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James Martin, S.J.February 03, 2020
Georgetown University's LGBTQ Resource Center is, says Father Martin, a model for other Catholic colleges and universities. (CNS photo/Elizabeth Bachmann) Georgetown University's LGBTQ Resource Center is, says Father Martin, a model for other Catholic colleges and universities. (CNS photo/Elizabeth Bachmann) 

Editor's note: This essay was adapted from an address to college presidents at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities conference in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 2.

Khadija (not her real name) is a student from Africa who attends a Catholic college in the United States. Though Muslim, Khadija is involved in her school’s campus ministry program and was excited to go on her first Kairos retreat during senior year. While on the retreat, Khadija came out as a lesbian for the first time and shared her fears that her family would reject her as a result.

A few weeks later, before final exams, Khadija seriously contemplated suicide. Fortunately, Khadija felt supported enough during the retreat that she reached out to campus ministry and to a theology professor. The campus ministers accompanied her to the emergency room; the theology professor helped her navigate the academic work she would miss during her hospitalization; and the college’s counseling center coordinated treatment with the hospital. In the aftermath, as much as they could, campus ministry continued to be Khadija’s family, since she had none in the country, and everyone worked to make sure that she was not alone during the Christmas holidays. This is an example of how a Catholic college can care for an L.G.B.T. person and can serve as a parable.

What is the best way to care for people who have probably doubted they are loved by God?

Now parables always raise questions, so here are a few: Would all Catholic colleges have done likewise? Would all campus ministry teams have been as welcoming to her coming out? Would all faculty members have known what to do? Would all staff members have understood Khadija’s situation? Let’s go further: Would all Catholic colleges have afforded her such acceptance, even if there weren’t a suicide crisis? Would all have followed the Catechism of the Catholic Church, treating her with “respect, compassion and sensitivity” (No. 2358)? Would all have reached out to her as Jesus asks us to do, with love, mercy and compassion? In short, would all schools have loved her as an L.G.B.T. person?

That’s our topic: How Catholic colleges can respond to L.G.B.T. issues on campus.

Given the importance of this topic, in addition to relying on my experience for this talk, I contacted Catholic college and university presidents, administration, faculty, staff, students and trustees to ask for their insights. So what I am presenting are not simply reflections based on my ministry with L.G.B.T. people, but the shared wisdom of dozens of people affected by this issue, who work in both the groves of academe and the vineyard of the Lord.

How can Catholic colleges respond to the needs of L.G.B.T. people? It is often a contentious topic. But it need not be. Because at heart it is about something that Jesuits call cura personalis: care for the whole person, care for the L.G.B.T. person, care for people like Khadija.

The primary question for Catholic higher education, therefore, is not primarily a legal one, an ecclestical one, a financial one or even an academic one. It is a spiritual one: how to best care for people who have probably doubted they are loved by God, feared their parents will reject them, questioned whether they could find a place in the world, and, if they are Catholic, have certainly doubted or despaired about their place in the church, and who, because of all these things, may have contemplated suicide or self-harm.

The primary question for Catholic higher education is not primarily a legal one, an ecclestical one, or even an academic one. It is a spiritual one.

L.G.B.T. people should not be seen only as victims—they bring joy, energy and life to our world and our campuses. They are God’s beloved children, created in the image of God, and so they bring unique blessings, talents and graces to your community, precisely as L.G.B.T. people. Still, when you encounter an L.G.B.T. person, your starting point must be that you are meeting someone who has suffered and may still be suffering.

Imagine a group of refugees suddenly matriculating at your school. You would not treat them the same way as you did other students. You would naturally see them as people who have undergone an ordeal and would adjust your approach to them. In fact—and speaking as someone who has worked with refugees—that is not a bad analogy. L.G.B.T. individuals often feel like refugees from society and almost always refugees from the church, and that’s including the non-Catholic individuals: excluded, discarded, mistreated, marginalized, persecuted. At the same time, like refugees, they bring a wealth of knowledge, perspective and experience that can enrich the academic experience and makes everyone’s experience of a truly “Catholic” higher education a stronger one.

