How a controversial nun went from censured to ‘pen pals’ with the pope

For 50 years, Sister Jeannine Gramick has been ministering to LGBTQ Catholics, sharing her faith with a group leaders of her church wanted to shun, not embrace.

In the late 1990s she was more or less censured for her work and told to stop. She didn’t listen.

Even in 2010, the U.S. Conference of Bishops spoke out against New Ways Ministry, based in Mount Rainier, saying the group she cofounded shouldn’t be considered Catholic even as they worked to share the faith. But that was then.

In the last year, Gramick and the director of New Ways, Francis DeBernardo, have been exchanging handwritten letters with Pope Francis, whose attitude toward homosexuality isn’t as disapproving as other church leaders.

The most recent letter, which was made public, even thanked Gramick for her half-century of work.

“We get a lot of commendations, but not from people so high up in the hierarchy of the Catholic church,” Gramick said. “You couldn’t go much higher than the pope.”

She said the recent exchange of letters even led Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, to joke about how the two had become “pen pals” over the last year.

It’s a dramatic turn of events, considering the amount of pressure she faced up the ladder of the church as leaders tried to get her to stop her ministry to gay Catholics, which started in the 1960s. But she’ll argue that her work has always been more in line with the example taught by Jesus in the Catholic gospel.

“I am not advocating departing from any teachings. I am saying we need to follow the basic teachings which is the message of Christ, which is to have faith in our hearts,” she said. “If you view membership in a faith community as something based on faith, one’s heart, one’s life, one’s following the beatitudes, reaching out to the poor, those who are on the fringes, those who are marginalized, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison, following the beatitudes of Jesus. That’s being a Christian.”

“I don’t think it’s ‘Catholic-lite’ at all,” she added. “To me it’s very Catholic-heavy.”

She admits her point of view doesn’t get as much attention among the faithful.

“You can have a message that is not a good message, not a true message, but if you say it loud enough and long enough and repeat it and it becomes repeated, people start to believe it,” she said.

And she lamented the push by more conservative Catholics to exclude others of the faith who take a different stance on matters of sexuality.

“Those who in the church want to apply a litmus test, I just ask them to read the gospel,” said Sister Jeannine. “Jesus did not apply any litmus test. Jesus welcomed everyone and so the church of Jesus has to be modeled on its founder. On Jesus. Not on any human person who wants to exclude another.”

She’s hoping the words of Pope Francis, whose most recent letter said her 50 years of ministry was marked by closeness, compassion and tenderness in the “style of God” will help change more attitudes about LGBTQ members of the church. “Thank you, Sister Jeannine, for all your closeness, compassion, and tenderness,” wrote the pope.

“I’m hoping it will change a lot of people’s hearts, because there are many people who, when someone in a position of religious authority makes an affirmation, that helps them to look at that and change their minds,” she said.

She conceded the pope’s critics in the church won’t be swayed, but says “there are very sincere Catholics who look to the magisterium, the bishops, for guidelines. Having a guideline from the highest authority in the church saying that this is a good ministry, that we need to reach out to LGBTQ and welcome them, I think that will open their hearts.

“What I believe will happen is that there will be more of an openness to LGBTQ people,” she added. “We have to embrace them. We have to learn from them. There are gifts that lesbian and gay people bring to the church.

“The basic message is love,” she concluded. “If we violate love, we have sinned. If we are loving, then we are in the graces of God.”

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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