Building a Bridge toward LGBTQ+ Catholicism: "Nothing converts like a story"

Evan Mascagni and Shannon Post were looking for a new documentary project after their 2015 documentary, Circle of Poison, about communities impacted by the export of banned pesticides in America, when they found Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest passionate about LGBTQ+ inclusion and advocacy within the Catholic Church. His book Building a Bridge is an extension of his advocacy, a belief that love for LGBTQ+ communities is essential to the teachings of Catholicism. 

The two filmmakers both have their reasons for distancing themselves from the Church. Post disillusioned from the Church around the time she came out as queer in high school; Mascagni, from a Catholic Kentucky town, pushed himself away from a religion he felt disregarded his values in various ways. However, his mother believed that he could find people serving the Church with similar beliefs as Mascagni. When the filmmaker moved to New York, his mother pleaded he go see Father Martin speak, and he did. 

“I was really skeptical when Evan talked about Father Martin,” said Shannon in a video interview. "'I don’t know about a story about a priest,'" she recalled saying to Mascagni. However, like her counterpart, once she met Father Martin and listened to him, she felt his passion for change. When he among a few Bishops spoke out against the Pulse Nightclub massacre, she felt like she could tell the story of her friend lost to the mass violence, Christopher Andrew Leinonen, through his mother, Christine Leinonen.

They were both drawn to the pollyanna that is Father Martin. His ability to see past animosity with a smile was heartwarming, healing. Without question the documentary was a go. 

“I was just blown away,” Mascagni said in a video interview about meeting Father Martin for the first time. I had never been in a church that was so welcoming and supportive.” He felt embraced and was curious where this story would take him, Post and LGBTQ+ Catholic faith. 

The 2021 Tribeca Film Festival official selection surrounds three main components: Father Martin, his opposition, and the families harmed by anti-LGBTQ+ violence in and outside the Church. 

Father Martin (also an editor-at-large of America Media) is in his garden atop the America House Jesuit Community in the opening scene. The priest is concerned about the potential frost that might kill his early spring. Bryan Massingale, a priest and professor of theology interviewed in the film, compared Father Martin’s early spring garden to the Catholic’s Church embrace of the LGBTQ+ community.  

“Since the election of Pope Francis and with his signaling for a greater openness to LGBTQ persons, there’s indeed a major thaw in the Church’s relationship with the LGBTQ community,” said Father Massingale in the documentary. “However, it’s early spring, so it can still have a winter chill.”

“It was just too perfect when he said that,” said Mascagni. He called his words a perfect metaphor.

At the time, Father Martin started his Building a Bridge book tour and the two filmmakers let Father Martin’s story take them on a two year journey.

They met family, friends, and then Michael Voris, the founder of the broadcast channel, Militant Church. Voris is vehemently opposed to Father Martin. He also admits being gay in the film as the “sins of [his] past life prior to [his] reversion to the Catholic faith”. 

Post, for personal reasons, didn’t film interviews with Voris. She and Mascagni wondered if he should even be a part of the film. “That was part of the reason I was drawn to Father Martin—his optimism,” said Post. “I feel like a lot of LGBT stories that are told can be pretty negative and all about the bad things happening in the world.” 

The two directors felt that Voris was an embodiment of those negative stories and that by giving him a platform to “spew bigotry” were doing a disservice to the LGBTQ+ community and Father Martin’s story. “He was having a real impact on Jim’s work, right. These online campaigns were getting his talks canceled and harassing him online,” said Mascagni. 

Yet, the film is an embodiment of what is happening in the wider world for LGBTQ+ people as more than 240 anti-LGBTQ+ bills sweep through the nation.

“We decided to make this film pretty soon after Trump got elected,” said Post. “We wanted to, I guess, tell [a story] of this more empathetic, positive person. What’s going on in the Catholic Church reflects everything. I think on the one side you have people who see LGBTQ people as human beings—as they should—and then you have people who don’t and I think that it’s modeled so clearly, as you see in the film, with Father Martin and his opposition.” 

The opposition didn’t stop Father Martin. His book tour continued and even gave some space for Father Martin to grow. Once Father Martin published Building a Bridge he learned that he forgot one major piece to his book: Speaking to LGBTQ+ Catholic communities doing the bridge building work he calls for. There Mascagni and Post talked to the ministry team members of Out at St. Paul of St. Paul’s Apostle in New York City who were critical of the book’s “meet halfway” approach. Ministry members felt that Father Martin needed to see a clearer struggle for LGBTQ+ Catholics who’ve built the bridges Catholic leaders have yet to cross.

“I think that it was important for us to show that. A lot of leaders don’t listen… they don’t listen to people,” said Mascagni. “Jim wrote the first edition of his book, got some things wrong, went to listen to LGBTQ Catholics and made changes to the book and acknowledges that. And I think that is so important for our leaders to be able to acknowledge when they got things wrong and learn from those things and listen to people.” These skills even brought Father Martin to Rome to meet Pope Francis where he held his ear on the future of Catholicism and the LGBTQ+ community so that families like Christine Leinonen and her late son Chris; the Briggiler family from New York City who were embraced by their church regardless of their son’s sexuality and his struggle between his two identities; the Musselman family from Philadelphia who were bullied out of their church for having three LGBTQ+ children always have a home of prayer that loves them, their perseverance and their stories. 

Like Father Martin said on his book tour: “Nothing converts like stories.”

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