That is how I invite you to see L.G.B.T. people: as gifted and graced people who are also in need of your care, support and advocacy. But how to care, support and advocate for them? To that end, and drawing on insights from leaders in higher education, let me share some best practices when it comes to L.G.B.T. people on Catholic college campuses.

1. Begin with the God-given dignity of the human person.This is fundamental. One college dean at a university on the East Coast said: “Catholic colleges and universities should be at the forefront of affirming the humanity and dignity of their L.G.B.T.Q. members (including students, faculty, alumni/ae and others associated with the institution). All else flows from this: theological reflection, moral judgment, discernment of how to respond to their needs. Concrete measures flow from this, too.”

The measures he suggests dovetail with the catechism’s call for “respect, compassion and sensitivity.” Calling people by the names and pronouns they choose is part of respect; providing L.G.B.T.-inclusive benefits reflects compassion; and including sexual orientation and gender identity in nondiscrimination policies shows sensitivity. A faculty member at another college in the Northeast said simple acknowledgement is important. “It is,” she said, “remarkably rare for those in leadership positions within Catholic institutions to positively acknowledge L.G.B.T.Q.+ people within their communities.” Indeed, in Catholic settings, L.G.B.T. people may have never heard themselves spoken of in anything other than a negative sense. So begin with their dignity. They should be cared for not because they are Catholic or not-Catholic but because we are Catholic.

Even in the face of opposition (from online campaigns, but also in some cases donors and trustees), Catholic schools should be known for their acceptance of L.G.B.T. people as a visible sign of how much we value their God-given dignity.

2. Never forget how much L.G.B.T. people have suffered. A few facts will give us context. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, lesbian, gay and bisexual youth contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate as straight youth; and they are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide. Forty percent of transgender adults have considered suicide; and of those, 92 percent did so before they were 25. So in many situations, L.G.B.T. issues are also life issues.

Let’s consider harassment. According to a study at U.C.L.A., 85 percent of L.G.B.T. students (young people between the ages of 8 and 18) have experienced verbal harassment; 58 percent of L.G.B.T. youth have felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation; 43 percent have felt unsafe because of their gender identity. Twenty-seven percent of L.G.B.T. students have been physically harassed at school because of their sexual orientation and 13 percent because of their gender identity. It is even worse for transgender students: 54 percent reported being verbally harassed; 24 percent physically attacked; 17 percent reported leaving a school because the mistreatment was so bad.

This says nothing about their families. Rejection by families is one of the chief reasons for homelessness among L.G.B.T. youth. According to that same U.C.L.A. study, 40 percent of homeless youth served by services identify as L.G.B.T. Consider other problems faced by L.G.B.T. young people who are not homeless but whose parents have cut them off—financial insecurity, for example.

Every day I receive messages from L.G.B.T. people recounting rejection, insults and persecution from the church’s ministers.

Now consider how L.G.B.T. people are treated in the Catholic Church. Every day I receive messages from L.G.B.T. people recounting rejection, insults and persecution from the church’s ministers. One woman told me that when she came out at her college, the priest in campus ministry said, “I’ve prayed my whole life never to meet a gay person.” Another young man told me a pastoral associate told him that since he was gay—not sexually active, just gay—that he could no longer receive Communion. L.G.B.T. youth also are aware that the church has targeted employees in same-sex marriages who have been fired from jobs, when others who also do not follow church teaching are largely left alone.

And we have not even talked about the undercurrent of “conversion therapy” that runs through our church like a polluted stream. Thoroughly discredited by psychiatrists and psychologists, banned in many places for the havoc it wreaks on people, it still is used, promoted and praised in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in too many dioceses, parishes and schools. Judging from recent conversations I have had, it is still taught and supported in some seminaries. All this compounds the suffering of the L.G.B.T. Catholic.

When you are dealing with an L.G.B.T. person, you are dealing with someone, to quote Isaiah, “acquainted with grief.”

