An “extraordinary mercy” – “I give you the power of the keys”


Pope Francis made a phone call to a leading gay theologian and priest who was suspended from active ministry in part over his LGBTQ-affirming work, and gave the theologian “the power of the keys,” a phrase indicating his restoration to active priesthood.

Francis placed the call two years ago to Fr. James Alison who only yesterday shared in The Tablet his account of the experience, which was first reported about anonymously in Frédéric Martel’s In the Closet of the Vatican published earlier this year.  In Alison’s account, he begins by explaining his suspension from ministry by the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy in the 1990s:

“. . .I had been forcibly removed from clerical status, and was forbidden to teach, preach or preside. And that this was unappealable. Even for someone predisposed to imagine a Kafka-esque quality to Vatican bureaucracy it was shocking to be tangential to a process in which it is unnecessary to inform the one charged of the charges against him, in which no legal representation is permitted, and whose sentence does not require the signature of the sentence.”

Most bishops and church leaders would not support Alison, some being unwilling to even be seen meeting with him. Yet, a bishop with whom he was friendly eventually said he would request a private audience with Pope Francis and plead Alison’s case. The priest’s sharing continued:

“Eighteen months later, the bishop had his private audience, bearing with him a letter from me appealing what the Congregation had claimed was unappealable. My letter pointed out that the whole process smacked of the ‘self-referential curialism’ that Francis has so often criticised. And that I had been doing exactly what he had publicly encouraged us to do: to evangelise in an existential periphery, and ’cause a bit of a stir’. In the letter, I exposed my conscience to him: that I could not reconcile what he himself had said in public with the Latin document sent to me in his name, and was proposing to treat that document as null, and to carry on as before.

“I asked Francis, if at all possible, to make my situation regular, not as a personal favour to me, but as part of opening up wider ministerial possibilities in the Church for LGBT people to speak, preach, evangelise, in the first person, no longer bound by the dreaded ‘they’ of clerical dishonesty.”

Alison’s case was known by the pope by May 2017, a step which the theologian considered to be significant progress. But an even more significant step would occur:

“Then came the call: Sunday 2 July 2017 at about 3 p.m. Him: ‘Soy el Papa Francisco’; Me: ‘¿en serio?’; Him: ‘No, en broma hijo’ (‘This is Pope Francis’; ‘Are you serious?’; ‘No, just joking, son’). But it was he. The Argentinian accent, but more the fact that he knew the content of my letter, and was clearly referring to it as he spoke, clinched for me that this was no prank played by a cruel friend.

“And then this: ‘I want you to walk with deep interior freedom, following the Spirit of Jesus. And I give you the power of the keys. Do you understand? I give you the power of the keys.’ I said, ‘Yes’, though in retrospect, how, in my daze, I thought I had understood the gift is beyond me. The conversation went on, talking with humour, and even a certain piquancy, about friends and acquaintances in common. In the background a hint of lyric opera, which I strained to recognise. After urging me to discretion, not to cause problems for good bishops, he ended with ‘Pray for me. I’ll look up your dossier and get back to you.’ “

The call was an “extraordinary mercy,” Alison wrote, with implications for not only him, but others. The pope, it seemed, “did not regard as binding his own Congregation’s sentence” and “clearly treated [Alison] as a priest” with universal jurisdiction to hear Confessions. Alison explained further:

“That [Francis] was trusting me to be free to be responsibly the priest that I have spent all these years becoming; that for the first time in my life in the Church I had been treated as an adult by an adult, and, good Lord! It takes the Pope himself to act like that . . .Thirty years a priest, and it feels as though only now is my ordination kicking in. Having received, in addition, such freedom, how now should I exercise a ministry? With whom and for whom? In what good ways to be accountable, and to whom? Pope Francis has talked about this being a change of epoch rather than an epoch of change. What is going to be the shape of ministry in the Church that is being birthed? What is the form and style of teaching? These are, thank heaven, up in the air in ways I could never have imagined when as a frightened and classically-minded youth I lay prostrate before a bishop on a cold floor in 1988, full of intellectual certainty, hoping for some emotional security to match: and instead received from the Holy Spirit a 30-year blast into adulthood.”

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry’s executive director, commented on the significance of this event.  “The pope’s restoration of priestly office to Fr. Alison is a great blessing for this theologian, who, even in a form of exile, has so faithfully served the church and the LGBTQ community,”  DeBernardo said.  “It is also a great sign of affirmation to gay priests, showing that despite official denigrations of them from the Vatican, the pope is willing to act pastorally to affirm one of their number.  It is another sign that Pope Francis is trying to change the way the church responds to the LGBTQ community.”

Fr. James Alison for many years has been an advocate for and minister to LGBTQ Catholics. He has also sharply critiqued clericalism, and said the issue of gay men in the priesthood is an “elephant in the sacristy.” He positively reviewed Martel’s book, a review which is available here. Alison’s theology and critiques of the church have been thoughtful and drawn from his own authenticity, making them particularly compelling. Pope Francis’ call and respect for Alison’s path rights a major injustice inflicted by the Vatican. It should give all Catholics encouragement to follow their consciences and do the work to which God calls them, even if church leaders condemn or exclude.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 29, 2019



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  1. Iggy O Donovan says:

    A beaufiful story. However I cannot help thinking of our colleague Tony Flannery.

  2. Mary Vallely says:

    I agree with you, Iggy. It is indeed a beautiful story which shows Pope Francis as a true Nazarene follower, full of surprises, of love and compassion. All it takes is for one Irish bishop and a Redemptorist representative to plead Tony’s case. IF there is the will, that is.

    I feel full of anger and sadness when I think of how callously Fr Sean Fagan and others were treated. Is it a lack of courage or a lack of warmth and compassion that keeps our Irish bishops from taking the initiative? I do wonder.

    However I don’t want to take away from the sheer beauty of this Pope Francis/ Fr James Alison/ Holy Spirit encounter. Read it this morning and it gave my heart such a lift.

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