LGBT Catholic group gets special seating during Pope's weekly address

Story highlights

  • A U.S.-based ministry for LGBT Catholics attends Pope Francis' weekly address
  • They get VIP seating from the Vatican, the group's executive director says
  • He adds: Pope Francis may not shift policies, but he is "opening up a discussion"

(CNN)Members of New Ways Ministry -- an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Catholics -- have made three pilgrimages to the Vatican, under three different popes.

But only once have they been treated like VIPs.
That's the treatment the roughly 50 members of the Maryland-based group got -- much to their surprise -- for Pope Francis' weekly address Wednesday in St. Peter's Square, according to Francis DeBernardo, the group's executive director.
    "It's really an incredible honor and an incredible step forward for the LGBT community to be recognized," he told CNN from Rome.
    DeBernardo would still like to see more changes from the Catholic hierarchy and the Pontiff, like shifts in their official positions in support of same-sex marriage and adoption of children by gay and lesbian couples.
    And even Wednesday, New Ways Ministry was recognized simply as a lay group of Catholics, not one that speaks for the LGBT community. The Vatican didn't grant members' request for a special private audience with Francis, nor did anyone acknowledge their calling out to him that "we are gay and lesbian Catholics," DeBernardo said.
    Still, the fact that they were recognized at all was a positive for the New Ways Ministry leader. So, too, was their special seating Wednesday -- on the same level as the Pope, something they didn't know about until they got their tickets (which were arranged by Vatican officials) on Tuesday night.
    This experience was much different for New Ways Ministry, which has been around for 38 years, than its earlier Vatican visits when Benedict XVI and John Paul II were in office.
    "We were basically ignored by them," DeBernardo said. "So not just to be acknowledged, but to be acknowledged in such an honorable way, is (good)."
    Not much about the Roman Catholic church's official stances on LGBT issues has changed since Argentinian Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope in March 2013. But there has been a noticeable shift in tone.
    This became evident a few months after Francis' election, when he was asked during a wide-ranging news conference about his stance on gays and lesbians, including gay priests.
    "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" the Pope said.
    A few months later, Francis said church officials have the right to express opinions but not to "interfere spiritually" in the lives of gays and lesbians. This reflected his larger push to make the church more welcoming and open, and less focused on sometimes divisive social issues.
    Speaking about this shift, DeBernardo said Francis "has given people a lot of hope, (though) I don't think he's a pope that's going to make the big changes that we'd like to see."
    "But," DeBernardo added, "he is a pope who is opening up a discussion."