September 9, 2015 at 12:01 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Anticipation grows ahead of Francis’ visit to U.S., Cuba
Pope, Catholic, gay news, Washington Blade

Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in D.C. on Sept. 22. (Photo by Jeon Han; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Anticipation over Pope Francis’ trip to the United States later this month continues to grow among LGBT Catholic groups, despite the Vatican’s opposition to homosexuality and marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Frank DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based group that ministers to LGBT Catholics, told the Washington Blade that members of his group are “very excited” by Francis’ visit.

“Nobody is dreading this papal visit as they did other ones where they just knew it was going to be bad,” said DeBernardo. “Nobody’s dreading it that way. People are optimistic that Francis is going to say some good things.”

Francis is scheduled to travel from Cuba to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Sept. 22.

The Argentine-born pontiff is scheduled to meet with President Obama at the White House, address Congress, canonize Junipero Serra during a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast D.C. and meet with U.S. bishops in the nation’s capital. Francis is also expected to visit St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington before traveling to New York on Sept. 24.

Francis on Sept. 25 is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly, attend an interfaith religious service at the 9/11 Memorial Museum and hold Mass at Madison Square Garden.

The pontiff on Sept. 26 is expected to travel to Philadelphia, which is hosting the World Meeting of Families. Francis is scheduled to meet with organizers of the triennial event, hold two Masses, visit Independence Hall and a local jail before returning to Rome on Sept. 27.

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, a group for LGBT Catholics, noted to the Blade that Francis’ trip to the U.S. will take place roughly three months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry throughout the country.

“It’s an incredibly interesting time for the pope to be coming to the U.S.,” said Duddy-Burke, referring to implementation of the Obergefell decision. “The country is still figuring out how to react to national same-sex marriage…he will have to address LGBT family issues in some way while he’s here.”

Francis urged to meet with LGBT Catholics

Duddy-Burke in July wrote a letter in which she, GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis and more than two-dozen other groups urged Francis to meet with LGBT Catholics while in the U.S. The Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, an independent advocacy group on the Communist island, has also asked the pontiff to highlight LGBT-specific issues while in the country.

“Many LGBT people and family members have experienced a resurgence of hope for full acceptance in our church as a result of your words and reports of personal meetings with LGBT people,” reads Duddy-Burke’s letter onto which the Latino GLBT History Project and other groups signed. “We see your visit to the U.S. as an opportunity for you to hear from us how central our faith is to our lives, and to work together towards creating a church where all families know that we are truly loved and welcomed.”

The Vatican has yet to respond to the request.

“We are still waiting to hear about a response,” Duddy-Burke told the Blade.

DeBernardo conceded the excitement surrounding Francis’ visit to the U.S. is “tempered a bit by a wish that he” would speak with LGBT Catholics and their families at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

“You have to encounter people where they really are,” DeBernardo told the Blade.

LGBT Catholics welcome Francis’ moderate tone

New Ways Ministry and other LGBT Catholic groups have welcomed the Vatican’s more moderate tone toward homosexuality and marriage rights for same-sex couples since he became pope in 2013.

The Argentine-born pontiff in the summer of 2013 told reporters that gay men and lesbians should not be judged or marginalized. Francis later told an Italian Jesuit magazine the church has grown “obsessed” with nuptials for gays and lesbians, abortion and contraception.

Francis — the former archbishop of Buenos Aires who was then known as Jorge Bergoglio — during his pontificate has met with several LGBT people. These include a transgender man from Spain who told him in a letter that some of his fellow parishioners rejected him after undergoing sex-reassignment surgery.

New Ways Ministry members in February received VIP seats at a general audience with Francis in St. Peter’s Square that coincided with Ash Wednesday. Simón Cazal, executive director of Somosgay, a Paraguayan LGBT advocacy group, in July was among the representatives of 1,600 civil society organizations who met with the pontiff during his trip to the South American country.

Pope Francis, gay news, Washington Blade

Pope Francis on Feb. 18, 2015, greets the faithful who gathered at St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican for Ash Wednesday. Members of New Ways Ministry had VIP seats during the papal audience. (Photo courtesy of Francis DeBernardo/New Ways Ministry)

The Vatican has nevertheless maintained its opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Francis in January during his trip to the Philippines repeatedly suggested that same-sex marriage threatens the family, arguing “ideological colonization” seeks to “destroy” it. Catholic bishops next month will vote to ratify a document that, among other things, states there is “no basis whatsoever to assimilate or establish analogies, even remote, between homosexual unions and God’s plan for marriage and the family.”

The Vatican earlier this month said that trans people are unable to become godparents.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia in August announced that New Ways Ministry could no longer hold a workshop at a local church that had been scheduled to take place on Sept. 26.

A Methodist congregation has agreed to host the event.

“His ministry and his leadership is having a real impact on LGBT people and families,” Duddy-Burke told the Blade, referring to Francis. “He’s going to have to say once and for all that the church teaching that gay people are damaged or inclined to evil is wrong and needs to be reconsidered. It all comes down to that.”

LGBT Federation of Argentina President Esteban Paulón, who is a vocal critic of Francis, on Tuesday described the pontiff’s trip to the U.S. and Cuba as “one of the most important geopolitical moments of the year.” The advocate nevertheless told the Blade in an email that he does not think Francis will champion LGBT-specific issues while in the two countries.

“There will neither be substantive advances, nor the possibility that the pope will include the issue in his agenda,” said Paulón.

Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a gay Cuban blogger and advocate, was equally pessimistic.

He noted in an op-ed that he wrote for Toque, a Dutch website, that Francis in 2010 described efforts to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Argentina as “the destructive affront to God’s plan.”

Rodríguez, like Paulón, concluded it is unlikely that the pontiff will meet with LGBT rights advocates while in Cuba.

“Since the beginning of his pontificate, Bergoglio has attracted attention for his innovative and progressive postures around diverse social and political issues of concern,” wrote Rodríguez. “But full recognition of sexual diversity and all types of families in a way that we as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people should have the same rights as heterosexual people still seems far away.”

Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in Cuba on Sept. 19. (Image by Kelisi; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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