As a practising Catholic, I have always wanted to meet the Head of the Catholic Church. I’ve done so a number of times with previous Popes, but never as meaningful as last Wednesday, 25 October, when I had the privilege of sharing a conversation with Pope Francis for a few precious, electric moments. I felt the responsibility of representing, albeit in a very small way, millions of LGBTIQ+ Catholics around the world who have often experienced marginalisation, rejection, and shame because of their diverse sexualities and genders.
As a Catholic bisexual man coming from Malta, I cherish deeply my faith journey and relationship with God. My family upbringing brought me close to the Catholic Church as an extension of my family. Yet, for many years, I was forced to live in the closet and was afraid that this family would reject me because of my sexual orientation. It hurts that the Catechism calls us an ‘objective disorder’ and considers my genuine love for my husband a sin and an abomination. Yet, I cannot bring myself to hate this family or to abandon Jesus, feeling deeply that God loved me and gave me my own sexuality and orientation as a gift. Together with my husband, we participate in our local parish, and share our experience of fruitful love with the Church, because we believe Jesus gave us a place at His table too.
Hope for a seismic shift in attitude and mood
My role in the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics has allowed me to watch closely the painful experiences and sufferings of my sisters and brothers around the world who are victimised by all-too entrenched forms of homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. It pains us all that our personal experiences are labelled as an ideology. It is hard to see our siblings being rejected and even persecuted in the name of religion. Our siblings in Eastern Europe and Russia, Africa, and elsewhere often speak of rejection by their families; of great social and religious pressure; of criminalisation, and of the unfounded claim that there is an LGBT lobby trying to subvert their countries. When the church then continues to speak of ideology, it reaffirms these wounds and makes the persecution harsher. The blood of our siblings cries out like Abel’s blood in the Genesis story.
In my work in Drachma LGBTI, a space open to all persons of good will who seek sexual and spiritual integration, I have regretfully come across very painful stories of suicide. A young boy of 13 years committed suicide two years ago because his parents refused to accept his sexuality because of religion. A son of two parents members of my group committed suicide soon after the note about same-sex unions was issued by the Congregation of Faith a couple of years ago. While this note was published under the Pope’s watch, it is reassuring that the Pope’s personal messages and actions have given the exact opposite message. His call for non-judgement, his recognition of the civil rights of LGBTIQ+ persons, his support for decriminalisation, and his recent reaction on blessings for same sex couples in response to the dubia presented by five Cardinals, have all made me hopeful that things can change. While doctrinal changes may take some (or a lot of) time to come by, I am more encouraged that a seismic shift in attitude and mood can occur throughout the Catholic Church.
Looking forward to the future
When we met Pope Francis last Wednesday, I thanked him on behalf of all LGBTIQ+ Catholics for his recent message in favour of decriminalisation. We are of course aware that some within the Church continue to oppose this position and are creating stumbling blocks for the synodal journey the Pope is leading. Yet, in a moment of reaffirmation that my lifelong journey and work has provided a resounding voice for my siblings, he took my hands, leaned over and spurred me with his words of encouragement ‘Andare avanti’ – plough ahead. These words were reminiscent of Jesus’ call to put our hands on the plough and not look back with regret or allow oneself to be discouraged.
With this in mind, I look forward to a future, where a more synodal church flourishes as it helps her own LGBTIQ+ members thrive through a positive celebration of the gift of their diversity. My beacon of hope is embodied in the image of my colleague Ruby Almeida sharing a heartfelt embrace with Francis. Never was the LGBTIQ+ community so visibly, authentically and tenderly close to a Pope!