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How parishes can welcome LGBTQ Catholics

Episcopal Delegate for the Archdiocesan Family Life Commission, Tricia Syms greets Fr James Martin SJ during his book signing after his talk. Photo: Raymond Syms

The triennial World Meeting of Families (WMOF) was held in Dublin, Ireland, August 21–26. The venue for the Pastoral Congress was the Royal Dublin Society. From August 22–24 presentations were made by speakers from around the world. The session that attracted the greatest attendance during the Congress was held in Hall 8A on Thursday, August 23, ‘Showing Welcome and Respect in our Parishes for LGBT People and Their Families’ by Fr James Martin SJ, Editor-at-large, Jesuit Magazine America.  Due to the nature of the talk, the presentation was vetted by Vatican officials. The following are excerpts from Fr Martin’s presentation; the full text can be downloaded at https://www.worldmeeting2018.ie/en/Programme/Congress/Thursday-Programme/Session-2-Presentation-3

One of the more recent challenges for Catholic parishes is how to welcome their LGBT parishioners, as well as families with LGBT members. But that challenge is also where grace abounds, because so many LGBT Catholics have felt excluded from their Church for so long that any experience of welcome can be life-changing.

In the past few years, I’ve heard the most appalling stories from LGBT Catholics who have been made to feel unwelcome in parishes. A 30-year-old autistic gay man who came out to his family, and was not in any sort of relationship, told me that a pastoral associate said he could no longer receive Communion in church. Why? Because saying he was gay was a “scandal”.

The mother of a gay teen told me her son had decided to come back to Church after years of feeling that the Church hated him. After much discussion, he decided to return on Easter Sunday. The mother was delighted. When Mass began she was so excited to have her son sitting beside her. But after the priest proclaimed the Gospel story of the Risen Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene, guess what he preached on? The evils of homosexuality. The son walked out of the church. And the mother sat in the pew and cried.

But there are also stories of grace in our Church. Last year, a university student told me that the first person to whom he came out was a priest. The first thing the priest said was, “God loves you and the Church accepts you.” The young man told me, “That priest literally saved my life.”

If you’re a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, trying to make sense of your relationship with God and the Church, and you live in a big city with open-minded pastors, you’re in luck. Why should your faith depend on where you live? Is that what God desires for the Church?

Things to think about

So what helps a parish to be welcoming and respectful? Let’s begin with six fundamental insights.

1) They are Catholic. They are as much as part of our Church as Pope Francis, the local bishop, the pastor or any other parishioner. It’s not a question of making them Catholic or deciding if they’re Catholic. They already are. So the most important thing we can do for LGBT Catholics may be to welcome them to what is already their Church. And remember: just to remain in the Church they’ve often endured years of rejection.

2) They do not choose their orientation. Sadly, there are many people who still believe people choose their orientation. You don’t choose your orientation any more than you choose to be left-handed.

3) They have often been treated like lepers by the Church. Never underestimate the pain that LGBT people have faced. Not only at the hands of the Church, but from society at large. A few statistics may help: In the United States, LGBT teens are five times as likely to have attempted suicide than their straight counterparts. Forty per cent of transgender people in the US attempt suicide.

4) They bring gifts to the Church. To begin with, because they have been so marginalised, many LGBT people often feel a natural compassion for those on the margins. Their compassion is a gift. They are often forgiving of pastors and priests who have treated them like dirt. Their forgiveness is a gift. They persevere as Catholics in the face of years of rejection. Their perseverance is a gift.

5) They long to know God. Many LGBT people struggle with aspects of the Church’s teaching— for example, terms like “intrinsically disordered”.

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 through the sacraments. They want to hear good homilies, sing good music and be part of a faith community. Treat them like that—not as protesters but as parishioners.

6) They are loved by God. So should we. And I don’t mean with a stingy, grudging, half-hearted, judgemental, conditional love. I mean real love. But I say even more: love them like Jesus loved people on the margins: extravagantly.

Be more welcoming

With those insights in mind, how can a parish be more welcoming? Let me suggest ten things.

1) Examine your own attitudes towards LGBT people and their families. Do you think someone is sinful simply because she’s lesbian, or more inclined to sin than a straight woman? With LGBT people we tend to focus on whether they are fully conforming to the church’s teachings on sexual morality. Invite your pastoral team to speak about their feelings and experiences.

2) Listen to them. Listen to the experiences and stories of LGBT Catholics, and their parents and families. If you don’t know what to say, you might ask: “What was it like growing up as a gay boy in the Church?” “What is it like being a lesbian Catholic? “What is it like being a transgender person?” Invite the parents of an LGBT child to speak with your pastoral council.

3) Acknowledge them in homilies or parish presentations as full members of the parish, without judgement and not as fallen-away Catholics. LGBT people should never be degraded or humiliated from the pulpit—nor should anyone. Just mentioning them can be a step forward. Sometimes in homilies I’ll say, “God loves all of us all—whether we’re old or young, rich or poor, straight or LGBT.”

4) Apologise to them. If LGBT people have been harmed in the name of the Church by homophobic comments and attitudes and decisions, apologise. And I’m speaking here to the Church’s ministers. They were harmed by the Church; you’re a minister of the Church. You can apologise.

5) Don’t reduce gays and lesbians to the call to chastity we all share as Christians. LGBT people are more than their sexual lives. They lead rich lives. Many are parents themselves or are caring for ageing parents; many help the poor in their local community…. See them in their totality.

6) Include them in ministries. As I’ve mentioned, there is a tendency to focus on the sexual morality of LGBT parishioners, which is wrong, because first, you often have no idea what their sexual lives are like; and, second, even if they are falling short they are not the only ones. As a result, LGBT people may feel they have to be dishonest about who they are, and that they have no place in ministries.

7) Acknowledge their individual gifts. Not only should we acknowledge the gifts that LGBT people play in the Church as a group, but their individual gifts should be valued. For example, one of most talented cantors in our local Jesuit parish is gay. He is kind, thoughtful and an essential part of our worship. You probably have similar people in your parish….Don’t hide their light under your bushel basket!

8) Invite everyone on the parish staff to welcome them. You may have a welcoming pastor, but what about everyone else? Does the person answering the phone know what to say to a lesbian couple who wants to have their child baptised?

At funerals, are the gay adult children of the deceased treated with the same respect as other children? Also, think of it this way: by excluding LGBT Catholics, the Church is falling short of its own call to be God’s family.

9) Sponsor special events or develop an outreach programme. Like everyone else, LGBT Catholics want to feel like they are part of the Church but for most LGBT people, the Church has not been a place of welcome. So specific LGBT events and outreach programmes are helpful to bridge the gap between your intentions and their suspicions.

10) 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 LGBT people are rounded up and thrown in jail for being gay. Or executed.

In those countries these are life issues. In other countries, it may be responding to incidents of teen suicides, or hate crimes or bullying.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote in 1986, “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent speech and action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors whenever it occurs.” Do we believe that statement from the CDF?

What would Jesus do?

Be like Jesus. Because if we’re not trying to be like Jesus, what’s the point? And remember that in His public ministry Jesus continually reached out to those people who felt like they were on the margins.

The movement for Jesus was from the outside-in. He was bringing people who felt on the outside into the community because there is no us and them for Jesus. There is only us.