ALL ARE WELCOME: When Homophobes Attack

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

An Australian Catholic priest used the occasion of an anti-gay rant to educate parishioners and others about the gifts that LGBT people bring to the Catholic church.

According to Fr. Peter Maher’s blog, he preached recently in his parish, St. Joseph’s, Newtown, near Sydney, about a YouTube video which chastised the parish for its LGBT ministry. The video, shot outside the church by Michael Voris, is a tendentious diatribe that purports to be “news.”  Fr. Maher, however, used this opportunity to spread a message of love and inclusion:

“Far from judging and vilifying lesbians and gays, as we heard from Michael Voris in his video about the Newtown parish Friday night Mass, I suggested that hearing the stories of lesbian and gay Catholics and how that had influenced my reading in order to better pastorally care for all Catholics might offer a new way of seeing lesbian and gay Catholics as gift rather than ‘the other’ for whom we might feel sorry.”

Fr. Peter Maher

Fr. Maher explains what his experience in ministry has taught him about LGBT Catholics:

“What I learned from hearing these stories was that lesbian and gay Catholics are like all people trying to live their faith – they are searching for meaning and joy and authenticity in and through the Catholic community and the spiritual wisdom of the bible and church tradition. Catholics expect to find guidance and encouragement, as well as challenge, but  lesbian and gay Catholics find all too often that they are asked to deny their sexuality or, at best, to be invisible.”

More importantly, he notes that the wider church stands to benefit from what can be learned form the LGBT faith experience:

“Theologians and spiritual writers are beginning to write from the perspective of the world in which we live and the life stories of lesbian and gay Catholics. If sexuality is a gift from God and if psychology and science are correct in finding that homosexuality is God-given, that is not chosen, then homosexuality must also be a gift from God.  What might this gift be?  Those doing theology with the insight of the stories of lesbian and gay Catholics and modern science suggest such areas as intimacy, friendship, faithful love and personal growth might be a gift to the church and indeed the world.”

In particular, heterosexual Catholics have the opportunity to learn about sexual morality from their LGBT brothers and sisters:

“Where traditional sexual ethics has dominated church teaching about heterosexual relationships and marriage; homosexuals have had to find the meaning for themselves of their God-given attraction and have made some astoundingly good gospel-based spiritual discoveries.  While heterosexual relationships are struggling in the current climate of distrust of church teaching; homosexual relationships, lived according to gospel principles of love, seem to be finding a beautiful expression.”

The lessons to be learned from this episode are at least two-fold:

1) An attack on ministry to and with LGBT people can easily be turned into an opportunity to educate and promote the acceptance and inclusion of LGBT people in the Catholic Church.  As the old saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

2) LGBT ministry is more than just “helping” LGBT people, but recognizing that the wider church, in fact, has the opportunity to be helped by its LGBT members.  The unique spiritual and personal journey that LGBT people live has gifts and blessings that can be of benefit to all in the church.  If the church doesn’t welcome these people and gifts, it is denying many great avenues of grace for the rest of its members, too.

Thank you, Fr. Maher, for teaching us not only about LGBT gifts, but also about how to respond gracefully and forthrightly when ministry is attacked.

–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

A Priest With An Extravagant Sense of Welcome,  February 13, 2012

Going Beyond the Boundaries, April 11, 2012

St. Nicholas Parish Celebrates 10 Years of LGBT Ministry, May 24, 2012


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

ALL ARE WELCOME: At Notre Dame, Does Buying In Equal Selling Out?

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 third installment.  The first one can be accessed here; the second one can be accessed here.

Catholic colleges over the past decade have struggled with how to accommodate LGBT students and faculty.  Many have done excellent work in this regard, developing innovative and pastorally sensitive programs and policies.  Some have even gone so far as to provide partner benefits for faculty. (New Ways Ministry maintains a list of gay-friendly Catholic college campuses which can be accessed here.)

This week, the The Observer, the student newspaper at the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College, South Bend, Indiana, reports on a Campus Life Council discussion on there about developing a gay-straight alliance.  One of the questions they are trying to answer is: Would a gay-straight alliance fare better as an institutional structure or as a student run group?

In the article, Sister Sue Dunn, assistant vice-president for student affairs, explains that all LGBT programs are run by the Core Council for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Questioning Students, described as:

” ‘. . . a blend of students and administrative types. We have someone representing Student Affairs, the Gender Relations Center, the Counseling Center and Campus Ministry,’  she said. ‘We also have eight students, most of whom identify as GLBT and some heterosexual allies, who build a network and programs.’ “

According to the article, Sister Dunn acknowledges that “many students perceive the Core Council as directly aligned with Notre Dame’s administration,” which, she states, has at times been “a tension.”

At least one student expressed a differing opinion on whether the gay straight alliance should be institutional or independent:

“Diversity Council representative Alexa Arastoo said she would not want to see a gay-straight alliance become a part of Core Council. She said a completely student-run organization would allow more opportunities for leadership, and would allow the group to branch out more.

” ‘Having a club on the student level changes the culture. It’s where we get involved and know what’s going on,’ Arastoo said. ‘This isn’t just a tutoring or interest club, it’s part of their person.’ “

It’s an age-old question:  does becoming part of an institutional structure create more advantages or disadvantages?  Does remaining independent and grassroots-oriented mean trading access and support for honesty and integrity?

These are questions that not only Notre Dame students must resolve for their gay-straight alliance, but that many folks involved in LGBT ministry in the Catholic Church face every day.

I don’t think there are any simple answers to these questions.  It would be great to hear what blog readers think. Please share your thoughts in the “Comments” section.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

ALL ARE WELCOME: All in the Family

In this second installment of our blog’s occasional series, “ALL ARE WELCOME” which reviews how Catholic parishes and other faith communities can become more accepting of  LGBT people, we have guest bloggers, Mary Ellen and Casey Lopata, offering their thoughts on family ministry.  The Lopatas have been active in LGBT ministry since the early 1990s, and they are the co-founders of Fortunate Families, a national network of  Catholic parents and family members of LGBT people. 

