In a scene from Building a Bridge, a documentary about Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s LGBTQ advocacy in the Catholic Church, there’s a pre-Pride Mass happening at St. Francis of Assisi church in New York City. Martin wears rainbow socks under his green liturgical vestments as he processes in behind a person waving rainbow streamers. “Come all you people, come praise your maker,” people sing as they clap their hands.
In his homily during Mass, Martin says, “Lately I’ve been hearing that it’s not enough for the Catholic Church to be welcoming, affirming, and inclusive … because those are the minimum. Instead, LGBTQ Catholics should fully expect to participate in all the ministries in your church, not just being welcomed and affirmed and included, but leading.”
Building a Bridge, directed by Evan Mascagni and Shannon Post, with executive producer Martin Scorsese, premiered on June 15, 2021 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It was inspired by Martin’s 2017 book of the same name, which calls for Catholics to show “compassion, respect, and sensitivity” — words taken from the Catechism (doctrine) of the Catholic Church — toward LGBTQ people. The film began streaming on AMC+ on June 21 and will be available on Sundance TV starting June 26.
The filmmakers tell the stories of LGBTQ Catholics and their families with gentleness and respect. “Nothing converts like stories,” Martin says in the film.
“Every person’s story is holy because it’s usually a story about how they are trying to find God in their lives,” Martin told Sojourners. “One of the things that this movie does is really raise up lots of different stories for people to listen to and encounter.”
The 2016 Pulse massacre, when a gunman killed 49 people at the gay nightclub in Orlando, galvanized Martin to write Building a Bridge. “I couldn’t believe there were only a handful of bishops that said anything,” Martin said in the film. “It really angered me, that even in death these people were largely invisible to the church.”
The documentary follows Martin in the years after the publication of his book — to church talks, people’s homes, the 2018 World Meeting of Families in Dublin, and to the Vatican where he visited Pope Francis in 2019.
“Where we are now in the Catholic Church, I call it an early spring,” Fr. Bryan Massingale, a priest and theologian, said in the film, explaining that Pope Francis is “thawing” the church’s strained relationship with the LGBTQ community. “[There’s] still a winter chill in the air. It’s also a very messy and muddled time.” The camera shows Martin tending to beds of flowers on the rooftop garden of his Jesuit house in New York City.
Catholic Church teaching “is not only against same-sex marriage, but the language the catechism [uses when referencing homosexuality] is ‘intrinsically disordered or objectively disordered,’” Martin told Sojourners. “A lot of LGBTQ people, if not most, tell me they find it a real stumbling block. Most of them make their peace with that in their conscience and go, ‘look, I’m still Catholic even though my life may not fully conform to that.’”
Martin receives slews of hateful messages and personal attacks online and in protests at his talks for his ministry. One of these antagonizers is Michael Voris, founder of Church Militant, a right-wing Catholic group and website, who was interviewed in the film.
Building a Bridge also touches on valid criticisms of Martin’s bridge-building approach. Xorje Olivares, an LGBTQ ministry team member at the New York-based Out at St. Paul, said, “I don’t like how it seems as though we are meant to meet the church halfway when the church is the one that’s pushing us aside.” Martin, hearing this, wrote in the second edition of Building a Bridge that the onus for bridge-building must come from the church, which has caused the harm and holds the power.
At times, Martin’s words feel shallow because he doesn’t directly advocate for changing harmful church teaching. Martin is clear that he isn’t challenging church teaching, “because I’m a Jesuit priest and I take a vow of obedience for things I can and cannot say,” he said. Martin sees his role as creating space within the institutional church where LGBTQ people can be heard and advocated for. “I’m coloring within the lines,” he told Sojourners. “Within those boundaries there’s a lot you can do.”
“He’s brought the concerns of the LGBTQ community into the church in a way that really only someone on the inside could do,” said Jason Steidl, a Catholic theologian, in the film.
In one scene, Christine Leinonen, whose son Drew was killed in the Pulse massacre at age 32, sits in the pews of a church next to Martin, expressing with tears her grief at the senseless loss of her son. “Do you ever pray with Mary and just talk to her like that, as one mother to another?” Martin asks her, as the camera cuts to a statue of Mary in front of them. “This is a mother whose son was executed at 33 by people who hated him and who had done nothing wrong.”
At its core, Building a Bridge is an hour-and-a-half-long invitation to change your mind, even if the path toward justice and inclusion feels lonely and messy. “All of us are fundamentally insecure when it comes to sexuality,” Massingale says in the film. “Our very bodies are on the line. You cannot deal with these issues without touching upon our deep vulnerability as human beings.”
Martin said he hopes everyone, but especially LGBTQ youth, watch the film. “I often say that my target audience is a 15-year-old kid, male or female or transgender, who is in his/her/their bedroom, wondering if God loves them and if there’s a place for them in the church,” Martin told Sojourners. Martin’s underlying message is simple: LGBTQ people, in being who they are, are a gift to the church.
“God loves you,” Martin says to someone at a book signing, quoting Fr. Howard Gray. “And your church is learning to love you.”