A Kentucky man involved in LGBTQ Catholic ministry has posted a letter online he says he received earlier this month from Pope Francis thanking him for his work.

Stan “JR” Zerkowski heads the LGBTQ Outreach Commission for the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky. The commission is a “diocesan-wide effort of seeking, welcoming, accompanying, and ministering to the LGBT community.”

He also leads the LGBTQ+ Ministry at St. Paul Catholic Church in Lexington, a parish that has been the cause of controversy in the past, including for an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary draped in a gay pride flag posted on its website and a prayer to the Blessed Mother it shares under the title “Mother of Pride.”

The Holy Father’s handwritten note came in response to an email that Zerkowski wrote addressed to him on Oct. 10 explaining Zerkowski’s three LGBTQ ministries, two of which fall under the Diocese of Lexington.

“I told him about Fortunate Families. I told him what I do locally and nationally with parishes, hierarchy, educational institutions, and building intentional LGBTQ+ ministries,” Zerkowski shared in a Facebook post.

“I thanked him for opening the door to LGBTQ+ ministry and explained that it has been and still is a difficult ministry. I told him that his openness has saved lives, I know this firsthand. I mentioned that as the Synod [on Synodality] unfolds in Rome, he’s got a special place in my/our prayers,” he wrote.

Pope Francis’ response, translated into English in a photo Zerkowski posted online, said: “Dear brother, thank you very much for your email. Thank you for your ministry. I pray for you, please continue to do so for me. May the Lord bless you and the Madonna watch over you.”

“I understand fully that this note is not about me. This note is about us and our ministry. It is about you. It is an affirmation from the pope,” Zerkowski wrote. “My personal takeaway? The pope is listening. The pope cares.”

Zerkowski is the author of a memoir titled “Coming Out and Coming Home: A Gay Catholic Man’s Journey from Marginalization to Ministry, with a Few Miracles Along the Way.” Lexington Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv, wrote the foreword. 

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In addition to leading the diocese’s outreach commission and the LGBTQ+ ministry at St. Paul’s, Zerkowski heads a ministry called Fortunate Families that offers resources and guidance to clergy, parishes, and schools to “discern and begin ministry to LGBTQ+ persons through intentional welcome and LGBTQ+ ministry” within the Church.

Fortunate Families’ website features testimonies by individuals who experienced a gender identity crisis, some of whom went through hormonal or surgical gender transitions. They still say, however, that they wish to be in communion with the Catholic Church.

One man, suffering from gender dysphoria, wrote in his testimony: “After a great deal of prayer and consideration and help from a therapist, I began hormone therapy. Physically, I am much better: my health has improved and my symptoms have subsided. Emotionally, I am struggling with how I will tell my wife and everyone else. I believe my path is to transition and to present as the female that I am. I believe it’s the only way forward, even though I do not know where the path will lead. I keep reminding myself to be not afraid and trust in God!”

The testimony continued: “I believe that it is okay to be transgender and Catholic. Jesus’ life on earth centered on caring for the poor and marginalized. No one was and is outside his compassion. As he said, ‘It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice.’”

CNA asked Zerkowski if the testimonies of individuals who underwent gender transition encouraged the practice.

“We listen to and share real stories just as Pope Francis has encouraged the Church to do via the Synod,” he responded in an email. “The stories are sacred.”

Also on the website is a book for mental health professionals called “The Gender Affirmative Model: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Supporting Transgender and Gender Expansive Children.” Its description says that “readers will learn how to facilitate and enable children to live in their authentic gender with necessary social supports.”

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The book says that “influencing children to accept the gender that matches the sex on their birth certificate have been challenged, declared unethical, and evaluated as harmful to children’s well-being.”

Another resource, titled “This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids: A Question and Answer Guide to Everyday Life,” says: “Your child, in having the freedom to explore who they are, may meet someone of the same gender, fall madly in love, and grow old with them, happier than you could have ever imagined.”

Asked by CNA if the two books contradict the Church’s teaching on same-sex relations and transgenderism, Zerkowski referred to the website, which says Fortunate Families provides a list of resources but “cannot endorse” them.

“We stand by Catholic social teaching about the dignity of the human person and the Gospel mandate to work together for the common good,” the website says.

News of the letter comes following reports that Pope Francis met at his residence in October with leadership from the U.S. LGBTQ organization New Ways Ministry, which was previously denounced by both the U.S. bishops’ conference and the Vatican’s doctrinal office for causing confusion on sexual morality among the Catholic faithful.