Pope Francis answered one of Brian McNeill's prayers this week.
McNeill, an LGBTQ Catholic advocate, has been working for the day when the pontiff would publicly take a stand against laws that criminalize being gay. On Tuesday, Francis did just that.
Declaring "homosexuality is not a crime" in an interview with the Associated Press, Francis called on Catholic bishops in countries with anti-gay laws to stand against the "unjust" laws and recognize people's dignity.
"This has been a long-standing issue. It's a real breakthrough, an answer to prayer that he has said this," said McNeill, president of Dignity Twin Cities, the local chapter of DignityUSA, an organization that works for respect and justice for LGBTQ Catholics.
Some inside the church and out welcomed Francis' comments, which they saw as groundbreaking — he is the first pope to denigrate such laws — and as consistent with his past approach to LGBTQ people, including his direct support of same-sex civil unions.
The Rev. Bernard Hebda, archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said Francis' words didn't signal a departure from church teaching but were a papal reminder to be compassionate.
"Pope Francis's words should not surprise anyone who has followed his pontificate," Hebda said in a statement. "His comments are a good reminder to each of us — bishops and faithful alike — that we are called to be a welcoming Church and see all our sisters and brothers, whether immigrants, the poor, the unborn, or those who identify as LGBTQ, as created in the image and likeness of God and thus, worthy of our love."
Hebda cautioned Catholics not to misinterpret the pope's statement.
"I believe it would be a mistake, however, to read those remarks as representing a change in the Church's fundamental teachings on human sexuality. Rather, the Pope more specifically expressed his conviction that civil society should not punish same-sex activity as a crime," Hebda said.
In the Twin Cities, the archdiocese has "already recognized a need to be more welcoming," Hebda said. "I am appreciative that so many of our faithful and parishes are already considering how we can better demonstrate the Church's love for those who challenge the Church's teaching on sexuality."
In the interview, Francis did not suggest a change to the church's teaching but to its approach. In a rhetorical conversation with himself that the Associated Press characterized as "banter," he set out these positions:
"It's not a crime. Yes, but it's a sin. Fine, but first let's distinguish between a sin and a crime."
"It's also a sin to lack charity with one another," he said.
McNeill has been working with Dignity Twin Cities, a local chapter of the organization, since the 1980s. Founded in 1969, the national group began as a ministry for gay and lesbian Catholics. While McNeill has focused primarily on local issues — including fighting efforts by the Minnesota Catholic Conference to ban same-sex marriage — he believes it's essential to support LGBTQ Catholics around the world.
"I have always said that one of the main reasons I do this work is because we here in the U.S. can advocate and lobby the church on improving their position on LGBTQ issues without any consequences," said McNeill. "In 67 countries in the world, it's illegal to be LGBTQ and in 11 countries, it merits the death penalty under certain circumstances."
In Minnesota, sodomy statues that had been on the books since the 1800s were struck down by a state court in 2001. So discriminatory laws are no longer a focus for Twin Cities LGBTQ Catholics or their advocates and allies.
In recent years, they have focused on fighting guidelines issued by the Catholic bishops of Minnesota which state that transgender kids in Catholic schools will be called by the names and pronouns that reflect their biological sex.
McNeill's group and others have met with Hebda several times, most recently in June. As part of worldwide Catholic listening meetings, Hebda invited Minnesotans who felt marginalized to share their concerns.
Paula Ruddy, a board member at Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, was one of dozens of advocates who met with Hebda along with Catholic parents of a trans child.
She came away believing that the church and the archdiocese have a long way to go toward inclusivity, even as Hebda has "listened and empathized," Ruddy said.
"As a participant, I would say all of them agreed that the Church's attitude toward LGBTQ people needed to change," she said.