The New Ways pilgrims after a papal audience. (Photo: New Ways)
Right before Valentine’s Day, I emailed Sister Jeannine Gramick to ask her what she was doing for the holiday.
“I will be celebrating in Florence, Italy, as I lead 50 gay and lesbian Catholics, their families, and their allies on a pilgrimage entitled Rebuild My Church: Pope Francis and St. Francis. From Florence we travel down to Assisi and then to Rome,” she emailed me back.
Of course, that is what this Catholic nun was doing for Valentine’s Day.
Visiting the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. (Photo: New Ways)
Sister Jeannine had much more exciting Valentine’s Day plans than my own, but that didn’t surprise me much.
Jeannine, a Sister of Loretto, is a big world traveler. This was just the most recent in nearly two decades of gay and lesbian pilgrimages that she has led around the world. Hers is a highly specialized group tour. It’s targeted to gay and lesbian Catholics and their families and is led by a Catholic sister.
A sister? Yup.
I became close with Sister Jeannine while I was doing reporting for a book called “If Nuns Ruled the World: 10 Sisters on a Mission.” The book tells the story of progressive Catholic sisters who are instigating change in the world. Jeannine blew me away from the day that I met her.
She’s a spitfire of a woman, and I can imagine that she is a ton of fun to travel with.
For more than four decades Jeannine has been fighting for gay rights, despite coming under intense scrutiny from the Vatican. She founded New Ways Ministry in the 1970s as a way to minister to gay and lesbian Catholics. Their goal has also been to educate Catholics on gay and lesbian issues in order to create a more inclusive church.
Pilgrims climbing the dome at St. Peter’s in Rome. (Photo: New Ways)
The pilgrims have traveled to spiritual sites all over the world, from the pyramids in Egypt to the Alhambra in Spain.
In 2014, Sister Jeannine took a group to the Holy Land, visiting Galilee to see the remains of the synagogue where Jesus is believed to have taught and Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity. The pilgrims took a quick dip in the mineral waters of the Dead Sea and walked the stations of the cross along the Via Dolorosa.
This year’s trip was a monumental one. The 15 other pilgrimages undertaken by Jeannine and New Ways typically drew a crowd of around 25-35 people. This year’s trip to the Vatican brought out 50.
While the Vatican didn’t exactly fling open its doors, it was surprisingly responsive and reserved tickets for the New Ways crew to attend Pope Francis’s weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square.
The New Ways pilgrims became the first LGBT group to receive VIP seats for a papal audience. (Photo: New Ways)
And even though Pope Francis did not publicly acknowledge the group (they were referred to as “a group of lay people accompanied by a Sister of Loretto”), Jeannine thinks it was certainly a step in the right direction in terms of inclusion for gays and lesbians in the institutional church.
“Of course, there is special significance to this particular pilgrimage we took to Italy,” Jeannine told me. “Our 50 pilgrims, that included 7 same-sex couples, were invited to special seats within 25 yards of Pope Francis at the papal audience on Ash Wednesday. Just as LGBT people, their families, and friends were welcomed to the Vatican, the SCOTUS decision on June 29 welcomes lesbian and gay couples into the civil family.”
It’s progress and a far cry from where Jeannine was in 1999 when the Vatican attempted to silence her by calling her work “doctrinally unacceptable.”
There is a button stuck on one of the bulletin boards in Jeannine’s house that reads: “We shall not be silenced. I support Jeannine Gramick.”
“I don’t like people to say I was silenced,” she told me once. “The Vatican tried to silence me, and it just didn’t work.”
The pilgrimages, which typically cost around $3,000, are a part of that mission. That price is fairly all-inclusive, covering round-trip airfare, first class hotel accommodations, Mass and spiritual activities, entrance fees to sites visited, daily breakfast and dinner, and all transfers.
Check out our original adventure travel series, “A Broad Abroad.”