Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, who is the prefect of the papal household, set aside tickets for 50 people who are currently in Italy with the Maryland-based New Ways Ministry after Sister Jeannine Gramick, who co-founded the group, wrote to Francis and asked him to meet with the pilgrims during their visit to the Vatican.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, told the Washington Blade on Wednesday during a telephone interview from Rome that he thought Gaenswein had reserved “just ordinary seats” for them until the group’s tour manager went to the Vatican to pick them.
“She came back and she was astonished; we were all astonished,” said DeBernardo. “She said you have VIP seats. We didn’t even know what that meant.”
DeBernardo told the Blade that he, Gramick and the LGBT pilgrims who traveled to the Vatican with New Ways Ministry were able to sit directly behind Francis during the audience that coincided with Ash Wednesday.
Members of the group did not have an opportunity to shake Francis’ hand, but they sang the hymn “All Are Welcome” as the pontiff passed them in his open-air car known as the pope-mobile. DeBernardo told the Blade the pilgrims “called out a couple of times in unison we are gay and lesbian Catholics.”
“[It] didn’t get us any recognition, but on the same token it didn’t get us kicked out either,” said DeBernardo.
The Associated Press reported that Francis did not acknowledge New Ways Ministry by name during the audience. The newswire further noted the Vatican described the LGBT pilgrims as “a group of lay people accompanied by a Sister of Loretto” in a list of attendees it published.
DeBernardo told the Blade that members of his group were “basically ignored” when they visited the Vatican during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
He described Wednesday’s audience as “just thrilling,” even though the pilgrims did not have the opportunity to meet Francis.
“People from our group were in tears,” said DeBernardo.
Church cannot ‘condemn anyone for eternity’
The Vatican’s tone towards LGBT Catholics, marriage rights for same-sex couples and other issues has moderated since Francis became pope in March 2013.
Francis — who is the former archbishop of Buenos Aires — in July 2013 told reporters who asked him about the reported homosexuality of a man he appointed to oversee the Vatican bank that gay men and lesbians should not be judged or marginalized. An Italian Jesuit magazine a few months later published an interview with the Argentine-born pontiff during which he said the church has grown “obsessed” with gay marriage, abortion and contraception.
Francis last November demoted an American cardinal who is an outspoken critic of nuptials for gays and lesbians and abortion. The pontiff on Jan. 24 had a private audience with a transgender man from Spain who told him that fellow parishioners at his church shunned him after undergoing sex-reassignment surgery.
Francis on Sunday told a group of new cardinals and bishops who were attending a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica the “way of the church is not to condemn anyone for eternity.”
DeBernardo on Wednesday acknowledged to the Blade that he is “not sure” if Francis personally read Granick’s request to meet with the LGBT pilgrims who traveled to the Vatican with New Ways Ministry. He nevertheless categorized the decision to give them VIP seats as another way he feels the church is changing its tone towards them and other marginalized groups.
“The fact that his staff is recognizing that this is a good thing to do tells me that he’s setting a tone in the Vatican for pray to welcome of groups that have been alienated and distanced from the church,” said DeBernardo. “Underlings don’t do anything that they think will get their boss angry.”
Francis backed Slovak marriage, adoption referendum
LGBT Catholics and advocates alike remain critical of the Vatican in spite of Francis’ more moderate tone towards same-sex marriage and other issues.
The pontiff earlier this month urged Slovak voters to support proposed amendments to their country’s constitution that would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman and banned gays and lesbians from adopting children. Francis’ picture appeared on billboards in support of the Feb. 7 referendum that ultimately failed because of insufficient voter turnout.
The Argentine-born pontiff last month suggested during his trip to the Philippines that nuptials for gays and lesbians threaten the family. Francis in 2010 described Argentina’s same-sex marriage bill as “the work of the devil” before President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed it into law.
Catholic bishops who attended a meeting on the family at the Vatican last October released a document that said gay unions are not “remotely analogous” to “God’s plan for marriage and the family.”
DeBernardo on Wednesday conceded to the Blade that he feels Francis is not going to be the pope who spurs the church to recognize and bless same-sex couples, extend support to gay families and back “the changes that we really want to see.”
“What he has done is he has opened a discussion,” added DeBernardo. “That is a first step that we have been waiting decades for to happen. An institution like the Catholic Church is not going to change radically overnight. It’s going to be an evolution.”
“He has at least gotten the ball rolling,” he said. “He’s doing it I think in a good way.”