I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot in my life, but there’s never been a trip quite like the one I’ll be embarking on soon. In January, I’ll be joining a team of six other young people for World Youth Day (WYD) in Panama, a Vatican-sponsored event that gathers young people from all over the world for several days of faith-sharing and encounter.
The seven of us are sponsored by Equally Blessed, a coalition of Catholic LGTBQ+ advocacy groups (of which New Ways Ministry is a member, along with Call To Action and DignityUSA). We’ll be going to the heart of the active church with a message that challenges what it officially proclaims: we’re calling for full affirmation and equality for all LGBTQ+ people in the Catholic church.
The reasons this trip is so urgently needed are listed on the pilgrimage webpage: the recent Synod on Youth’s lackluster response to LGTBQ+ issues; destructive rhetoric linking sex abuse to gay priests; and an ongoing erasure of LGBTQ+ Catholics, including the loss of employment and limitations in parish communities. Above all, there’s the Pope’s silence. He’ll be in Panama, and we want him to hear us.
I don’t know what to expect, really. Part of me wants to go in on fire, demanding immediate change and calling out all the old hypocrites. I want to turn over tables in the temple and fling open the doors for anyone who’s ever been told they weren’t allowed in. I’ve been told time and again that change in the church takes a very long time, that the smallest of shifts towards inclusion are revolutionary. Now more than ever, though, I’m impatient. I want to know why we haven’t fixed this already, why this community that holds such authority cannot get past ancient prejudice and practice an active love we claim to center our lives around.
I imagine we’ll run into some opposition, but participants who’ve gone on earlier Equally Blessed pilgrimages to WYD mainly encountered instances of support. They said that they were often approached by other attendees who wanted to share how much it meant to see them there. This fits with what I know of young Catholics in my own circles: we’re way beyond what the hierarchy professes and will not turn back. But while I am going to stand as a visible counter to messages and practices of exclusion and cruelty, it feels perhaps even more important to go in love. If we can’t change the minds of those in charge, we can at least be a visible presence for other young people on pilgrimage: those who are LGBTQ+ and those who aren’t. I want them to hear that this church belongs to everyone, not just those who are calling the shots.
My hopes for the church were clearly visualized this past summer, when I visited St. Vincent de Paul parish in Germantown, Philadelphia. I had worked in their neighboring non-profit as a university student: Face to Face works with low-income Philadelphians in a variety of outreach programs. It had been a few years since I’d visited, but as soon as I arrived, I was thrilled to remember how tremendous of a place it really is. On the front fence were two banners: one with an all-caps proclamation that ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and another with the familiar lawn-sign image that ‘Hate Has No Home Here,’ translated below into multiple languages. Inside the church was a poster-board filled with bible verses in sharpie marker all about welcoming the stranger, Matthew 25:35 most prominently in the center. The walls were covered with iconography, among them Oscar Romero (pre-canonization), Martin Luther King, St. Martin de Porres, Dorothy Day, and an image of ‘Jesus Christ Liberator,’ Who is black.
The most striking sight, though, was in the front vestibule: a full-sized rainbow flag joyfully displayed. And on a cork board, the name tags of all the parish volunteers ready for use, more than half of them with a small piece of rainbow ribbon attached.
I don’t live close enough to St. Vincent’s to attend regularly, but I know most deeply that this is the church I want to see everywhere. This is the model of church that I want to live and I want to make happen in Panama. I’ve only spoken with the other young people going to World Youth Day on one late-night Skype call, but from reading their bios and blog posts, I’m already feeling incredibly glad that I’ll get to be making this trip with this group for my companions.
There’s Meli, who worked for years in parish ministry, but needed to quit to be able to marry her wife. She says: “I am finally living abundantly not despite of my relationship, but because of it…my wife calls me to greater holiness; I am better because she loves me.” On that one Skype call, she was juggling our conversation with a community dinner at a Catholic Worker house she now leads.
Also going is Breanna, who’s already devoted two Equally Blessed blog posts to educating visitors on the terminology and ‘frequently asked questions’ about gender and sexuality, with a faith-based lens. Her posts are detailed and generous, going in-depth into an area that many Catholics may find unfamiliar.
Evan has been to World Youth Day twice before with Jesuit groups. He currently works with low-income students and is active in the queer-affirming Most Holy Redeemer parish in San Francisco.
If you would like to make a donation to support the seven young pilgrims as they set out for Panama, click here to fill out a contribution page. There are m any ways you can donate and at a variety of levels from small to large.
Raised in the Baptist church, Keith took part in DignityUSA’s Young Adult Caucus retreat in Denver this past summer, along with Cooper, who works in adolescent HIV research. Since Cooper and I are both in the Philly area, I’m already imagining that we might stay in touch and work together even after our week in Panama.
We’re all led by Equally Blessed coordinator John Freml, who has been working tirelessly to make our presence at World Youth Day a reality.
Then there’s me. I’m new to this work through my blogging here at Bondings 2.0. I’ve learned most of what I know from conversations with people who’ve been deeply involved in this ministry for decades. I want to do my best to do right by my LGBTQ+ friends who have often been hurt by religious responses to their gender and sexuality, and who have stuck by me as I continue to work through what my church represents and can be.
The pilgrimage is now just over two months away. I’m excited and scared and nervous, but in a good way– the way I feel whenever I do something both daunting and necessary. As we approach the Advent season, I pray that our group will only grow stronger and our preparations will come together. I hope that people will hear about our trip and that it’ll have some kind of impact in their lives. It’s already had a pretty big impact on mine.
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, November 25, 2018