CATHOLIC LGBT HISTORY: ‘You belong here. It’s about time somebody says that to you.’

“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s  feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues.  We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.

Once a  month, Bondings 2.0 staff will produce a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years.  We will comb through editions of Bondings 2.0’s predecessor: Bondings,  New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format.   We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately, because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases. 

Gays, Lesbians Are Welcomed at Richmond Service

Twenty years ago this month, Bishop Walter F. Sullivan made headlines by organizing a Mass at his diocesan cathedral to welcome lesbian and gay people and their families.  Over 250 people gathered at the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia’s, Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.  I was thinking a lot about bishops like Walter Sullivan this past week who in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s made some positive gestures toward welcoming the LGBT community.  Earlier in the same year, 1997, Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, New York, offered a Mass for lesbian and gay people at his diocesan cathedral, too, which was attended by an overflow crowd (more on that event in a future post).  I was thinking of these two because of the stark contrast they offer to the pastorally harmful message sent by the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin’s guidelines recommending that married lesbian and gay people not receive church funerals, which followed a similar directive earlier this summer by Bishop Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois.  How far we have not come!  In fact, these recent directives are major steps backward.

On October 26, 1997, The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on Bishop Sullivan’s Mass, and the mood of the event and the article were upbeat and promising.  The article began:

“Gays and lesbians are welcome in the Catholic Diocese of Richmond.

“That’s the message the Most Rev. Walter F. Sullivan, the bishop of the diocese, brought yesterday to a gathering of 250 people at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart for what organizers said was the first official Mass for gays and lesbians in Richmond.

” ‘You belong here,’  Sullivan told the group. ‘It’s about time somebody says that to you.’ “

Sullivan went on to say that he hoped the Mass sent a message to all Catholics:

“I feel it’s important gays and lesbians understand that they are a part of our family.”

By 1997, Sullivan’s words had already been backed up by over two decades of actions.  In 1976, he had established a diocesan Sexual Minorities Commission, the first diocesan outreach to lesbian and gay people, and it would set the example for many other dioceses to follow suit.  In 1992, he was one of only three U.S. bishops who signed a statement supporting full civil rights for lesbian and gay people, a protest against a Vatican instruction for bishops to withhold their support for such legislation.  For more on Bishop Sullivan’s LGBT ministry, click here to read Bondings 2.0’s remembrance of him when he passed away in 2012.

Bishop Walter Sullivan

The Times-Dispatch article also quoted Brother Cosmas Rubencamp, CFX, who was the director of the Sexual Minorities Commission:

“Rubencamp compared outreach to gays and lesbians to outreach to divorced people.  While the church doesn’t condone divorce or homosexual sex, it doesn’t want to exclude divorced people or homosexuals, he said.

” ‘We’re not judging what they’re doing in their bedrooms,’ Rubencamp said.”

The article also told the story of one of the congregants at the Mass, 20-year old Giovanni Skelton:

” ‘I was personally touched by the words of Bishop Sullivan,’ said Skelton, a Virginia Commonwealth University sophomore.

“Skelton, who regularly attends Mass at the cathedral, said yesterday was a step toward accepting his sexual orientation.  He is gay, but has not told his parents, and until yestgerday, had not told the members of his church.

” ‘I feel very relieved,’ Skelton said.  ‘It’s nice to be out in the open.’ “

Today, when bishops like Paprocki and Madison’s Morlino are banning lesbian and gay people from receiving pastoral care, it’s important to remember that we have bishops like Sullivan and Clark in our tradition and history.  I think it is important to remember, too, that, at least for now, Paprocki and Morlino are grave exceptions to the rule.  While their actions are harmful to LGBT people and the church community, these actions also put them outside the pale of mainstream Catholicism, particularly in the age of Pope Francis.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 28, 2017

5 replies
  1. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    I wonder if a crowd of 250 LGBT people would gather today to hear a bishop. The hierarchy are so out of touch with their flocks their irrelevance just doesn’t make anyone want to be insulted in the name of Christ. Bishop Sullivan was first a man who cared about all of his flock. How many bishops would be described that way?

  2. Donna Ryan RSM
    Donna Ryan RSM says:

    Great history. In 1977, Mercy sister Donna Ryan , with the support of the Paulist Fathers, initiated support for gltbq folks in Boulder, CO. Rev Richard Woods was an original speaker to the group in 1978l

  3. Friends
    Friends says:

    All of these were the good fruits of the Post-Vatican-II Church, which reflected the spacious kindness and compassion and wisdom of Pope St. John XXIII. Then, and alas, the darkness returned, under the iron-fisted regimes of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. We see clearly now what harm their attitude inflicted upon the Church, especially as their severely repressive and negative attitudes disposed younger Catholics to give up entirely on this institution. It now falls upon Pope Francis — a kindly man, at the very least — to attempt to repair the damage done by his two immediate predecessors. I wish him well, although the task now looms like one of the legendary Labors of Hercules.


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