(RNS) — Pope Francis sent a letter praising the work of a Jesuit priest who has been an outspoken advocate for more respectful treatment of LGBTQ people within the Catholic Church. In the letter, the pontiff described Father James Martin’s work as imitating the “style of God.”
The letter, written in Spanish and dated June 21, was in response to a communique sent to Francis by Martin that referenced the Outreach LGBTQ Ministry Conference, a gathering focused on Catholic LGBTQ issues hosted virtually by Fordham University this weekend.
Martin read the personalized letter at the conference on Saturday (June 26) before sharing it on social media.
Pope Francis @Pontifex has sent a beautiful letter on the occasion of the Outreach LGBTQ Catholic Ministry Webinar, which happened yesterday, expressing his support for this ministry and encouraging us to imitate God's "style" of "closeness, compassion and tenderness"… pic.twitter.com/O9nTftoLDi
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) June 27, 2021
In discussing a translation of the letter posted on Twitter, Martin said the pope was referring to the conference when he wrote: “Regarding your PS, I want to thank you for your pastoral zeal and your ability to be close to people, with the closeness that Jesus had, and which reflects the closeness of God. Our Heavenly Father comes close with love to each one of his children, each and everyone. His heart is open to each and everyone.”
Francis described Martin’s work, which has centered on LGBTQ Catholics, as “continually seeking to imitate this style of God.” He wrote that he believes that style has three elements: “closeness, compassion and tenderness.”
“You are a priest for all men and women, just as God is a Father for all men and women,” wrote the pontiff. He added that he would pray for Martin’s “flock” and asked for prayers in return.
The letter is not the first time Francis has voiced support for Martin, who has garnered attention for ministering to LGBTQ Catholics. In 2019, the pope met with Martin, who also serves as a consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, to discuss LGBTQ Catholics.
Martin has long insisted his writings and teachings regarding LGBTQ Catholics remain within the confines of church teaching. But his 2017 book, “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity,” triggered backlash among some conservatives. Although the book was endorsed by prominent Catholic clerics, Martin was disinvited from speaking engagements and repeatedly criticized by conservative websites such as Church Militant and LifeSiteNews.
Pope Francis made international headlines in 2013 for responding to a question about gay priests by declaring, “Who am I to judge,” but has since faced enduring pushback from LGBTQ activists who argue he should change church teaching: The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to “homosexual tendencies” as “objectively disordered.” And in March, the Vatican issued a document saying LGBTQ couples cannot receive a blessing by a priest.
Even so, Catholics in the U.S. are one of the most supportive religious groups of LGBTQ rights efforts: According to Gallup, the majority of American Catholics have backed same-sex marriage since at least 2011.