3. Welcome L.G.B.T. youth groups, programs and centers.As a Catholic community, we need to be clear about our welcome. One faculty member at a Midwestern university said an L.G.B.T. outreach group on campus “should be the floor, not the ceiling.” Almost everyone mentioned this. The recently retired president of a university in the Northeast said, “It’s important to facilitate the formation of an L.G.B.T. support group. It’s important for gay students to know that they are not alone, that there are others like them on campus, and for them to form a support community.” He also rejected the idea that these groups are usually out to challenge church teaching, and he is correct. “They are much more interested in mutual support and community building.”

Why not afford them the same respect and resources you do for other groups? The dean of student development in a college in the Northeast said, “We need to be even more pro-active in our outreach to students in these groups—they have higher rates of depression, anxiety, relationship violence and suicide.” In essence, these are programs for at-risk youth.

Objections to gay-straight alliances, outreach programs and resource programs are almost always off the mark.

The four years spent in college is an important experience for all students, but especially for L.G.B.T. youth, who are not only discovering their identity and navigating their relationship with parents but hoping to discover their own value. Outreach programs help them to do this. L.G.B.T. resource centers, like the large one at Georgetown University (which are still rare), are an even better idea. And objections to gay-straight alliances, outreach programs and resource programs are almost always off the mark. Simply by comparing them to other programs shows up the double standard. They promote sexual activity? No they don’t. Besides, you could argue, so do co-ed dorms. They promote rowdy behavior? No they don’t. Besides, you could argue, so do football games.

Be creative with programs designed to welcome: One college sponsors an L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ mixer with students, faculty and staff, including allies; another school has a Lavender Graduation, where L.G.B.T. faculty and staff wear purple stoles over their academic regalia.

4. Bring together your entire school.The whole school needs to come together on an issue that is often seen as the province of campus ministry or the counseling center. Khadija’s story shows how well things can work when the entire school understands the unique needs of its L.G.B.T. members. One dean said: “No one part of the institution, like an L.G.B.T. center, can meet the needs of L.G.B.T.Q. students. Training is necessary for people in all areas of the school: academic advising, student health, counseling and psychological services, campus ministry, resident life, athletics.” Also, bringing together the whole school and building relationships makes it easier to communicate during times of crisis over a hot-button L.G.B.T. issues.

Can your whole school be a place where L.G.B.T. people feel loved? To answer that, ask yourself: Would they feel comfortable coming out at your school? Often an L.G.B.T. faculty member is the first one to whom a student comes out. But faculty members, said a former president of a large university, may be unconnected to the other professional staffs, like counseling, psychiatric services and campus ministry. “Faculty,” he added, “are more likely than other student-centered professionals to assume the church has a blanket condemnation of these students. Does the top administration signal to the entire school that the position of the church is pastoral accompaniment?”

More fundamentally, can the entire school be a place where L.G.B.T. people are safe?

More fundamentally, can the entire school be a place where L.G.B.T. people are safe? One former president of a college in the Northeast said: “Priority always has to be given to the safety and well-being of the students. If a gay or trans student were attacked, I would never want anything I said to have given encouragement to the attackers, even unintentionally, by criticizing gay or trans students, their lifestyle or their activity.”

5. Remember that words matter. So do signs and symbols. Many people tend to see L.G.B.T. issues as political matters, weapons in “identity politics.” The words we use (the pronouns, for example), or more broadly the way we talk about L.G.B.T. people in the Catholic world, often turns into a battle. You can still be criticized even for using the term “L.G.B.T.”

But for the L.G.B.T. person these issues are something else. One student, Maddie Foley, wrote in Notre Dame’s student newspaper, “Please, in the name of gentleness and mercy…if you are still opposed to LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church, choose your words carefully and remember that there are real, complicated, dignified, made-in-the-image of God people hearing them, people you haven’t witnessed in prayer, people that have been wounded by the church, people that love God, people who have wept and wept about their place in God’s kingdom, people who will be far more affected by your words about gay rights than you will ever be.” Questions about words, terms, phrases and even the way we discuss these issues have real-life impacts beyond some imaginary “agenda.”

