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Jim McDermottJanuary 07, 2022
Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent, Dec. 10, 1999 (CNS photo by Nancy Wiechec)

Jeannine Gramick, S.L., has spent the last 50 years working for L.G.B.T. people. Together with Robert Nugent, S.D.S., Sister Gramick began New Ways Ministry, which offers workshops to Catholics on scientific and theological research on homosexuality and advocates for the rights and needs of L.G.B.T. people. For that work, she and Father Nugent were eventually prohibited by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from working with L.G.B.T. people, an order that Sister Gramick refused to abide by. She ended up having to change orders to continue her ministry.

Recently, Pope Francis sent Sister Gramick a letter congratulating her on 50 years of ministry, describing her work as being in “the style of God.” Talking to Sister Gramick, what is striking is her utter lack of animosity or ego in the face of all that she has experienced. She has an easy, self-deprecating humor, kidding that she is like the woman in the Gospel who just won’t stop knocking at the door of the judge.

Even as Sister Gramick remembers some of the painful moments she has been through, she talks of her decades of ministry with hope and understanding. 

And even as she remembers some of the painful moments she has been through, she talks of her decades of ministry with hope and understanding.“We people of God are always growing in our knowledge and awareness,” she told me.

This conversation, which took place over three phone calls, has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it feel like to have been doing this ministry for 50 years?

The primary feeling is gratitude and joy. We have come such a long way. Granted, we’re not where we should be as a church, particularly in the United States with the firing of teachers and others who support L.G.B.T. people. But honestly, 50 years ago you could not even say the word “gay.”

How did you first get involved with ministry to L.G.B.T. people?

I was doing a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, and I met a gay man, Dominic Bash, at a home Mass. Dominic had been in the Franciscans for a brief time. He knew he was gay from an early age, but of course in those days you didn’t talk about it. If you went to confession, which he did, you would be thrown out.

I suggested, “Why don’t we have a home Mass at your apartment, and you invite your gay friends?” That was the beginning.

Though he left, Dominic was still very spiritual. After the Mass, he said: “I have lots of friends who would love to have been at this Mass, but they’re afraid. They think that the church doesn’t want them.” I suggested, “Why don’t we have a home Mass at your apartment, and you invite your gay friends?”

We began to have weekly liturgies at his apartment. That was the beginning.

What was your understanding of homosexuality at that time?

I had heard the word, but I barely knew what it meant. I had all of the myths and stereotypes that society had in 1971. I thought that lesbian and gay people were good people, but I thought somehow they were psychologically imbalanced. That was what people thought.

But when I started to meet Dominic and his friends, they seemed like normal people. I remember this one lawyer, she worked for the A.C.L.U. I admired her so much. She was so smart. I thought, “That woman is not imbalanced.”

Did you have any trepidation at the beginning about how these Masses might be perceived in the broader church?

No. I’m simple-minded in that sense; I don’t really look ahead or anticipate a lot. I kind of go with the flow. I knew this was something that the church needed to do because these were Catholics who were afraid to come to church.

I knew this was something that the church needed to do because these were Catholics who were afraid to come to church.

I did, of course, talk to my religious superiors in Baltimore. Thank God, I had women of vision. Some of my provincials knew more about homosexuality than I did. They encouraged me to do what I could. They said: “This is a group of people the church has neglected. Do what you can because the church needs to be there for them.”

And to see the light in their eyes after those Masses, the happiness on their faces, it was wonderful.

How did you and Father Robert Nugent come to form New Ways Ministry?

Bob joined the Salvatorians, and in the transfer process he was down in Washington, D.C., working part time at the Quixote Center, a peace and justice center. They wanted to do something on justice for lesbian and gay people in the church. So I joined the staff, and Bob and I began to do educational workshops about homosexuality. We called them “New Ways” workshops because in that year Bishop Francis Mugavero, of happy memory, had written a pastoral letter called “Sexuality, God’s Gift.” In that letter, he talked about the need to find “new ways” to bring the truth of Christ to lesbian and gay people.

The workshops were open to anyone, and the contents were very full: We talked about the origins of homosexuality, the medical aspects. We would give a lot of data from the sociological research that was being done on homosexuality and homophobia.

Once we started New Ways in 1977, we went all over the country. Bob once tallied it up, and we’d been to three-fourths of the dioceses of the United States.

We went through all of the negative quotes about homosexuality in the Bible and showed how biblical scholars deal with them. And we talked about the theological positions on sexual orientation and behavior.

Once we started New Ways in 1977, we went all over the country. Bob once tallied it up, and we’d been to three-fourths of the dioceses of the United States. This was all in the late ’70s, ’80s and into the ’90s.

I’m surprised to hear you were welcomed in so many dioceses; that seems different from what might be possible in the U.S. church today.

Well, many bishops did shut us out. We had these workshops mostly in mother houses of women’s communities or retreat centers. I’m very happy to say that women religious were the first ones in the church to move on the issue of homosexuality.

