By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 1, 2018
DECATUR—When a gunman killed 49 people at Miami’s Pulse Nightclub in 2016, Jesuit Father James Martin was struck by the silence from some American bishops in expressing solidarity with the slain gay patrons, unlike their responses to other mass shootings.
“It seemed to me, even in death, LGBT people were more or less invisible to the church,” Father Martin said.
Out of that concern came Father Martin’s book ,“Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity,” to encourage dialogue between the Catholic Church and LGBT community.
Hundreds filled two Atlanta-area parishes on Saturday, Oct. 20 and Sunday, Oct. 21, to hear him speak, despite an outcry on conservative Catholic websites.
“In Jesus, there is no other. There is no us and them. There is no in and out. There is just us,” said Father Martin, speaking to a full church at St. Thomas More Church, Decatur. He also spoke at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Atlanta, during his weekend visit.
Before his talk, nearly 50 protestors prayed and waved signs outside St. Thomas More, some under the banner of the Catholic lay group called the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property. They said the message of Father Martin was scandalizing church members. Others objected that Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory supported the parish invitations for the author-priest to speak in Atlanta.
“We stand up for the truth of the Catholic Church as it was for 2,000 years, as it still should be today,” said Domenick Galatolo, of Florida. He said the message of Father Martin suggests the church accepts homosexuality.
“We don’t discriminate against people. We discriminate against sin,” said Galatolo.
In an interview with The Georgia Bulletin before his talk, Father Martin said, “The vast majority of Catholics have supported the book.”
“Building a Bridge” has the endorsements of Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark and Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, who called it a “welcome and much-needed book.” Several bishops and Father Martin’s Jesuit superiors have also approved it.
“It does not challenge any church teaching,” Father Martin said, saying many critics have not read the book.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes key points of Catholic teaching on the subject of homosexuality. It calls homosexual acts “intrinsically disordered” but says men and women who have homosexual tendencies “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”
“All I’m talking about is love”
Inside the Decatur church, Martin opened the gathering with a prayer and thanked Atlanta Archbishop Gregory for his support. Pews were crowded with people. The church holds about 525 people.
Using anecdotes, Gospel stories and humor, Father Martin said members of the LGBT community have “felt excluded from our church, their church” in ways that straight believers are not.
Father Martin said too often the gay community is considered through only one lens, focused on their sexuality, excluding all other concerns. Gay Catholics are “more than their sexual lives, but sometimes that is all they hear about,” said Father Martin, a best-selling author and editor-at-large of America magazine. But no one would organize a spiritual retreat for Catholic college students focused on sexual morality only, even though most college students are sexually active, he said.
He listed 10 reasons Catholic communities should open the parish doors to LGBT Catholics.
The first reason to welcome them is because they are members of the faith, said the priest.
“They are Catholic,” said Father Martin, as the audience applauded. “That may sound obvious. It’s not a question of making them Catholic, they already are. Welcome them into what is already their church.”
He urged the believers to follow Jesus’ lead to reach out to the LGBT community “extravagantly and abundantly.” He called on parish leaders and priests to embrace and welcome them into the parish, listen to their experiences, accept their gifts in ministry and skills they bring to the church.
“All I’m talking about is love,” said Father Martin, repeating that his book’s message has been approved by church leaders and is in line with church teaching. Since the book was published, Pope Francis appointed him to be a Consultor for the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication. He also was asked by the Vatican to speak on the topic at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin in August 2018.
Said Father Martin, “They are loved by God. And so should we.”
“You do belong here”
Andy Otto, the St. Thomas More Church pastoral assistant for faith formation, said Father Martin’s visit is part of the parish’s goal to offer broad current topics to help people on their faith journey. Following Jesuit tradition, the parish wants its members to engage “the head and the heart,” he said.
The event was organized by the parish and the Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center, Atlanta.
Jessica Prince, 39, who is a member of St. Thomas More Church, came to the talk with a homemade sign with the words of the Catechism: “(Gay People) must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
Prince said too often believers act as if there is a “special burden” carried by Catholics who are gay. “My sexuality is not the burden,” said Prince. “The burden is the way I’ve been discriminated against and judged by certain people in the church. Prince said it was refreshing to hear a priest admit the roadblocks thrown up against LGBT Catholics.
Palmer Jones held a copy of the book, waiting in the line that snaked around the entry of the church.
He joined the church in 2005 through RCIA.
“I want to stay in the Catholic Church because I love the Catholic Church,” he said, admitting in recent years he has felt like he should step back to explore other Christian traditions. Jones, who is 67 and is gay, is a member of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta.
“Pope Francis and Father Martin really make me feel a lot better about the decision to stay,” he said.
Jones said he believes there is “a general feeling of hope for the future.”
David Azzarello, 41, sat with his wife and school-age son in the pews. His sister-in-law is a member of the LGBT community.
“You’d think kindness and outreach would be fundamental to the church,” he said. Azzarello said he wants to apologize to those mistreated on behalf of his church and tell them “you do belong here.”