Whenever people try to exclude LGBT Catholics from the life of the church, they are “tearing apart the body of Christ,” Fr. James Martin told the standing-room-only crowd that packed a tented hangar Aug 23. at an international meeting of Catholic families in Dublin, Ireland.
“At the World Meeting of Families, this is an important aspect: By not welcoming, by excluding LGBT Catholics, the church is falling short of its call to be God’s family,” said Martin, the New York-based Jesuit priest, bestselling author, and editor-at-large of America magazine.
In fact, a number of people tried to have Martin, whose latest book is Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, excluded from the tri-annual international Catholic event celebrating marriage and family as “the cornerstone” of society and the church. Reportedly, more than 10,000 people signed a petition promoted by the Irish branch of the conservative Catholic group, Tradition, Family, Property (TFP) asking Dublin’s Catholic archbishop to rescind Martin’s invitation to speak at the World Meeting of Families.
The unsuccessful effort to bar Martin from the event was the latest episode in an ongoing controversy over LGBT Catholics and the World Meeting of Families event, where Pope Francis is set to appear on Saturday during his two-day visit to Ireland, his first since becoming leader of the world’s nearly 1.3 billion Roman Catholics in 2013.
Late last year, several images depicting what could be interpreted as LGBT couples — two young men seated on a couch studying a Bible, a young woman comforting another young woman in a seated side-hug, two hoodie-wearing male youths hugging, and two faceless young women, one with a rainbow tattoo, embracing — appeared in a booklet distributed to scores of parishes throughout Ireland in preparation for the five-day WMF gathering. Members of the TFP complained and subsequently, the images and accompanying text that was argued supported the “explicit promotion of homosexual relationships as a form of family,” were replaced and the booklets reissued.
“The most important thing we can do for LGBT Catholics is to welcome them into what is already their church,” Martin told the crowd Thursday. “They are Catholic. That sounds obvious, but parishes need to remember that LGBT people are baptized Catholics. They are as much a part of the church as Pope Francis, your local bishop, your pastor, or me. It’s not a question about ‘making’ them Catholic. They already are.”
During his 45-minute World Meeting of Families address, a series of images, each of LGBT Catholics and their families, appeared on a large screen behind Martin as he spoke. Each time the picture changed, Martin took a moment to introduce it.
“Those are the parents of a transgender child … Here’s a photo from an LGBT retreat,” he said. “This is Philip, he’s been cantor in our parish for 20 years.”
Over the years, Martin has heard the “most appalling stories” from LGBT Catholics about how they’ve been mistreated by the church and fellow Catholics.
“A 30-year-old autistic gay man who came out to his family and was not in any sort of relationship told me that a pastoral associate said he could no longer receive Communion in church. Why? Because even saying he was gay was a scandal,” Martin said. "But there are also stories of grace in our church. Last year, a university student told me that the first person to whom he came out was a priest. The first thing the priest said was, ‘God loves you, and the church accepts you.’ The young man told me, ‘That literally saved my life.’”
As Martin looked out at the diverse crowd of more than 1,200 people from all over the world with dozens more outside, literally clambering to get into the tent, lights on the ceiling from the far end of the room cast a rainbow-hue — a dramatic effect that was, apparently, inadvertent.
“Help LGBT people and their families to fulfill their deepest desire; to know God,” Martin told the audience. “They are loved by God. God loves them and so should we. And I don’t mean a stingy, grudging, judgmental, conditional, half-hearted love. I mean real love. What does real love mean? The same thing it does for everybody. Knowing them in the complexity of their lives, celebrating with them when life is sweet … loving them like Jesus loved people on the margins, which is extravagantly.”
Martin concluded his address with the words: “When it comes to LGBT Catholics and their families in our parishes, it seems to me there are two places you can stand. You can stand with the crowd who grumble and who oppose mercy for those on the margins, or you can stand … with Jesus.”
After a standing ovation, despite his self-effacing hand-motioning for the crowd to please sit, a couple of security guards accompanied Martin as he made his way from the speaking venue to a book stall in the main exhibition hall. Word had come that there were protesters nearby upset at the priest’s appearance, but none were encountered on the brisk five-minute walk across the festival grounds. A few people did try to stop Martin along the way to thank him or ask for a selfie aka “the eighth sacrament.”
When Martin reached the exhibition hall there was a crowd waiting for him. He happily signed books for three hours.