But there were a few bishops who came, too. Like Bishop Leroy Matthiesen of Amarillo or Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit.

It sounds like there might have been more openness in the church to conversations about homosexuality back then.

In the late ’60s, the ’70s and the early ’80s, people were really fired up about Vatican II and social justice. There was hesitation on the part of bishops, but the priests, nuns and lay people who were in charge of Catholic institutions were more ready, I would say, to embrace something controversial or new.

In the late ’60s, the ’70s and the early ’80s, people were really fired up about Vatican II and social justice.

Once Pope John Paul II began to appoint a lot of the bishops in the early ’80s and ’90s, things really tightened up. At that time the “middle management” in the church—the Catholic leaders who run retreat centers, hospitals or other institutions—were much more L.G.B.T.-knowledgeable, friendly and open. But they were afraid of what their bishop might say.

It was in that era that the Vatican issued its notification to Father Nugent and me.

How did that process happen?

First bishops put pressure on our communities. They wanted the communities to do the work for them, so on three occasions, they asked our communities to investigate us and recommend sanctions, but no sanctions were recommended.

I went through a half-dozen provincials and superiors general in my days as a School Sister of Notre Dame, and they all supported the work.

At some point, these complaints were taken to the next level.

Yes. In 1985, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith appointed a Vatican commission to investigate us and give recommendations. It was headed by Cardinal Adam Maida in Detroit. He was a nice man, really a nice man. I don’t think he relished this task. He was appointed in 1985, but we really didn’t get off the ground until 1991, when he got a letter from the C.D.F. asking [about the investigation’s status].

We had several meetings with the commission, and they forwarded something to the C.D.F. Apparently that didn’t satisfy the C.D.F., as it then gave us a series of written questions that we were to answer, Bob and I. And we didn’t answer the way they wanted us to, so then they basically told us the answers they wanted.

In 1999, they issued a notification that neither Bob nor me would be allowed to do any more work with lesbian or gay people. We were not to be involved with this issue.

They wanted us to say that homosexual activity is objectively immoral and that we personally believed that. And I could not say that. I told them I would not give my personal opinion on the subject. I’m an educator. I can present the teaching of the church, but I’m not going to give you my conscience’s opinion.

In 1999, they issued a notification that neither Bob nor me would be allowed to do any more work with lesbian or gay people. We were not to be involved with this issue.

It sounds like a very painful thing to have gone through.

In a sense I felt excommunicated. Because what does excommunication mean? It means being outside of the community. It’s being shunned. And after the 1999 rebuke, that’s how I felt. There were places that I wasn’t welcome where I would have been welcomed before.

What did you do after it happened?

I went around the country and told Catholic audiences my story of the Vatican investigation. And I told them, “If you believe we didn’t get a proper hearing, write the Vatican and tell them to reconsider.” At the end of that year the Vatican had gotten thousands and thousands of letters from all over the world.The primary people who led it were the nuns.

The Vatican wrote to my superior general and told her that this has got to stop. I was summoned to Rome to my generalate. It was heart-rending. I knew my community leaders supported me, but they begged me to stop speaking publicly about the investigation. It was clear that if I didn’t comply, they would ultimately be forced to dismiss me from religious life.

I realized I felt like a battered woman. I hadn’t been physically battered, but emotionally, I’d been battered from 1985 to 1999.

At that meeting, I realized I felt like a battered woman. I hadn’t been physically battered, but emotionally, I’d been battered from 1985 to 1999. But going around the country telling my story, I had gained strength. I think that’s true for battered women, and for L.G.B.T. people, too. Each time they tell their story they gain more strength.

And I realized, I will continue to tell not only my story with the Vatican, but my story with L.G.B.T. people. I needed to continue to advocate for them because they had no advocate in the institutional church.

You must have been very angry at the C.D.F. and the bishops who had treated you this way.

I didn’t agree with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when that notification came out, but I respected him. I believe he was sincerely doing what he believed was right.

Have you ever heard my story of meeting Cardinal Ratzinger?

No.

In 1998, things were looking really bleak, and my provincial had this idea that she and I should make this pilgrimage to Munich, where the foundress of the School Sisters of Notre Dame is buried, and pray at her tomb for a miracle. “Because you need a miracle,” she said.

I didn’t agree with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when that notification came out, but I respected him. I believe he was sincerely doing what he believed was right.

When we were changing planes in Rome to go to Munich, we see this person getting on ahead of us. And my superior says, “That’s Cardinal Ratzinger.” I said “Oh no, it’s probably some low-level bureaucrat at the Vatican who looks like Cardinal Ratzinger.” He looked very haggard, and he had a shirt that could’ve been clerical, but he was not dressed up, like, to be “known.”

