The Life and Times of the ‘Gayest Catholic Parish’ in the U.S.

The National Catholic Reporter’s Tom Fox greatly helped the burgeoning movement of gay-friendly Catholic parishes in the U.S. by publishing a five-part series examining the life of one such parish, Most Holy Redeemer (MHR), San Francisco, which he notes is often referred to as “the gayest Catholic parish in the nation.”

The interior of Most Holy Redeemer parish church.

Fox’s series on this parish should be read by anyone interested in Catholic LGBT ministry.  Links to the individual articles are interspersed throughout this post, as well as listed individually at the end.

What emerges from this in-depth examination, however, is not how extra-ordinary MHR is as a Catholic community, but, instead, more about how much it is similar to every other well-run parish.  It is a center of faith which responds to both the spiritual and practical needs of the people in its neighborhood.

MHR’s welcoming atmosphere is partly a result of the fact that it is located in the Castro neighborhood of SF, probably the largest LGBT communities in the country.  But what is interesting is that not all parishioners are locals.  Fox pointed out that many people travel from all over the Bay Area to attend Mass and programs there.

Young people, a demographic that seems to be disappearing in most Catholic parishes, are one group in particular that have found MHR to be a spiritual home.  Fox explains:

“Younger Catholics come from around the Bay, making up much of the parish. The very diversity that once moved some Catholics to flee MHR now seems to draw others, especially younger ones who feel at home and want to help prepare their children to live in an increasingly diverse world.”

That’s a lesson that many Catholic parishes should learn:  if you want to attract younger people, welcome the LGBT community.

Fox raises an issue which many LGBT-friendly Catholic parishes face:  how to be welcoming when so many LGBT people are suspicious of official Catholicism.  Jim Stockholm, a longtime MHR parishioner, explained the challenge:

“It’s the Catholic faith. It’s got a bad rap in the LGBT community. We have an archbishop who helped fund and led the charge against same-sex marriage. All that translates down to, in some way, our parish. We’re in the Castro, in the community, and so we have the challenge to overcome that, to say we are welcoming.”

While certainly unique because its parishioners are predominantly members of the LGBT community, the parish operates very similarly to other parishes of its size. In the third part of the series, Fox examined an important question for MHR and for many LGBT-friendly parishes:  Are they the “gay parish” or are they a Catholic parish that welcomes gays?  Parishioners seemed to be definite that MHR was the latter, and not the former.  One member, Bob Barcewski said:

“We don’t see ourselves as a gay community, but rather as a community that’s open to gays.There’s nothing in this church — no functions — that are gay here. There’s nothing gay about what we do here. It’s an acceptance and a realization that people feel OK to be who they are that makes this place different. It’s also a history of knowing that this was one of the few places anywhere, where people who were catching a mysterious disease and dying like flies, stepped up and responded.”

Most Holy Redeemer parishioners march in San Francisco’s gay pride parade.

Indeed, when the AIDS epidemic hit the Bay Area in the mid-1980s, it was at the same time that the parish had begun to open their doors to the LGBT community.  Ministering to people with HIV and AIDS became a focus of the parish’s ministry.  The fourth part of the series examines this critical time in the parish’s life, and it notes that MHR’s outreach is recognized by many others in San Francisco as being pioneering.

Their solidarity with those who suffer now extends to the homeless community, with weekly suppers, which, as one parishioner pointed out, are more accurately described as “banquets.”

In the fifth and final installment, Fox summarized his experience of researching this series.  His comments serve as a reminder of the importance of LGBT ministry in the Catholic Church:

“In dozens of interviews over several weeks with MHR parishioners, I found both pain and an eagerness to celebrate. I found a desire to be better understood by the wider church community. I found a willingness to forgive. I found much openness and universal abhorrence of judgment.

“I found hope, sometimes fledgling, that [Pope] Francis, given enough time, can change the course of the church, especially in how the institution affects the lives of LGBT Catholics. I found an extraordinary eagerness to come together as people of faith to help each other in ways big and small. I found, in words often suggested by Most Holy Redeemer parishioners, community in the Castro.”

Accompanying this five-part series are two side-bar articles which allow the voices of LGBT Catholics to be amplified:  1) a profile of Robert Pickering, a gay Catholic man from Denver who, like many other out-of-town LGBT Catholics, visited MHR when he was in San Francisco one Sunday; 2) snippets of conversations from the dozens of interviews that Fox conducted with MHR parishioners.

The series certainly does justice to the immense amount of faith-filled outreach that this community of and for LGBT people has accomplished.  The work done here is a perfect example of the hundreds of Catholic parishes across the nation who have welcoming LGBT ministries.  You can find a list of many of them by clicking here.

To read all previous posts on LGBT-friendly Catholic parishes and pastoral work, go the the category “All Are Welcome”  or click here.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

      Links to Tom Fox’s National Catholic Reporter series             on Most Holy Redeemer parish, San Francisco:

1)  ‘Gayest’ US Catholic parish strives to maintain openness, accepting

2)  Though welcoming, inclusive parish can be a tough sell to LGBT community

3)  ‘There’s nothing gay about what we do here’

4)  LGBT-friendly parish has long history of ministry to homeless, sick

5)  Finding community in the Castro

Side-bar articles

1)  One gay Catholic’s journey

2)  ‘Most Holy Redeemer is our home’

 

 

 

 

 

 

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