ALL ARE WELCOME: A Priest With An Extravagant Sense of Hospitality

The ALL ARE WELCOME series is an occasional feature  which examines how Catholic faith communities can become more inclusive of LGBT people and issues.  This is the fourth installment.  At the end of this posting, you can find the links to previous posts in this series.

When a parish wants to welcome LGBT people to their community, sometimes all it takes is a simple symbol to let folks know they will not meet with any animosity due to sexual orientation or gender identity.

Fr. Walter Cuenin

A lesson in expressing that welcome can be learned from Fr. Walter Cuenin, a long-time advocate for LGBT people in the Boston area, having been pastor at one of the first gay-friendly parishes there, Our Lady Help of Christians, in suburban Newton.  In 2006, he was the main speaker at Boston’s interfaith prayer service for Gay Pride Week.

The Brandeis Hoot, the student newspaper of Brandeis University, a mostly Jewish school in Waltham, Massachusetts, recently carried a profile of Fr. Cuenin, who serves as the school’s Catholic chaplain. The article begins with Fr. Cuenin’s  simple pastoral theology, based in the Christmas story, which is appropriate since the chapel at Brandeis is called the Bethlehem Chapel:

“Cuenin bases his decision to exhibit a gay pride flag [outside the chapel] on a tale about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. According to Christian tradition, when Mary and Joseph arrived at a Bethlehem inn, Mary was forced to have her baby in an outside stable since there were no rooms left at the inn. Cuenin connects this story to Brandeis’ Bethlehem Chapel by using the multicolored flag to portray that ‘in this Bethlehem, there’s always room for everyone in the inn.’ ”

Fr. Cuenin knows how to talk as a pastor in a way that affirms people. The wide-ranging interview with him covers a variety of hot-button issues:  contraception, abortion, gays in the military, immigration, and he answers them all with the kind of compassion and common sense that any good pastoral leader should exhibit.  For example, while not stating support outright for marriage equality, Cuenin gets across a message of loving acceptance.  In the interview, he states:

“ ‘The Catholic Church opposes gay marriage, so I cannot directly say I support it, but I have seen from my experience that for many people it creates a much healthier environment … For example, if you were to go to Provincetown in the summer time, where a lot of gay people go, it’s a radically different place today than it was 20 years ago,’ Cuenin said. ‘They are there with children and married, raising kids, so they go home at night. In other words, it has transformed the whole gay scene … it hasn’t led to total debauchery. In some ways, it has pulled people back together,’ Cuenin said.”

The closing of the interview highlights the extravagant sense of hospitality that would be wonderful to see throughout out church:

“ ‘When I was a pastor of a large church … I would always say I welcome everybody to this church, whether you’re gay or straight, divorced or remarried. Sometimes people in authority can take that the wrong way, but my understanding of being Christian is someone who welcomes everybody.’ ”

Let’s all try to practice that welcome to all we encounter.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Previous posts in the ALL ARE WELCOME series:

Say the Words , December 14, 2011

All in the Family , January 2, 2012

At Notre Dame, Does Buying In Equal Selling Out? , January 25, 2012