Questions about words, terms and phrases have real-life impacts beyond some imaginary “agenda.”

This is a good place to draw on your school’s institutional mission. One diversity officer from a Southern university founded by a religious order said, “The institutional mission tells us…how to treat our L.G.B.T. students and colleagues, just as Catholic teaching does.” And of course we can’t assume that all the students are Catholic. One gay college professor in the Northeast said, “What does it look like for Catholic schools to welcome L.G.B.T. students from other (or no) faith traditions? The way that we treat L.G.B.T. people, Catholic or not, speaks volumes to non-Catholics about how we treat everyone.”

As an aside, L.G.B.T. Catholic students come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Many have left the church because they felt rejected or never thought of the church as a home at all. Some may be comfortable with their own sexuality and see no contradiction between their belief and sexuality—whether they follow church teaching on chastity. (You could make the same observation about sexually active straight students.) These L.G.B.T. youth are happy in campus ministry, at Mass and in the church. Still others are wrestling with church teaching. Finally, many struggle with what some theologians call “Christophobia,” the fear of Christ and the church brought on by generations of hatred and homophobia. Self-loathing is a real issue.

Beyond words, what signs and symbols show them that they are loved? How about L.G.B.T.-affirming spiritualities, theologies, liturgies and safe spaces? Are L.G.B.T. people fully welcome at Mass? Remember: Lex orandi, lex credendi. How we worship shapes and shows what we believe. How we study does as well. Are their experiences part of what they study? This means including their stories, histories, contributions to society and struggles in their classes.

The way we talk about L.G.B.T. people in the Catholic world often turns into a battle.

Visible and supported L.G.B.T. faculty and staff members are important symbols too. The former president of a medium-size Catholic university said, “I found the gay faculty at my university some of the most supportive and engaged in the mission of the institution.” L.G.B.T. faculty can and do, he said, serve as role models. This shouldn’t be required of them, but they often do this.

One campus minister at a large university in the Midwest pointed out an even more visible symbol: the statue of Dr. Tom Dooley on his alma mater Notre Dame’s campus, an image of a gay man renowned for his generosity. Raise up L.G.B.T. people for them to see.

Remember that you may be offering students, for the first time in their lives, a space where words support them, signs encourage them and symbols help them to re-evaluate their whole stance with the church, with themselves, with their families and with God.

6. Stand with them. Money issues and fear are always poor excuses not to stand with the marginalized. There is a more severe cost of not standing with L.G.B.T. people: suicide, depression, loss of community, loss of faith. It would be the same with students of any minority.

Sometimes you find that standing with them yields unexpected benefits. One dean of a university in the Northeast said that while you may have trouble with “reluctant trustees, bishops or other constituents” over the moral case, the practical case is strong. Thirty-one percent of millennials described themselves in a recent poll as other than fully heterosexual, and many applicants will be more curious about the level of L.G.B.T. acceptance, especially at Catholic schools that they may presume are not welcoming to L.G.B.T. individuals. And the more people who come out, the more this issue affects every family, every person, every faculty member, every trustee. Also, the rest of millennials and Gen-Z who do not identify as L.G.B.T. are watching closely to see how their friends and their brothers and sisters and siblings are being treated.

There is a severe cost of not standing with L.G.B.T. people: suicide, depression, loss of community, loss of faith.

A faculty member who was also on the board at a medium-sized college told me a story. The students wanted to form a gay-straight alliance, but some trustees were worried. When the president announced it at the board meeting, there was dead silence. Here is how the trustee described what happened next: “A big C.E.O. type hunches up his shoulders and leans in, forcefully sweeps his gaze and looks everyone at the big table in the eye and says, ‘Frankly I’m surprised it took this long.’ No one wanted to mess with him. Turns out his daughter was gay and had just adopted his grandchild with her partner.” Bottom line, said this faculty member: “The administration won as much as they lost.”

