Almost exactly five years ago, a 29-year-old man with a semi-automatic rifle and a 9mm Glock walked into the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and killed 49 people and wounded over 50 more. It was the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. It was also the most violent attack on the LGBTQ community the country had ever seen.
“I think what really struck me was the lack of response from most of the bishops in the United States,” says Father James Martin in Building a Bridge, a new Martin Scorsese-produced documentary that debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival this week (and can be viewed at home through June 23rd). “In other gun tragedies, the U.S. bishops and local bishops will say we stand with the victims of wherever it is. I couldn’t believe that there was only a handful of bishops that said anything. It was at that time the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. And they were silent.”
That silence became a turning point in Father Martin’s ministry: “It just really angered me that even in death, these people were largely invisible to the church.” Building a Bridge powerfully documents his effort to change that, to spread a message of inclusivity in a faith tradition that has long viewed homosexuality as an “abomination.” Rolling Stone recently talked with the documentary’s directors, Evan Mascagni and Shannon Post, about the impact of that message — and the about future of a faith that seems, however haltingly, to be on the precipice of change.
What was your entry into this topic?
Evan: I was raised in a really Catholic community in Kentucky and stopped practicing Catholicism regularly once I got into college. But my mom started telling me, “Oh there are progressive voices in the church. There’s this cool priest I follow on Instagram, and he’s in New York and you’re in New York.” She’d been bugging me to go to one of his talks, and I was just kind of blowing it off. And then I was like, “You know, I will go meet this priest.” And I was just blown away at the energy at his talks, at the people in the pews. It just was so unlike anything I had experienced as a Catholic growing up, especially in Kentucky. Immediately I was thinking, “Oh, wow, there’s a story here.”
Shannon: Christine [Leinonen] in the film is the mother of one of my friends from college [who was killed in the Pulse massacre]. We used to go to Pulse together in college. And so when Evan told me about Father Martin and how he was inspired by the Pulse massacre, I saw it as a way to connect. And then just personally, I am queer. I was not raised Catholic, but I was raised Christian, and I always felt like the church wasn’t the place for me. I just connected personally to his message.
When you interviewed him, were you open to him about your disbelief?
Evan: Yeah. I think my issue fundamentally with the Catholic Church is like Father Martin says: Jesus’s message is one of love and inclusion. Right? And I feel like the Catholic Church that I grew up in, that wasn’t the message I was hearing. So it was refreshing to finally hear someone who I felt like was actually preaching the gospel, preaching the word of Jesus as it should be preached and not using it to contribute to divisiveness or spew hatred or bigotry. That was actually quite refreshing for me—and a glimpse at the Catholic Church that I hope it could be. It was healing. It was just quite nice to finally feel somewhat reassured that there were other people out there that interpreted the word of Jesus in the same way.
Martin Scorsese [an executive producer on the film] actually had this quote when someone asked him if he was still Catholic and he was like, “Still Catholic? Like, what do you mean?” You know, it’s a part of you. It’s ingrained in you. It’s the way you were brought up. It’s the culture—everything about it. You know, I haven’t been excommunicated from the church. I’m a baptized Catholic. I don’t attend mass regularly or participate in any of the sacraments or anything like that, but it’s an identity. It’s hard to totally escape that Catholic identity when it’s all you knew growing up.
Since you since you mentioned Scorsese, can you talk a little bit about how he got involved as a producer?
Evan: They heard we were doing a documentary on Father Martin and were curious to learn more, and we sent them a rough cut. And then someone on his team emailed and they were like, “Hey, Evan, we’ve got Marty on the line. Are you free?” And I’m, like, freaking out. But yeah, we talked, and he was really interested in the subject—I think for some of the same reasons that we were—and gave us some really insightful feedback and creative ideas that we implemented. It’s an honor to have him endorse the film and the subject and the topic.
Well, Father Martin’s reaction to the Pulse shooting was just so powerful—this kind of disbelief that the church wasn’t speaking out more and the fact that that galvanized him. Shannon, do you mind talking a little bit about how you first heard about what had happened at Pulse?
Shannon: I’m from Florida. I went to college in Orlando, and I was getting texts from friends that night. Christine’s son and I, we share a best friend—or we shared a best friend—and she called me in the morning and said he wasn’t answering his phone and they couldn’t find him. I think I was in shock for a while. It took it took so long to find out what happened that we kind of knew what happened before we really knew.
What’s your understanding of the history of inclusively, or lack thereof, in the Catholic Church?
Evan: I think there were a lot of people long before Father Martin working on this issue. New Ways Ministry and Sister Janine is a great example of an individual who’s been doing this work for a very long time. But I think what drew us to Father Martin was that he had the attention of the hierarchy because he was very careful to not challenge any church teaching. You know, in his book, it’s a pretty mild message, right? Treat LGBTQ people with respect, compassion and sensitivity. I was kind of blown away that he got so much pushback and that groups like Church Militant [an alt-right Catholic organization] were able to get his talks canceled and were just able to put so much pressure on these local parishes. And that made us realize like, “Oh, wow, the Catholic Church still has a very long way to go.” That’s something we tried to show in the film as well.
I do want to talk to you about Michael Voris [the leader of Church Militant]. Was it hard to get him to participate in the film?
Shannon: I actually reached out to them initially. They were very open. I think I think his attitude is, is there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Evan: Yeah, he was really open and honest, as you can see in the film. And, you know, it was a balancing act, right? Like as a filmmaker, you don’t want to give someone a platform to spew hatred and bigotry. But on the other hand, we saw real impact he was having on Father Martin’s ministry. They were getting talks canceled. They were spamming his social media. And the more we were following, the more we realized this wasn’t just some fringe group, so we felt it was important to at least show what Father Martin was up against in his ministry.
Why don’t more people in these faith traditions see that Jesus would want people to be included? It shouldn’t be that revolutionary to just include people.
Evan: I just feel that Father Martin’s message has been resonating and getting so much attention and publicity because this is something that has been building up in Catholics. This is an issue that has not been addressed by the hierarchy for way too long. And I think people are sick of it. People are leaving the Catholic Church. You can look at Father Martin’s comments when this recent news came out that the Catholic Church can’t bless same sex unions. You know, that’s a last straw for people. People have had enough: “Why would I stay in this place that’s not going to accept me, not going to love me?” So I think he’s really just struck a nerve.
I do want to talk about the pope’s announcement about same-sex unions, which came at the end of the film.
Evan: It’s heartbreaking, really. I mean, prior to that coming out, this film ended on a very positive note. Father Martin was meeting with Pope Francis, the Vatican released an image of Father Martin and Pope Francis meeting together. Things were looking good. And then this bomb just gets dropped on us. It’s just, you know, two steps forward, one step back. I think it just raised the stakes even more to show why this message is so important to get out there.
Did working on this documentary change your relationship to like your own faith?
Evan: I’m not as cynical as I used to be. I used to just think everything about the Catholic Church needed reform and needed to be changed—and I’m particularly interested in how you change an institution from within. You know, there’s over a billion Catholics. It’s one of the most powerful institutions in the world. And watching Father Martin’s work and watching the real impact it was having on real people was super inspiring and made me a lot less cynical.
Shannon: Yeah, I’m kind of the same. I don’t go to church. I’m not a believer yet, but I think it was really healing for me to see that there are LGBT people, queer people, who have a home in a church and who identify as Catholic—seeing that that’s a possibility. So I’m a lot more open to it now.