In the Catholic Church every five years diocesan bishops travel to Rome to meet with the Pope and members of the Curia to report on the state of their dioceses. It is a formal trip known as the “ad limina.” It is usually made together by all the bishops of a single region. The bishops of Minnesota and North and South Dakota made their “ad limina” visit to Rome this past January. On February 10, 2020, Pope Francis met with the bishops from New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming as part of their “ad limina” visit to Rome.
After the meeting at least two of the bishops, who were present, spoke anonymously to the Catholic News Agency (CNA is owned by The Eternal Word Television Network. It provides news related to the Catholic Church to the global English speaking audience.). These bishops said that as part of their conversation Pope Francis indicated that while he had accommodated a request for a meeting with Fr. James Martin, S.J. he was clear with them that he did not intend for it to convey any significance. One of the bishops was quoted (anonymously) as saying that Pope Francis “made his displeasure clear” about the way the meeting was interpreted, and framed by some journalists.’ Another bishop said: "He told us that the matter had been dealt with; that Fr. Martin had been given a 'talking to' and that his superiors had also been spoken to and made the situation perfectly clear to him.” One of the bishops went on to say; “I do not think you will be seeing that picture of him (Martin) with the pope on his next book cover."
As background to the above, it is important to know that Fr. James Martin, S.J. is a best selling author who advocates for and ministers to LGBT Catholics. In 2017 he authored the book “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community can enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity.” On September 30, 2019 Fr. Martin met for 30 minutes in a private audience with Pope Francis and had his picture taken with the Pope. While Fr. Martin did not reveal what the Pope said to him in the course of their conversation, he did say that “among other things, I shared with Pope Francis the experiences of LGBT Catholics around the world, their joys and their hopes, their griefs and their concerns. I also talked about my own ministry to them and how they felt excluded.” Fr. Martin concluded by saying “I saw this audience as a sign of the Holy Father’s care for LGBT people.”
Now the above would not be all that newsworthy except for the fact that Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, recently responded publicly to the CNA account. In his statement Archbishop Wester said: “I wish to address the article that appeared in CNA regarding the meeting of the bishops of Region XIII and Pope Francis on Monday, February 10, 2020. The article puts forward a series of statements supposedly made by Pope Francis regarding Fr. James Martin's meeting with the Holy Father on September 30, 2019. The bishops who reported these statements to CNA remained anonymous throughout the article.” Archbishop Wester went on to say: "Our meeting with the Pope lasted almost two hours and forty-five minutes, so it is difficult for anyone to remember with precision anything that was said. "However, the general tone of the Pope's responses to issues raised with him was never angry, nor do I remember the Pope saying or implying that he was unhappy with Father Martin or his ministry." He also said that while Martin and his ministry were discussed, it was not the pope who raised it but rather some bishops. “My recollection is that it was not Father Martin the Pope was talking about, but the way others tried to use that encounter, one way or the other. In my view, the language subtlety, yet incorrectly, leads the reader to believe that Father Martin was the issue while, in fact, it was how others used their meeting that was in play. Furthermore, I have no memory at all of the Pope being angry, upset or annoyed. He spoke gently and patiently throughout our meeting.” Archbishop Wester ended his statement by saying: “Ordinarily, I would not be sanguine about offering these recollections of our wonderful meeting with Pope Francis. However, I believe that I have an obligation to offer my perspective on those matters contained in the CNA article about Father James Martin, SJ, since my understanding of the facts differs from what was reported anonymously.”
After Archbishop Wester’s statement, a second bishop also spoke up to counter allegations that Pope Francis expressed displeasure with Fr. Martin during the meeting with bishops of the southwestern United States. Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming, said he supports the recollections of Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bishop Biegler said in part: that “Wester's response accurately describes the tone and substance of the short dialogue regarding Fr. James Martin,"
Hmmmmm, we have two bishops speaking publicly about their recollections of a meeting with the Pope, and at least two bishops speaking anonymously about their recollections of that same meeting, And interestingly and remarkably their recollections differ dramatically. What are we to make of this? Who are we to believe? Well, since I believe that the privilege of anonymity belongs only to God and people who are doing good works, my money is on Archbishop Wester and Bishop Biegler as being truthful and honest in their recollections.
I am truly saddened and deeply disappointed, both personally and for our church, by those bishops who chose to make anonymous allegations about Fr. Martin. I believe the example of those bishops who made these anonymous statements is yet another instance of a failure in leadership in our Church. While I do believe that some of our bishops “get it,” this instance is clear evidence that some do not. More importantly, it causes me to wonder if the majority of our bishops will ever understand that truthfulness, integrity, transparency, and accountability are requirements for their job, and not just pious platitudes.