We get on the plane, and I see that the seat next to him is empty. I just plopped myself next to him and started talking to him. I said, “I’m a School Sister of Notre Dame going to our motherhouse in Munich.” He says, “My aunt was a School Sister.” “Oh,” I said, “What was her name?” He says, “Ratzinger.”

“Oh,” I say, “Are you Cardinal Ratzinger?” “Yes.” “Oh. Well, I’m Sister Jeannine Gramick.”

He smiled. “Oh, yes, Ihave known you for 20 years.” [Sister Gramick laughs]

We had about a 20-minute conversation. He was very friendly. Charming, I would say. He asked me how I got into this ministry. I told him about Dominic. And he was good; he approved that we were meeting and having Mass for gay Christians.

I love Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict. I think he’s a holy man. I really do.

After that meeting, I thought of that reading from the Gospel of John, the Last Supper discourse where Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” But instead of a vine, I visualized a huge tree with lots of branches all around it. Cardinal Ratzinger is way out there on one branch, and I am way out there on a branch probably 180 degrees around that tree. We couldn’t have been farther apart in our theological thinking. But we are rooted in that one tree. We have a common faith in Christ, and that’s what draws us together. We’re all around that tree somewhere.

I love Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict. I think he’s a holy man. I really do.

You have a lot more openness to those who have persecuted you than most of us would.

We people of God are always growing in our knowledge and awareness. We are becoming more sensitive because we know more.

I love that quotation from Cardinal John Henry Newman. He said: “To live is to change. To be perfect is to have changed often.” Yes, we’ve made mistakes in the past, but we didn’t have as much knowledge in the past as we have now. L.G.B.T. people are coming out and telling their stories. Science is telling us much more.

Would you say that your work has been primarily about personal relationships rather than politics?

Yes, but it’s also about politics. Politics means people who are vested with power. If they are oppressing the people that you want to help, you have to get politically involved.

I’ll tell you another little story. At one point to satisfy Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, D.C., my provincial suggested that maybe I should go on a sabbatical. I was sent to New York, and the New York City Council had this gay rights bill, which had been up for years. I testified to advocate for civil rights for homosexual persons. And I got a call from my provincial shortly thereafter.

Politics means people who are vested with power. If they are oppressing the people that you want to help, you have to get politically involved.

She said, “Jeannine, someone said that you testified for the gay rights bill and you had your veil on.” I said, “Yes, I did.” She said: “But you never wear a veil! You’re just using the institution.”

I said: “Well, of course I am. What’s the institution for? The institution is to be used to help people. That’s the only reason that we have institutions, for the good of the people. So of course I’m going to wear a veil to give you a visual that I represent the Catholic position of justice for lesbian and gay people.”

That’s what I mean by political.

It’s been quite a couple months for you and New Ways, with both the ministry and now you personally receiving letters of support from Pope Francis. How has that been for you?

I was overjoyed that he knew about us, that he liked what we were doing, that he saw that we were participating in the mission of the church.

Bob was a good priest who had given his whole life to people who were on the margins, and here he had a pope who was doing the same thing.

Honestly, I wish you’d write this whole article on Pope Francis. He’s my inspiration.

As he lay dying from cancer at the end of 2013, Bob said to me, “I am so happy to die under this pope.” Because Bob was a good priest who had given his whole life to people who were on the margins, and here he had a pope who was doing the same thing.

Looking back on the last 50 years, what’s been the best part?

The best part is to see the change that has come, to see more and more people starting to say, “I support L.G.B.T. people,” and protesting when they get fired from their jobs. I know of over 100 cases of teachers who have been fired from Catholic schools because they’re gay or civilly married. And in many places now, there are public outcries. The laity are beginning to stand up. That gives me hope.

My hope for L.G.B.T. Catholics is that they all feel welcome and comfortable in any parish in the world. That they might feel just as much a part of the church as anyone else.

Gay people say to me, “Pope Francis is wonderful, but he hasn’t changed the teaching of the church.” Well, that is not his job right now. Eventually, it’s his job, but right now it’s up to us, the people, to articulate the faith. What do we believe?

We have to stand up for what we believe in and not pass the buck. We have to follow our consciences. We need people in the pews to start writing letters to their bishops saying they are withdrawing donations until you start treating L.G.B.T. people as human beings and stop ostracizing them because you’re hurting not only them but the whole body of Christ.

Sometimes we have to go against what the leaders of our church say. We have to operate out of love and not fear. Pope Francis doesn’t want little robots. Vatican II didn’t, either.

Looking ahead, what do you hope for L.G.B.T. Catholics?

My hope for L.G.B.T. Catholics is that they all feel welcome and comfortable in any parish in the world. That they might feel just as much a part of the church as anyone else.

What matters is how you follow the Beatitudes. Are you for the poor? Do you clothe people if they are naked? Do you visit those in prison? Are you merciful? That’s what I would hope would matter, not one’s gender, gender identity or sexual orientation.

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