Last week, Francia López stood up before a crowd of the faithful at a small Catholic Mass in the tiny town of San José del Morro, Argentina, and she read out one of the prayer intentions.
López went so far as to call it a “historical moment,” a sentiment echoed by Argentinean reporter Inés San Martín, who described it as a “historical first” in an article for Catholic outlet Crux.
If that seems discordant, if this seems like a not-very-newsworthy moment, that’s probably because it would seem otherwise forgettable, certainly to people outside the Church. But Francia López is a transgender woman.
And in a Catholic culture where trans women are hyper-visible, yet very frequently excluded from many forms of religious participation, it’s a big deal that the highly conservative Diocese of San Luis, where roughly 90% of the region’s population is Roman Catholic, knowingly invited a trans person to be part of an important celebration.
And yes, despite the small size and humble setting, this was a special occasion. It was the first Mass celebrated by brand-new bishop Gabriel Barba, cementing his role in the San Luis community.
López is an educator, a school official, and a local radio personality. City officials selected her for inclusion as a gesture of recognition for her work running a soup kitchen to feed hundreds of poor people in San Luis. It’s a nice fit with Barba’s choice to emphasize his dedication to humility and service by selecting a small village outside the city for his inaugural Mass. In a single day in San Luis, López feeds enough hungry people to outnumber the entire population of San José del Morro.
And that in turn is a perfect fit for the circumstances in Rome. That all this happened in Argentina is significant: the South American country is the place Pope Francis called home prior to his pontificate. Add that to his reputation as a progressive pope (whether or not it’s accurate), and the stage is set for this to be a big deal… even though the actual events taking place at the Mass were fundamentally ordinary.
A source close to Barba, Sister Monica Astorga, reported that he wasn’t aware that López is trans before the Mass took place. But while he expressed concern about the possible controversy so early in his tenure as bishop, he ultimately embraced (or at least declined to object to) the gesture.
Astorga is a longtime friend of Pope Francis, and she has spent decades ministering to homeless trans women as prioress of a cloister in the nearby Diocese of Patagonia. Her work has received the blessing and encouragement of Pope Francis. She says she was on hand to reassure Barba about the possible controversy:
I told the bishop he should see it as something God allowed. Now the trans community of San Luis, at least, know that they can go into the cathedral church and pray, because someone who’s like them was allowed to read during such an important Mass.
Astorga is far from the only prominent Catholic applauding the move. Father James Martin serves as editor-at-large of America: The Jesuit Review, a Catholic newsmagazine. As another Catholic fighting for LGBTQ acceptance within the Church, Martin has also received the pope’s blessing. He told Crux:
It’s essential to include all the faithful in the Prayers of the Faithful, and that includes LGBTQ people. That means we pray for their needs and we also invite them to pray. Bishop Barba was acting as a true pastor in welcoming a transgender woman to pray in the cathedral.
Were there naysayers? Of course. Conservative Catholic outlet InfoCatólica wrote a piece about the invitation, tagged “apostasy,” where they complained about the service’s guitar accompaniment and applause as well as its inclusion of LGBTQ petitioners. It invited a bundle of disapproving comments about sin, Satan, and “sexual perversion.” As anyone will tell you, that’s not news. That’s business as usual.
This is a story that inverts business as usual: People close to the top, bearing the imprimatur of Pope Francis, actively and vocally supporting an act of inclusion that welcomes trans people into the fold, not as abject sinners, but as equals.
López herself says the gesture gives her “true hope” for a more welcoming future in which the religion she loves embraces difference and supports everyone:
It will allow us to build a Church as human beings, where the life options of diverse families have always encountered many obstacles to living their spiritual life… We need to be able to baptize our children, to count on the word of the shepherds in the face of death, and not continue to make children pay for decisions of which they are not part.
Stories like this represent the first hopeful step towards a world where the inclusion of trans people in everyday activities — both within and outside of religion — is too ordinary to show up in the news.
(Thanks to Brian for the link)