Sacred Heart University Welcomes Fr. James Martin, LGBT Community

News Story: February 1, 2019

Fr. James Martin

Watch video of Fr. Martin's talk
No amount of hate mail or angry protesters could stop Sacred Heart University and the Rev. James Martin, S.J., from sharing a message of respect for the LGBT community.

Martin, a Jesuit priest, editor-at-large at America magazine, author and consultant to the Vatican’s dicastery for communication, spoke to hundreds of the University’s students, faculty, staff and community members in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit in late January. His message: show respect and welcome LGBT people to the Church.

The announcement of Martin's appearance and lecture topic prompted a barrage of angry emails, letters and social media posts criticizing Martin’s “anti-Catholic” beliefs and the University for hosting him. Dozens of protesters also came to campus to express their objections, but were outweighed by the positive reaction from University administration who stood up to the critics.

University President John J. Petillo responded to the outcry a few days before Martin visited Sacred Heart. “On our campus, we study differences and advocate for free speech, discussion and open minds. Sacred Heart University is known for its strong and respected programs steeped in the Catholic intellectual tradition. We welcome dialogue that is respectful of our mission and tradition and that is respectful of every person’s dignity,” Petillo wrote in a message to the community.

Before Martin’s lecture, Petillo addressed the assemblage in the Chapel. He said he couldn’t be prouder to be the University’s president. “Bullies” have distorted views of intellectual competencies, he said, condemning their self-righteousness. Petillo encouraged students to stand up for their beliefs and social justice, rather than hide.

Applause rang throughout the Chapel as Martin stepped up to the pulpit. He smiled, and then photographed the crowd with his cell phone before speaking.

“Some of the most recent challenges for the Catholic Church are how to welcome our LGBT brothers and sisters, and families with LGBT members,” he said.

Martin reminded the audience that LGBT community members feel excluded from the Church. He shared “appalling” stories he’s been told regarding the Church’s treatment of LGBT members, speaking of a lesbian being fired from her job at a Catholic school because she was married to a woman. He talked about a priest who refused to anoint a dying hospital patient who was gay. He recalled another story of a gay man who, after a long break from church, decided to join his mother at Mass on Easter Sunday. As the priest preached on the evils of same-sex marriage and homosexuality, the man walked out, leaving his mother in tears.

“Families can be made to feel like they don’t belong,” Martin said.

He also shared stories of positive interactions between LGBT members and the Church. “There are places where the LGBT community can feel at home,” Martin said.

Where a person lives often affects one’s faith and relationship with God, the priest observed. Thus, LGBT people who live in cities are typically welcomed by their church, but those who are in a small town may be rejected. “Why should people’s faith depend on where they live?” he asked.

Martin listed a number of “fundamental insights” about LGBT people and why they should be accepted: they’re Catholic; they don’t choose their orientation; the Church has treated them like lepers; they brings gifts to the church; they long to know God; and God loves them.

As for what the Church can do to welcome the LGBT community, Martin said people should examine their own attitudes, listen to LGBT people’s stories of their experiences and acknowledge them as full members of the Church.

“Never humiliate or degrade them from the pulpit,” Martin said. “You may not think you have LGBT people in your church, but you might have their family members.”

He advised Catholics to apologize to the LGBT community for the way the church has treated them and not to reduce them to their sexual orientation. “They are more than their sexual lives,” he said. Include them in ministries, acknowledge their individual gifts, invite others to welcome them, have special groups to bridge gaps and advocate for them, said Martin. “Let the LGBT community know you stand with them,” he said. “Be like Jesus.”

He reminded the audience that Jesus helped people who were marginalized. “There is no us and them; there is only us,” he said.

At the end of Martin's talk, faculty members collected note cards on which students had written questions, and Professor Michelle Loris, chair of SHU’s Catholic Studies program directed a few of those questions to the priest.

One student asked why embracing the LGBT community makes people afraid. “Why can’t they do what Jesus did?” Loris related.

The straightforward answer, Martin said, was that people can be jerks. He said marginalizing people is easy. Further, people see the “other” as a threat and are fearful of that. People can be fearful of their own sexuality, or they find it hard to include people who are different. “Sexuality creates fear,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard for Church leaders to talk about their own sexuality. It forces them to look at themselves.”

Loris also read from a card asking Martin how he handles the backlash to his beliefs. He responded with a question: What kind of Jesuit would he be if he didn’t talk about those who are marginalized?

Martin received a standing ovation after his talk concluded. He then spent time in the Chapel narthex, signing copies of his book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.

Fr. James Martin 1/29/19

 If you are unable to view the photo gallery above, visit the Fr. Martin Flickr gallery here  

If you are unable to view the video above, watch Fr. Martin's talk here.