The Catholic LGBTQ+ community lost one of its early strong supporters this past month with the death of Bishop Matthew Clark, the retired bishop of Rochester, New York. While he did a number of great things for the LGBTQ+ community, I think he will be remembered most for his willingness to be a listener and a learner.
In 1992, Casey and Mary Ellen Lopata, the parents of a gay man, attended New Ways Ministry’s Third National Symposium on Lesbian/Gay Issues in Chicago. They had recently learned about their son’s identity, and at the time there were very few Catholic opportunities to gain knowledge and support. Seven other people from their diocese also attended that meeting, and they caucused together and decided that when they returned home, they would seek out Bishop Clark to share their stories. They called themselves “the Rochester Nine.”
Bishop Clark listened to them and supported them. Later that same year, when the Vatican issued an instruction to U.S. bishops to be very cautious in their support for lesbian and gay civil rights legislation, Bishop Clark made a forthright public statement which included the following resolutions:
I propose to:
1) strive for the ideal expressed in the letter that the “dignity of each person…always be respected in word, in action and in law.”
2) consider individually each piece of legislation relevant to this subject.
3) hold conversations about these sensitive issues with Catholics who are homosexual so that we might deepen mutual understanding in order that when we disagree we might do so with respect, so that we can continue together on our common journey of faith.
Within a few years, Bishop Clark established Rochester’s Diocesan Catholic Lesbian and Gay Family Ministry, with the Lopatas directing programs. They went on to educated numerous Catholic leaders and pastoral ministers in the diocese.
In 1997, the diocese organized a Mass at the diocese’s Sacred Heart Cathedral to welcome lesbian/gay people and their families and supporters. 200 people were expected. The cathedral sat 1100 people. Over 1300 showed up, with people filling up standing room space and even spilling out into the street. Traditionalist Catholics began protesting the event during the week before it happened. They made a public statement that if Bishop Clark planned to host a Mass for lesbian/gay people, he should have a phalanx of priests on hand before the liturgy to hear confessions so that the eucharist would be received respectfully. Bishop Clark’s response was that he did not assume that lesbian/gay people who presented themselves to receive communnion would be any more or less in a state of sin than any other person.
In the February 19, 1997 issue of The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Bishop Clark explained his rationale for hosting the Mass:
“. . . Bishop Clark said he will’unequivocally’ support the teachings of the church, but he does not believe the final word has been written about homosexuality.
” ‘We need to learn more about this reality,” he said. ‘I think the churchs present disposition is based on a certain body of facts and experience and that’s to bwe honored and I intend to honor it. But we need to continue learning from new facts and new experiences and I don’t know with enormous clarity what tomorro’s church might say about the issue we’re talking about today.’ “
In that same year, Bishop Clark spoke at New Ways Ministry’s Fourth National Symposium on Lesbian/Gay Issues in Pittsburgh. The event attracted 655 church leaders, the largest gathering of Catholic leaders supporting lesbian/gay people in the history of the U.S. church. Clark also presided at the Eucharist for the event, and it was quite noticeable to all that when he preached the gospel of the day, which included the John 3:16 verse, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life,” he visibly and audibly choked up.
In 1998, after the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, Clark was one of only nine bishops who signed “A Catholic Pledge to End Violence Against Lesbian/Gay People,” a full-page ad published in The New York Times, sponsored by New Ways Ministry and Pax Christi USA, the Catholic peace organization.
In that same year, with Bishop Clark’s full support, Rochester’s Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Family Ministry hosted the third conference of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian/Gay Ministries (now defunct). He welcomed the assembly and at its close he presided at the Eucharistic liturgy for the conference at the nearby St. Mary’s parish. In addition to the 100-200 conference attendees, another 600 people showed up to show their support for lesbian/gay ministry, and for their bishop who was willing to speak out in support of outreach.
Clark’s tenure as bishop was not without controversy. When he retired in 2012, The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle article about his resignation had a lengthy comment on his record in regard to LGBT people:
“Thomas Wahl remembers Bishop Clark taking the pulpit in September 1998, before a Mass of gay and lesbian Catholics. [This was the Mass for the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries conference which Bishop Clark hosted that year.]
“Wahl, the one-time head of the local chapter of Dignity U.S.A., a group of gay and lesbian Catholics seeking acceptance from the Catholic Church, was among the more than 600 who pushed past the protesting crowds at the door and watched as Bishop Clark took the altar at St. Mary’s Church.
“ ‘He said “Good afternoon,” and then he just stopped,’ said Wahl. ‘And for 15 or 20 seconds, the tears rolled down his cheeks.’
“It was only the second such Mass that Clark had attended, and it came in the midst of a two-year stretch that saw the Rochester diocese take center stage in a national debate on how the Catholic Church should treat its gay parishioners.
“After the diocese’s first gay Mass, which Clark had convened in March 1997, protestors got the attention of the Vatican, who began keeping a close eye on the region as the diocese made some seemingly conflicting decisions regarding its gay outreach.
“In the summer of 1998, Clark reassigned Rev. James Callan of Corpus Christi Church for three offenses, one of which was blessing gay weddings. Shortly after, he ordered diocesan priests to stop participating in a special weekly Mass for members of Dignity U.S.A.
“But just one week after barring his own priests from the Dignity Masses, Clark turned around and hosted a national conference of Catholics that minister to homosexuals, and gave his second Mass for gays and lesbians, further confounding his critics.
“ ‘I have so much love for this man, because he doesn’t really care who he pisses off,’ said Wahl. ‘He will go as far as he can while still staying within the letter of the law so he can continue to be a shepherd for the Rochester gay Catholic community.’”
Bishop Clark was a “Pope Francis bishop” three decades before Pope Francis. He was a man with a pastoral heart, an open mind, and a listening ear. New Ways Ministry is grateful for his support to the LGBTQ+ community, and we have been blessed to have been inspired and supported by his guidance.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and all the souls of the faitfhful departed rest in peace. Amen.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 7, 2023
Related articles about Bishop Clark, including his record on clergy sexual abuse and his support for women’s ordination, among other issues:
Rochester Democrat Chronicle: “Bishop Emeritus Matthew Clark dies at 85”
Rochester Democrat Chronicle: “Bishop Matthew Clark remembered as ‘close friend of Jesus Christ’ “