The movement in the United States and around the world to create LGBT-friendly parishes, which has worked for decades to welcome and include marginalized and alienated people, finally came into its own this week when, at the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families in Dublin, Jesuit Father James Martin addressed the gathering about creating inclusive Catholic communities.
To a standing-room only crowd in a hall with a seating capacity of 1000, Fr. Martin gave a talk which the session moderator introduced as the “most publicized and talked about” session of the WMF. The talk, entitled “Showing Welcome and Respect in our Parishes for LGBT People and Their Families,” had been added to the schedule after the WMF had made a series of decisions which had alienated the LGBT community in Ireland and abroad. Fr. Martin had earlier described the decision to invite him as a message to the LGBT community that expressed “as an unmistakable sign of welcome from the church.”
[You can find a full text of his talk by clicking here.]
Fr. Martin introduced his talk by saying that “The following observations are based on not only conversations with LGBT people, but also the experience of LGBT ministries and outreach groups that I consulted for this talk. I asked them: What are the most important things for parishes to know and to do?” That’s the reason that I see this event not only as an endorsement of Fr. Martin’s ministry, but also of the countless parish, diocesan, and campus ministries which have worked for so long, often receiving harshly negative comments from church leaders and parishioners alike. With Fr. Martin’s talk at a Vatican-sponsored event, the efforts and messages of these thousands of parish staff members and volunteers had finally received an audience at the highest level of the Church. For that reason alone, this event was an historic moment.
And Fr. Martin was certainly a great choice to deliver that message to the Church. A skilled writer and speaker, his eloquence is seamlessly woven with his wisdom and compassion. Fr. Martin was forthright in his talk, describing the many abuses and oppressions that LGBT people have experienced in the Church, and he was equally strong as he described their deep faith and the spiritual gifts that they offer.
Using PowerPoint images, Fr. Martin accompanied his talk with images of LGBT Catholics and their families. The photos were diverse in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, age, and location. He showed images from LGBT ministries in New York City, Boston, New Jersey, California, including “Out at St. Paul’s” at St. Paul the Apostle parish, Manhattan, St. Cecilia’s parish, Boston, students from Santa Clara University, California, St. Ignatius parish, Manhattan, and participants at the IgnatianQ conference for LGBT students at Jesuit universities, and many other ministries identified only by geographic location. These images brought to the fore that Fr. Martin’s talk was based on the real lives and faith of LGBT people and the pastoral wisdom developed through LGBT ministries.
Father Martin’s speech encouraged more parish’s and Catholic faith communities to become more LGBT-friendly. He explained:
“Sadly, much of the spiritual life of LGBT Catholics and their families depends on where they happen to live. If you’re a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person trying to make sense of your relationship with God and the church, or if you’re a parent of an LGBT person, and you live in a big city with open-minded pastors, you’re in luck. But if you live in a less open-minded place, or your pastor is homophobic, either silently or overtly, you’re out of luck. And the way that Catholics are welcomed, or not welcomed, in their parish heavily influences their outlook on not only the church, but on their faith and on God.
“That’s the real scandal. Why should faith depend on where you live? Is that what God desires for the church? Did Jesus want people in Bethany to feel God’s love less than people in Bethsaida? Did Jesus want a woman in Jericho to feel less loved than a woman in Jerusalem?”
He also painted a vivid picture of the reality of the of the lives of LGBT Catholics. For instance, he emphasized:
“They do not choose their orientation. Sadly, many people still believe that people choose their sexual orientation, despite the testimony of almost every psychiatrist, biologist and, more important, the lived experience of LGBT people. You don’t choose your orientation or gender identity any more than you choose to be left-handed. It’s not a choice. And it’s not an addiction. Thus, it is not a sin simply to be LGBT. Far less, it is not something “blame” on someone, like parents.”
And he described the often harsh treatment they have received from church officials:
“They have often been treated like lepers by the church. Never underestimate the pain that LGBT people have experienced–not only at the hands of the church, but from society at large. . . .
“Most LGBT Catholics have been deeply wounded by the church. They may have been mocked, insulted, excluded, condemned or singled out for critique, either privately or from the pulpit. They may never have heard the term “gay” or “lesbian” expressed in any positive way, or even a neutral way. And even if hateful comments did not come in the parish setting, they may have heard other Catholic leaders make homophobic comments. From their earliest days as Catholics, they are often made to feel like they are a mistake. They fear rejection, judgment and condemnation from the church. In fact, these may be the only things that they expect from the church. This often leads them to exclude themselves from the church.”
He explained that the spiritual longing of LGBT people is, in many ways similar to that of all people:
“They long to know God. Like many Catholics, many LGBT people struggle with various aspects of the church’s teaching—for example, terms like “instrinsically disordered.” At the same time, many aren’t as focused on those parts of the tradition as people think. Many want something much simpler: They want to experience the Father’s love through the community. They want to meet Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. They want to experience the Holy Spirit in the sacraments. They want to hear good homilies, sing good music and feel part of a faith community. Treat them like that–not as protestors but as parishioners. Help LGBT people and their families to fulfill their deepest desires: to know God.
