass., Lewandowski said he has been deeply affected by the continuing saga of clerical sexual misconduct in the Boston archdiocese.

The situation in Boston was indeed on the minds of symposium participants, with many expressing sadness and astonishment as the ever-expanding scandal of clerical sexual abuse of children spreads outside the New England region to other parts of the country.

“Something has to be done,” Lewandowski said. So throughout the symposium, he asked dozens, if not hundreds, of attendees to sign two pledges of “Catholic solidarity.”

One is for “our solidarity, prayers and support to the priests and people of Boston.” The other solidarity poster pledged similar prayer and support to all “gay bishops and priests” during this “defining moment for the universal church,” he said.

Like Lewandowski, many of the symposium’s participants were priests. Some of them are gay. One symposium focus session was on the issue of gay men in the priesthood and religious life, a timely topic, given the recent statement of Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls on the ordination of gays. Navarro-Valls told The New York Times that “people with homosexual inclinations just cannot be ordained. That does not imply a final judgment of people with homosexuality. But you cannot be in this field.”

Nevertheless, Franciscan Fr. Ralph Parthie oversaw two workshops sessions in which priests, gay and non-gay alike, discussed everything from “how to deal with a homophobic bishop,” to coming out of the closet to one’s self, to fellow priests, families and friends and even parishioners. Parthie has ministered to and with gay priests and religious for 20 years.

A similar focus session dealt with lesbian nuns and their struggle to “integrate their lesbian members more fully.” The focus of the New Ways conference was to address gay and lesbian ministry in the church, with the aim of developing wide-ranging programs and policies of interest to lesbian and gay Catholic and their families.

Another highlight of the symposium was New Ways’ issuing a 12-point strategic plan called “Lesbian and Gay Ministry in the Catholic Church: A Vision for the Future,” which can be found at www.NewWaysMinistry.org.

“Gay and lesbian ministry has grown in the church,” said DeBernardo. “It can no longer be a marginalized concern.”

In releasing the strategic plan, DeBernardo said that New Ways would undergo a yearlong process of seeking endorsements from Catholic organizations and individuals.

The purpose is to demonstrate a sensus fidelium or “sense of the faithful,” he said. “We hope to show church leaders that the Catholic people want their church to be a more welcoming place for its gay and lesbian members.”

The schedule of workshop sessions covered a substantial range of topics. Through plenary sessions and workshops, for example, the symposia organizers targeted teachers and principals, campus and youth ministers, seminary leaders and parish workers.

Topics of discussion concerned parish-based programs that welcome gay people, including church employment policies that protect lesbians and gay men who are public about their sexual orientations. Another workshop explored the development of a Catholic safe-schools program. Yet another discussion called for a theological re-visioning of the church’s condemnation of same-sex marriage.

A major constituency at the symposium was Catholic parents with gay and lesbian children. Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, who has become an increasingly visible and outspoken advocate for compassionate pastoral ministry with gays, addressed parents’ concerns.

During a Catholic pre-symposium conference organized by New Ways associate director Linda McCullough, Gumbleton acknowledged that the “church has a long way to go.” Gumbleton also addressed what for many Catholic parents are the four most difficult words to understand in Catholic church teaching about their sons’ and daughters’ homosexuality and its same-sex expression -- “objective disorder” and “intrinsic evil.” With regard to such terminology, which hints at gay people’s moral dysfunction, Gumbleton said those words are, “such an extreme thing to say about anyone.”

Gumbleton also made a case for primacy of conscience in matters of sexual morality. “We don’t put people out of the church for following their conscience,” Gumbleton said in reference to a recent acknowledgement by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at Georgetown University that he disagrees with church teaching on the death penalty. “No one is suggesting that he shouldn’t receive holy Communion,” Gumbleton said.

Eugene Kennedy, a syndicated columnist, psychology professor emeritus at Loyola University-Chicago and author of The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality, spoke poetically, mythically and metaphorically about the church’s difficulty with human sexuality. By using the Arthurian myth of the Grail King, Kennedy explained the church’s discomfort with sexuality in terms of an “unhealed wound.” According to the myth, King Anfortas was “wounded in a joust, by a poisoned spear through his testicles, so severely he could not be healed.”

Unhealed people who are sexually wounded, Kennedy said, abuse and victimize others. “The sexual abuse of children is the same pattern the church uses in relation to its own people,” he said.

Kennedy also took aim at the institutional church. “Church as hierarchy has collapsed,” he said, comparing the nationwide clerical sexual abuse of children to the collapse of World Trade Center towers.

NCR’s Rome correspondent John L. Allen Jr., spoke about the Vatican and homosexuality in a talk titled, “From Stonewall to Stonewalling.”

Dominican Fr. Bruce Williams, a moral theology professor at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome, reflected on the pastoral implications of the case of Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent, who were silenced by the Vatican and prohibited in 1999 from pastoral ministry with gay and lesbian Catholics. Gramick and Nugent are the founders of New Ways Ministry. Williams served as their theological adviser during the Vatican investigation of their ministry and writings.

“For any pastoral ministry worthy of the name, honest conversation is the fundamental requisite,” Williams said. “The politics of pastoral ministry,” he said, “seems clear. We must do all we can to promote honest conversation in the church about matters of concern to lesbian and gay members, as well as to bring about the kind of free and open church climate in which that conversation takes place.”

A final plenary session featured Gregory Baum, religious studies professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Baum, a key figure in the Second Vatican Council, focused on homosexual love and the church’s natural law tradition.

He said, “the entire teaching of sexuality must be reviewed” before the church undertakes any serious consideration of homosexual love and marriage or “holy unions” for gay couples.

“Rethinking the role of sexuality and the role of sex in the context of marriage” is key, Baum said.

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002