Last month, Pope Francis visited the Central American isthmus for the first time, landing in Panama for World Youth Day, the largest single gathering of Catholic young people on the planet. I was there, too, with a community of six pilgrims sponsored by Equally Blessed, a coalition of three Catholic organizations which work for LGBTQI equality (Call To Action, DignityUSA, New Ways Ministry).
We were there to advocate for the full rights and inclusion of LGBTQI people in the Catholic church. Our goal was mostly to meet with people, to be present and visible. We were standing as an intentional counter to any anti-LGBTQI official messaging, and seeing the Pope wasn’t necessarily top on our list of priorities. The afternoon of his arrival, we were taking a break from the chaos of mingling with the excited crowds, leisurely eating gelato and reflecting on the day. Then we heard the raucous screams from just a few blocks away: airhorns and vuvuzelas and radio speakers. A few of us raced in the direction of the noise. Just as we rounded the corner and reached the crowd, there he went: the Popemobile a flash and a blur, the pontiff’s face in focus for just a second.
We screamed and hugged, turned to the rest of our group in shock that we had reached the crowd at the exact right moment. “I’m shaking,” said Breanna Mekuly, one of our pilgrims. “I didn’t think I would care that much, but I did.”
If we felt lucky at getting to see the pope, the majority of our week was spent being seen by others. Virtually everywhere we went, we wore rainbow sashes and often carried a wide banner proclaiming our mission: “Faithful Catholics committed to full equality for LGBTQI persons.” The banner turned heads on bumpy side streets and on the wide highways designated for official World Youth Day gatherings. Sometimes we could barely move 10 feet in as many minutes because the crowds kept stopping us. “I love your banner,” they mostly said. “Can we take a picture?” We responded enthusiastically, gesturing for them to join us and adding, “Find us online, #equallyblessed!” These pictures of our sometimes sweaty and tired but always smiling group can now be found on the social media landscapes of dozens of countries. By the end of the week, we were going viral: people weaving towards us from across a packed field, asking, “Are you Equally Blessed? We’ve been looking for you!”
After each photograph, we gave out rainbow striped buttons which read “I am Equally Blessed” and “It’s Our Church Too.” I translated this for the huge numbers of Latin American pilgrims we encountered: Es nuestro iglesia tambien. We posted about the experience on our own social media pages, and we found a wider reach in LGBTQI Panamanians who were otherwise disconnected from World Youth Day. For example, we met the amazing founder of a support group for trans men, a gay couple who run a YouTube channel (and helped our message spread across the country), and a lesbian podcast host who spent a full day showing us around the old city.
While the overwhelming majority of people greeted us with enthusiasm, there were some pointed looks, murmurs, and a few discouraging incidents of critical questioning. Two mornings, we went to English-speaking catechesis, where a visiting priest would give a short lecture, answer some questions, and then lead the group in mass. These were spaces populated by more US Catholics than elsewhere at WYD. The vibe there was different: there wasn’t a tremendous amount of outright hostility, but our group members sometimes felt we were on edge and were being stared down.
At our second morning of catechesis, we decided to participate in the question and answer session. One of our group, Meli Barber, got in line wearing her rainbow sash, mentally rehearsing a question at the heart of our trip: Where was the respect and compassion for LGBTQI people that the church professes it has for everyone? Just when it would have been her turn, they announced that the previous question was the last. It felt disappointingly predictable, but as she turned to go, several people stopped to ask what she would have said. With their encouragement, she returned to the stage and asked once more to be heard.
Her question was carefully worded and from the heart: “What I love most about the Catholic faith is the dignity of all people. But what I feel as an LGBT person is that my dignity and the dignity of my family is not always respected. How would you respond to that?” You can listen to the priest’s full response here; it was a general sentiment of caring, though without much in the way of concrete affirmation. Yet regardless of how he had chosen to respond, the true impact of Meli’s bravery came after the session had ended. We were surrounded once again by supporters, grateful that she had spoken up. One in particular stands out: a group leader who hugged her and whispered that he too was gay, then took a button and pinned it to the inside of his shirt.
[Editor’s note: Meli Barber has written her own account of World Youth Day, which has been posted on The National Catholic Reporter website. You can read it by clicking here. Fellow pilgrim Keith Hall‘s experiences were featured in an article on The Washington Blade website. You can read it by clicking here. The other pilgrims were Cooper Kidd and Evan Vaughn. Equally Blessed Coordinator John Freml traveled with them as a support person.]
Meli, who left her job in church ministry to be able to marry her wife, later shared that the gay group leader’s action reminded her of something she might have done years before. I thought then of how many people had been affected by her question, well beyond those who had gone out of their way to approach us immediately afterwards. I thought about the young woman we met on our very first walk through a Panamanian mall. She was in tears. That morning she had endured homophobic comments by a priest, but could hardly contain her joy at finding us there. I thought of the nun we met moments later who took our rainbow buttons and distributed them to her entire group.
About midweek, I was asked how I could justify staying in the church, and I said that I didn’t think I could without being part of Equally Blessed and without my writing here at New Ways Ministry’s Bondings 2.0. Catholicism has always been a home for me, but I can’t justify being here if it can’t become that home for everyone who wants it. Above this, though, I responded that this church is made up of much more than the hierarchy. It is the hundreds who came up to us with tears and joy, questions and blessings. It is the clergy who took our buttons and wore them proudly, it is the folks who saw us and did not come up but will remember that we were there. It is the incredible group I got to travel with, and it is the young people who will lead us into so much good to come.
At the opening ceremonies, Pope Francis recalled the words of St. Oscar Romero, saying: “A saint from these lands liked to say that, ‘Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed, of rules to be followed, or of prohibitions. Seen that way it puts us off. Christianity is a person who loved me immensely, who demands and asks for my love. Christianity is Christ.’”
There is plenty of work to do, but I left World Youth Day with a burning hope that Romero’s vision can be true.
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, February 12, 2019
Bondings 2.0: “Pope Francis Met by LGBTQ Kiss-In During World Youth Day“