Pope Francis has sent a letter to an American nun to thank her for 50 years of ministry to LGBTQ Catholics, more than two decades after she was investigated and censured by the Vatican for her work.
In his letter last month to Sister Jeannine Gramick, Francis wrote: "Thank you, Sister Jeannine, for all your closeness, compassion and tenderness."
He also noted her "suffering ... without condemning anyone."
Gramick, who lives in Mount Rainier, Md., said the letter felt like it was "from a friend."
"Of course, I was overjoyed," she said. "It felt like a turning point in the church, because for so long, this ministry has been maligned and in the shadows."
For decades, Gramick and her New Ways Ministry co-founder, the late Rev. Robert Nugent, were considered controversial by some church leaders because of the workshops they held about the science and theology around LGBTQ topics. Gramick said she would not provide her opinion but that she would present the Catholic Church's teaching, as well as doctrinal positions from more moderate and liberal theologians.
Gramick said she faced scrutiny from the Vatican for about 20 years before officials issued a declaration that she would be barred from ministry.
"The ambiguities and errors of the approach of Father Nugent and Sister Gramick have caused confusion among the Catholic people and have harmed the community of the Church," the 1999 statement from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith said.
Gramick later transferred to another religious order to keep doing her work.
A spokesman for the Vatican did not immediately respond Friday to a message seeking to confirm the authenticity of the pope's letter to Gramick. The letter, first published Friday in the Catholic publication America magazine, is the latest in a series of missives the pontiff has written to gay Catholics or to those who are serving and advocating for LGBTQ people.
The pope's letter follows actions by the Vatican on gay rights that have frustrated Francis' more liberal supporters.
Early in his papacy, Francis declared: "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?" But he has upheld church doctrine that calls LGBTQ acts "disordered." And last year, the Vatican's doctrinal body ruled that Catholic priests cannot bless same-sex unions.
In December, a Vatican official apologized to New Ways Ministry for having pulled a reference to the ministry from the Vatican website, an outreach that drew praise from the group as rare and "historic." New Ways also revealed that Pope Francis had written two letters to the group earlier in 2021, praising their ministry. In those letters, Francis noted Gramick's work and that he knew "how much she has suffered," describing her as "a valiant woman who makes her decisions in prayer."
The Rev. James Martin, a New York City-based priest known for his ministry affirming LGBTQ Catholics, said he has received a few letters from Pope Francis and made one of them public in July. The letter to Gramick, he said, is significant because she has been censured by the Vatican.
"For most LGBTQ Catholics, Sister Jeannine is a real hero, so they'll be delighted. They'll rightly see this as one of Pope Francis' steps forward," Martin said. "He doesn't change church teaching on this, but take steps ... added up, all the steps, we've come a long way."
Gramick said the official investigations came after the late Cardinal James Hickey, the former archbishop of Washington, wrote to the Vatican and asked officials to pressure Gramick and Nugent to stop their ministry. The investigation was launched in 1988.
"It was devastating," she said. "What can I say? It didn't feel good."
A spokeswoman for the archdiocese of Washington did not immediately return a request for comment on the letter.
Gramick said she started her ministry when she was 29, while she was studying in graduate school and befriended a gay man who had left the Catholic Church for the Episcopal Church.
In his apartment, she organized Mass for gay and lesbian people who had left the Catholic Church.
"When the liturgy was over, they had tears in their eyes because they felt they were being welcomed home again," she said.
Gramick said she hopes the church will eventually change its position on sexual ethics and listen to the growing number of parishioners who have become more affirming of the LGBTQ community.
"What would I say to LGBT Catholics is, 'Hold on, it will change,'" she said. "'We have to make our views known so that the officials of the church can properly express that change.'"