Our Journey with the Bishop of Springfield Toward LGBTQ+ Welcoming

Today’s post is from Catholics for Inclusion in Western Massachusetts. Last year, the group co-authored an op-ed with Bishop William Byrne of Springfield, Massachusetts about how the Synod on Synodality prompted them to advance efforts for LGBTQ+ inclusion based on what Catholics said during that process. The op-ed was the fruit of dialogue begun in 2018. Today’s post details more about that synodal journey and the group’s efforts to provide a wider welcome to LGBTQ+ people.

It could be said that it began with the Synod. But our journey toward finding a way to ask the Bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts to offer a formal gesture of welcome to the LGBTQ+ community really began years before the Synod on Synodality was announced. In 2018, a small group of us in the combined Social Justice Commissions of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Northampton, and Our Lady of the Hills, Haydenville, had grown concerned after reading an article in The New York Times documenting aggressions toward LGBTQ+ church staff members across the country. We wanted to do something, but what?

We began by calling the churches in Massachusetts that the Times (and New Ways Ministry) had listed as “LGBTQ-friendly.” Our conversations with the priests we spoke to were helpful and informative, but we felt stymied as to how to approach the issue in our own local communities. We are in one of the most gay-friendly areas in the Northeast, but how were we to get our Catholic churches to do some outreach?

A group reading and discussion of Fr. James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge, felt like a start, but then Covid hit, and our ability to meet in person was curtailed. The announcement of the Synod on Synodality, a year or so later, came as a blessing.

Several people in our group volunteered to help host synod meetings in our church basement, hearing, predictably, a number of voices wishing for more inclusion within the Church. But we also made an effort to reach out beyond hearing from regular churchgoers. We published an op-ed in our local newspaper, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, inviting those who didn’t come to church to meet with us and be heard.

The response wasn’t overwhelming, but those who did respond turned out to be godsends. Until then we had been a straight-identified group, so we were blessed when two outspoken gay women responded and helped us to frame the issue we had been wrestling with: what exactly would it take for our churches to become more welcoming?

There was one other, not-unimportant respondent to that op-ed. William Byrne had recently been appointed Bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts. He contacted us by email, asking to meet.

We arranged an outdoor, backyard dinner, cooking up something very tasty, and had what seemed like an open back-and-forth discussion. But at a certain point we noticed the bishop looking slightly puzzled: where, at this dinner, were the gay people? He had expected that he would be meeting with a gay group, and while we all seemed very nice, were we going to be able to take him to the heart of the issue?

He called the next day, and asked for a second meeting, asking, “And this time, can you bring some gay people?” So we asked our two newest members (they had not yet joined our group) to come to the second dinner. This time, the bishop heard, from those most directly affected, about the difficulties gay people had with the institutional Church. He listened, he asked questions. When one of us walked him to his car at the end of that dinner, he said words to the effect of, “People don’t understand. There’s no magic cure for this problem. This isn’t going to be an easy one to solve.” He was referring, of course, to the “problem” of how the Church could reach a place of true welcome and inclusion, but the fact that he seemed committed to grappling with the issue felt encouraging.

After that second dinner, we continued the conversation with the bishop by email. The next year, in the summer of 2023, we hosted a third dinner, and during our conversation that night, the bishop told us, “I’d like to get this show on the road, but first there’s got to be a show.” The notion was that we, as a group, needed to do something, make Northampton the place where the “show” could begin.

From that evening’s discussion, we decided that the bishop and our group should co-author an op-ed to let the larger world know about our conversations, and about the bishop’s newly expressed openness to making a gesture of welcome to the LGBTQ+ community.

It took a few months of back and forth to put that op-ed together. We wrote a version, the bishop offered some changes and amendments. In the meantime, Bishop Byrne had traveled to Rome with a group of other bishops for a meeting with Pope Francis. “Drawing from these conversations [with our group],” the bishop wrote in the op-ed, he asked the pontiff about “the challenge” of welcoming the LGBTQ+ community. “Without missing a beat,” the bishop wrote, “Pope Francis said with deliberate repetition that ‘everyone, everyone, everyone,’ should be included. We are all brothers and sisters seeking the Lord.”

Understandably, Bishop Byrne wanted those words included in the op-ed. He also told us privately that meeting with our group had “helped [him] on his journey,” that it had helped push his thinking forward.

The op-ed, entitled “A message of welcome to the LGBTQ+ community,” appeared in two of our local papers around Christmas of 2023, and it attracted attention, gaining us new members. Publishing the essay also forced us to give ourselves a name, Catholics for Inclusion, as well as to set up a website, catholicsforinclusion.com, and an email account, [email protected].

Inevitably, we also attracted some negative attention, but that’s to be expected. Our group is unshaken because we have been given the bishop’s encouragement to move on.

What’s the lesson from all this for other groups in the country who might be seeking to do the same thing?

Obviously, it helps, first of all, to have a responsive bishop, one willing to question, and to listen. We were blessed in this way.  It helps, too, to be good cooks: we feel certain that our meals together were, at least in part, what kept the bishop coming! Eating together builds relationships. And developing a trusting relationship with the bishop was essential to our success.

Finally, it helps to appreciate how achingly slow this process can be–and is likely to continue to be. But to have gotten this far feels like a step. That’s all, just a step. But in the right direction, and maybe an important one.

Looking for an LGBTQ-friendly parish? New Ways Ministry provides a list of parishes and faith communities that have provided some form of public welcome to LGBTQ people and their families, available here. Know of a parish or faith community that should be included on the list? Click here to let us know.

Catholics for Inclusion, Western Massachusetts, March 21, 2024

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