And finally, perhaps most importantly, he emphasized the primacy of God’s love:
“They are loved by God. God loves them–so should we. And I don’t mean a stingy, grudging, judgmental, conditional, half-hearted love. I mean real love. And what does real love mean? The same thing it means for everyone: knowing them in the complexity of their lives, celebrating with them when life is sweet, suffering with them when life is bitter, as a friend would. But I say even more: love them like Jesus loved people on the margins: extravagantly.”
He offered the following ten practical steps that parishes can take to be more welcoming (you can read Fr. Martin’s more expansive explanations of each of these steps by referring to the full text of his talk, which can be found here):
- Examine your own attitudes towards LGBT people and their families.
- Listen to them. Listen to the experiences of LGBT Catholics, and their parents and families.
- Acknowledge them in homilies or parish presentations as full members of the parish, without judgement and not as fallen-away Catholics.
- Apologize to them. If LGBT Catholics or their families have been harmed in the name of the church by homophobic comments and attitudes and decisions, apologize.
- Don’t reduce gays and lesbians to the call to chastity we all share as Christians. LGBT people are more than their sexual lives. But sometimes that’s all they hear about.
- Include them in ministries.
- Acknowledge their individual gifts.
- Invite everyone on the parish staff to welcome them. You may have a welcoming pastor, but what about everyone else?
- Sponsor special events or develop an outreach program.
- Advocate for them. Be prophetic. There are many times when the church can provide a moral voice for this persecuted community. And I’m not talking about hot-button topics like same-sex marriage. I’m talking about incidents in countries where gay men are rounded up and thrown in jail or even executed for being gay, and lesbians are raped to “cure them” of their sexual orientations.
Elaborating on this last point, Fr. Martin said:
“This is part of what it means to be a Christian: standing up for the marginalized, the persecuted, the beaten down. It’s shocking how little the Catholic Church has done this. Let your LGBT parishioners know you stand with them, mention their persecution in a homily when appropriate, or in the Prayers of the Faithful. Be prophetic. Be courageous. Be like Jesus.
“Because if we’re not trying to be like Jesus, what’s the point?”
Fr. Martin concluded his talk with a Scriptural analysis of the story of Zacchaeus in Luke’s gospel. He compared Zacchaeus, an outcast in his community who was considered a great sinner, to a modern day LGBT person, who is often treated as an outcast and a great sinner by religious institutions. Jesus’ welcomed Zacchaeus in that story, though the townspeople grumbled at Jesus’ response. Fr Martin offered Jesus’ action as a model of how church people should respond to LGBT people today:
“This is how Jesus treats people who feel on the margins. He seeks them out before anyone else; he encounters them, and he treats them with respect, sensitivity and compassion.
“So when it comes to LGBT people and their families in our parishes, it seems that there are two places to stand. You can stand with the crowd, who grumble, and who oppose mercy for those on the margins. Or you can stand with Zacchaeus, and, more importantly, with Jesus.”
Fr. Martin received a standing ovation at the end of his talk, the only standing ovation that I have seen at the World Meeting of Families. Many were impressed with his comments, offering favorable comments to one another, as they departed the hall.
I heard some say that his talk did not go far enough, challenging the language of church teaching on LGBT people, such as “objective disorder” and “intrinsically evil.” No, he didn’t do that. But what he did do was to show a global Catholic audience, many of whom who do not have thriving discussions of LGBT issues in their home communities, how they can act to make those communities a bit more inclusive. He also helped dispel myths and provided solid information about the reality of LGBT people, giving his hearers a new way to think about sexual and gender minorities.
Father Martin’s gentle, but forthright, approach helped people to view LGBT issues in the light of lived reality and Scriptural wisdom. His example can help to make LGBT issues less threatening to church officials, and pave the way for a World Meeting of Families where LGBT people can speak about their faith and their families themselves. If nothing else, the large and enthusiastic crowd that attended the session at what is basically a very traditional Catholic event should tell church leaders that Catholics from all over the world are hungering for these kind of discussions.
Most importantly, he provided a model for church leaders of how they can begin the discussion of LGBT issues in the church, and, even more needed, a discussion with LGBT people. Father Martin opened a door for the church, and it’s now time for church leaders to walk through that door into a room filled with the light of Gospel truth.
[You can find a full text of Fr. Martin’s talk by clicking here.]
If you want to find an LGBT-friendly parish, click here. If you would like to recommend a parish as LGBT-friendly, click here amd scroll to the form at the bottom of the page.
If you are interested in learning more about making your parish or faith community a more welcoming place, check out the resources on New Ways Ministry’s web page on “Parish Life & Pastoral Care.” If you are interested in resources about making Catholic schools safer places for LGBT students, click here.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, August 24, 2018