And firing married L.G.B.T. faculty is clearly not standing with the L.G.B.T. person. The reason usually given for the firings is that these employees are not supporting or conveying church teaching. But you could say the same for many Catholics: those who use birth control, those who don’t attend Sunday Mass, and so on. You could also say it about those who aren’t Catholic. Will you fire the Protestant employees who don’t believe in papal authority or the Jewish employees who do not believe in Jesus? Targeting married L.G.B.T. employees is not enforcing church teaching—because you are enforcing it selectively. Rather, it is engaging in discrimination.

So even if it costs, stand with them. Be prophetic. Be like Jesus. Because if we’re not trying to be like Jesus, what’s the point?

7. Work closely with your local ordinary. The former president of a university in the South said that it was essential to keep your local bishop up to date about what is going on in the school. I’m sure this point does not need belaboring. This president said, “They may or may not be sympathetic, but they hate to be surprised.” It’s often not an easy task, and there can be misunderstanding. That’s why dialogue and openness are important, especially on this issue. I would invite those who have diocesan bishops who are not as sympathetic to see your role as an advocate. You may be the only person who has ever had a face-to-face meeting with this church leader to advocate for L.G.B.T. people. What message do you want to share with him?

8. Educate yourself and your school.The kind of education that occurs around L.G.B.T. issues is multifaceted. First, the best education is simply listening to the experiences of L.G.B.T. people. If we start with experience, it will help to inform all else: ethics, spirituality, theology and so on. Second, educate yourself on the full range of church teaching about L.G.B.T. people. Even educated Catholics tend to think that the catechism includes simply a restriction on same-sex relations and same-sex marriage. It does, but there is also the invitation to treat them with “respect, compassion and sensitivity” and the restriction against “unjust discrimination.” But even this is too narrow. Church teaching on L.G.B.T. people is more than a few lines in the catechism. Church teaching is the Gospel and Jesus’ message of love, mercy and compassion, especially for those on the margins. That is the heart of church teaching.

Speaking of church teaching, a former president of a Midwestern college now working in Rome said, “It’s important to note how much the Congregation for Education has essentially trusted US Catholic institutions on the L.G.B.T. front.” He said that they know that the schools are helping these students. “Individual bishops may be upset, but the Congregation is not inclined to make a fuss.”

The best education is simply listening to the experiences of L.G.B.T. people. If we start with experience, it will help to inform all else. 

Third, there is a great deal you can read on your own about topics that are still confusing and that you may not feel ready to share with the school. Recently I confessed to the parents of a child who identifies as “gender queer” that I didn’t understand that term. In response, they gave me a book called Gender Queer, which helped me understand that rather new experience.

Finally, offer education programs for your whole university. “Safe Zone” or “Q Advocacy” workshops are opportunities for students, staff, faculty and community to learn more about sexuality and gender issues, which often help people do the following: Set and clarify vocabulary on L.G.B.T. issues; provide lectures or activities that serve as a space for discussion on issues of bias and identity; offer opportunities for people to ask questions; empower people to feel involved in issues that face an increasing number of students. Let your college, already a place of learning, be a place of learning on this complicated issue as well.

9. Listen to transgender people in humility. This is the leading edge in L.G.B.T. issues in Catholic higher education, and I am no expert. But few people are, including psychiatrists and psychologists. The medical, scientific and psychological data about this phenomenon are complex. We are all learners, so we should all be listeners

Last year, I was invited to discuss this topic with the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education after they published their statement, “Male and Female He Created Them.” During my meeting with Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, the prefect of the congregation, and his undersecretary, Friedrich Bechina, F.S.O., I read aloud letters from Luisa Derouen, O.P., a Dominican sister who has worked for 20 years with transgender people, from a mother and father with L.G.B.T. children, and from a transgender man. With the congregation’s permission, I can share that they spoke about the context and purpose of their document, which was focused on Catholic schools. And I can say that Cardinal Versaldi expressed sorrow if people thought the congregation was accusing people of being ideologically distorted and that he wanted to share the congregation’s care for transgender people and his desire to continue dialogue to reflect on the transgender experience.