Reaching Out to Families with LGBT Members

Several years ago, David and Joan visited their pastor.  Their son, Jim, had just told them he is gay.  They loved Jim, but struggled with a myriad of emotions: loneliness, fear, confusion, and grief to name a few.  These were not the first parents to come to Fr. Tom with this story, but this visit made him realize parents need more than his listening heart.  So, he established a support group for parents who love their gay kids and want to support one another.

Such support groups have helped allay Catholic parents’ tears and fears.  Many successful alumni have come to understand that our LGBT daughters and sons are made in the image of God and inherently as whole and holy as our straight kids.  We see God’s love revealed in them as they strive to love God and neighbor, as the person God made them to be, faithfully seeking God’s voice in their hearts, often in loving relationships and as loving parents.

We understand ourselves as Fortunate Families.  When we experience discriminatory words and actions of those who lack this understanding, strong feelings arise: frustration, anger and sometimes betrayal, especially if from our own Catholic leaders.

Parents’ understanding of our LGBT loved ones, our passionate commitment to justice for them, and the fact that parents are more likely to be listened to because we are the faithful, heart and soul (and wallets) of our parishes, are precisely why Catholic parents are uniquely positioned to make a difference.  As one parent said:

 “…this precious son of ours is the same son that we and God conceived, carried, gave birth to and had baptized into the Catholic family.  Though he is too tired to fight for a place at the table, we will spend our last breath carrying the message that God loves each of His precious children, and so do we.”

Additionally, establishing a ministry to parents is a good way to introduce this new ministry to a parish that may be a bit hesitant to approach LGBT topics.  People who may feel awkward about addressing the topic head-on may find that this alternative allows them to ask the questions that they need to address about LGBT topics.

Today, another kind of outreach to parents is also needed.  Engaged and nurtured, as we move from our initial tears-and-fears into the ire-and-fire of advocacy, parents can—and do—add an extra dimension to the Catholic LGBT equal justice movement.

How can you encourage and help parents to share our stories of love and faith and demand LGBT justice and equality?  Can you offer us opportunities to collaborate with other individuals and groups who insist our loved ones be treated with dignity and accepted into the Catholic faith community as full and equal members, morally equivalent to heterosexual persons?  We’re available!

–Mary Ellen and Casey Lopata, Fortunate Families

ALL ARE WELCOME: Say the Words

A major focus of New Ways Ministry’s work has always been to help Catholic institutions become more gay-friendly.  For many years, we have consulted with parishes, campuses, vowed religious communities, retreat centers to help them find ways to become more welcoming of LGBT people and their families.   One program we sponsor is the Next Steps weekend retreat/workshop to help people develop a plan of action for themselves and their faith communities in regard to pro-LGBT activities and messages.

Today we are starting an occasional series on this blog called “All Are Welcome.”  We hope to offer some reflections and suggestions for how faith communities can initiate a welcome to LGBT people or how to develop the welcome they may have already begun.   Remember, too, that this blog is social media: the communication works both ways! So in addition to reading the information that we offer, we hope that you will offer your own suggestions, reflections, and experiences, too.

The suggestion for today is “say the words.”  The words to say are “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” “transgender.”  How powerful a message is sent when any or all of these words is said in a Catholic setting.  When you speak the words, you are validating people’s reality.   In a radio interview once, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder Fr. Robert Nugent, SDS, said that oppression against lesbian/gay people ran the gamut from “silence to violence.”  With this pithy saying, he illustrated the fact that sometimes “silence” can be as harmful as “violence.”  In other words, silence is a form of violence.

Even up to a decade ago, it may have been uncommon to hear these words spoken in general conversation.  Now they are almost household words.  NOT to say them in church settings is a glaring omission.

When do you use them?  When they would come up naturally!  Here are some suggestions:

1.  Use them in the prayers of the faithful, in sermons, in parish bulletins and other publications. Use them in discussions of family.

2.  Use them in discussions of social justice.

3.  Use them in religious education and sacramental preparation.

4. Use them in programs on sexuality.

5.  Use them in youth ministry programs.

6.  Use them in mission statements, non-discrimination policies, and statements of welcome.

7.  Use them in June, which is when many cities and towns celebrate LGBT Pride events.

8. Use them around October 11th, which is National Coming Out Day.

9.  Use them on Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day, to describe the variety of parents that exist in your parish.

10. Use them in presentations on diversity and multiculturalism.

In Always Our Children, the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter on ministry to families with lesbian/gay members, offers the following recommendation to pastoral ministers:

“When speaking publicly, use the words ‘homosexual,’ ‘gay,’ and ‘lesbian’ in honest and accurate ways.”

The first edition of Always Our Children, before it was edited by the Vatican, had a different wording for this recommendation:

“Use the words ‘homosexual,’ ‘gay,’ and ‘lesbian’ in honest and accurate ways, especially from the pulpit. In various and subtle ways you can give people ‘permission’ to talk about homosexual issues among themselves and let them know that you’re also willing to talk with them.”

Though the Vatican amended that language, they could not amend the human reality that it reflects:  when people hear someone speak of their reality, they not only feel more welcome, but they also hear an invitation to continue the conversation on this topic.

Simply speaking these words may not seem like a major step, yet its effect can be very profound.  In doing so, you are welcoming people, letting them know that you are someone that is interested in them, and you are helping so many others in your parish become more comfortable with these words.

What have been your experiences with saying these words in a welcoming way in your faith community?  What are some other ways that those words can be spoken to help people know that “all are welcome”?

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry