MOUNT RAINIER, Md. — What does one say? What does one do, when an envelope from the Apostolic Palace comes back not just once, but four times?
“It felt less like getting a letter from the pope, and more like getting a letter from your parish priest,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of Mount Rainer’s New Ways Ministry. “He wrote back and thanked us – the term he used was for our ‘neighborly work.’”
The continued correspondence from the pope to DeBernardo and Sister Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways, is remarkable under any circumstance. But the four letters total sent to the two LGBTQ ministers are even more extraordinary, considering New Ways’ history with the upper echelons of the Catholic church.
The ministry describes its mission as a continuing effort to fight “personal and structural homophobia and transphobia,” while working to “promote the acceptance of LGBTQ people as full and equal members of church and society.”
Yet in 1999, New Ways received an official censure from the Vatican – all for the group’s support of same-sex couples. In 2010, condemnation came from the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The ministry was called out for publishing a book supporting civil union protections.
A seismic shift occurred in October 2020, when Pope Francis said same-sex couples should be allowed to have civil unions.
“That’s when I decided to write him a letter,” DeBernardo said. “Because I realized that we, now, were in a new place in the church.”
An exchange of warm notes from Maryland to the Holy See has continued since. The weekly Jesuit magazine, America, first reported the letters sent between the pope and Gramick.
“He said in his letter, 'I'm at your disposal,' in his first letter to us,” DeBernardo offered. “I hope that the affirmations the pope has sent will be affirmations to our LGBTQ community. Because I do believe the pope wants LGBTQ people to be an active part of the Catholic church.”