And no matter what you might hear from angry donors or ill-informed websites, transgender people are not the result of a “gender ideology.” Ray Dever, a Catholic deacon with a trans child, noted this in a superb article in U.S. Catholic magazine: “Anyone with any significant first-hand experience with transgender individuals would be baffled by the suggestion that trans people are somehow the result of an ideology.” Nonetheless, the position of some Catholics is to bind up this complicated personal experience with some political agenda. So I beg you to listen and learn—from trans people and from reliable scientific studies. Also, remember that while many college-age kids have already come out—especially in large cities—trans kids still need accepting support groups.

No matter what you might hear from angry donors or ill-informed websites, transgender people are not, not, the result of a “gender ideology.”

Speaking of listening, I asked a Catholic transgender man with a Ph.D. in theology, who transitioned during his senior year in college, to suggest a few tips. Here they are: Make it easy, he said, for students to live in housing that matches their gender identity. Essentially, they should be offered a housing option that helps them feel safe. Second, he said, ensure the availability of some gender-neutral bathrooms. Not all but some. Third, he suggested ensuring that school health insurance should cover transition-related services. Medical transition, he said, is a recognized condition. In general, covering services does not significantly raise the cost of health insurance, since few students access these services. Fourth, he suggested ensuring that students can change their names/gender on records, and that faculty members use the student’s preferred name and pronouns. Trans people have often told me how difficult it is to continually hear the wrong pronoun. Sister Luisa said: “Addressing a person in the way that they have told you is simply good manners. Failing to do so is a reflection on the speaker, not the trans person.” One philosophy professor simply passes out a sign-in sheet on the first day of class to ask about pronouns.

There are also ways of moving ahead that don’t upset everyone. One vice president for student affairs in a college in the Northeast spoke of having the student’s new name on the diploma but retaining the original name in the school’s records, until a legal name change was undertaken. One college for women has this explanation on their website:

In furtherance of our mission, tradition, and values as a college for women, and in recognition of our changing world and evolving understanding of gender identity, the College will consider for undergraduate admission those applicants who consistently live and identify as women, regardless of the gender assigned to them at birth. The College will continue to use gendered language that reflects its mission as an undergraduate college for women.

As an aside, controversy over gender-neutral bathrooms is less important than the safety of these people. Sister Luisa noted that the idea that the transgender people or L.G.B.T. people will somehow assault straight kids is backwards. It’s the L.G.B.T. kids who feel unsafe. It’s not without controversy, but trans youth have been through enough. Let them at least go to the bathroom in peace. Overall, though, when it comes to trans people on campus, a simple plea: Listen to them.

10. During a crisis, discern and make a preferential option for the L.G.B.T. person. Here are three things to begin with during a crisis over LGBT issues. Avoid boilerplate responses to hot-button topics. Find out what’s going on yourself and exercise empathy. And recognize that attacks about L.G.B.T. issues are often attacks on other things—higher education, some political party, the 1960s, Vatican II or even Pope Francis.

Some topics seem inevitably to incite controversy: drag shows, gender-neutral bathrooms, gender-neutral pronouns. The former president of a college in the Midwest said, “Few issues are as combustible in the Upper Midwest as the trans person and bathroom access.” As an aside, he also noted that the church loses “lots of these kids who have been raised Catholic” who draw upon Catholic social teaching to support their opposition.

Let me share common some responses to crisis management on L.G.B.T. issues from leaders in Catholic higher education. First, keep your diocesan bishop informed. Second, approach these things from an educational point of view. Can you have a panel or a presentation on what drag shows mean or on why gender-neutral bathrooms have become so important? Earlier I mentioned including the stories of L.G.B.T. people and their history in classes. Fostering an environment like that, where the L.G.B.T. experience is integrated into the curriculum, helps the entire school in times of controversy, because the school already sees these issues in a larger context.

Finally, discern. No one size fits all. Trust that God will lead you to the best decision, which is based on your school, your history, your mission, your student body, your diocese and your bishop. But all else being the same: make a preferential option for those who have few on their side in the church: the L.G.B.T. person.

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