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Hecker Award Movements of the Spirit

Patty Simpson, Pastoral Administrator
October 27, 2023

“I explain it really as the working of the Holy Spirit.” That’s what Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, said, following her October 17th 50-minute meeting with Pope Francis.1 Jeannine was accompanied by three other New Ways Ministry staff. I think I agree with that explanation…but, I have to admit, my agreement is accompanied by a sentiment I didn’t hear in Jeannine’s gracious and generous comments: exasperation! Almost 29 years, Holy Spirit? Could you really not work a little faster? There are people suffering here!

It was early January of 1995 and many of us at the Paulist Center were holding our collective breaths. Sister Jeannine Gramick, SSND at the time2, and Father Robert Nugent, SDS, the founders of New Ways Ministry, were the Center’s Isaac Hecker Social Justice Award nominees3, due to be presented with the award on January 28th. New Ways Ministry is a Catholic outreach organization that educates and advocates for equity, inclusion, and justice for LGBTQIA people within the Church and civil society. But Jeanine and Bob had been under scrutiny by the Vatican for their ministry to and with lesbian and gay Catholics for decades, and many people strongly speculated that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the CDF) might silence them any day. (The BTQIA of the current LGBTQIA acronym had not yet come into common use.) That attempted silencing didn’t actually come until 1999, but, at the time, the situation had the staff grappling with several questions. If the order came from the Vatican, would Jeannine and Bob abide by it? If they were ordered to silence, and Jeanine and Bob were still willing to come and receive the award, what would we choose to do?

Thankfully, neither we nor Jeannine and Bob needed to grapple with those decisions in the moment and the Center’s 1995 Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice was awarded to them. In his remarks at the award presentation, Bob said, “This is the first time we have received an award as a team from a mainstream, non-gay organization.”4 Eventually, Bob abided by the silencing, but Jeannine did not, stating, “I choose not to collaborate in my own oppression by restricting a basic human right to speak.”5

 Patience is generally not my virtue, and I am no Job. But listening to Jeannine’s interview just as we were preparing to present two more Hecker Awards gave me a sliver of hope. Maybe – just maybe – some things our community tries to do and bolster in the name of justice might – just might – to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., help the long arc of the moral universe bend toward justice. Even if that arc takes 29 years to go from being scrutinized and ordered silent by a Vatican office headed by one to-be-Pope to becoming pen pals with and received by another Pope. Pope Francis actually referred to Jeannine in recent years as “a valiant woman who makes her decisions in prayer…. who has suffered much for her ministry.6 Even if the current state of affairs is still not just enough or righteous enough, may the moral arc continue bending for the many in our Church and world who experience persecution, injustice, and suffering for whatever reason. May we continue to call out the injustice, encourage the advocates, be the advocates. May we use our personal and collective resources to help it be so!