In this blog’s All Are Welcome series, we try to assist parishes and faith communities that want to do outreach to LGBT people and their families. Often in that series, we highlight some steps parishes can take to make that welcome known, and sometimes we highlight the gifts that LGBT people bring to a parish.
This blog post fits into a whole different category. It is the story of how LGBT people have been part of helping a parish in New York City to thrive in life and attendance, thus helping to save it from being closed or merged in the recent archdiocesan cutbacks there.
The Catholic archdiocese of New York has recently made some tough decisions about consolidating churches throughout the five boroughs, due to lack of resources, declining Mass attendance and difficulty maintaining older facilities. But despite the desolate picture presented to some parishes, St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church on E. 96th St. is thriving and growing, bringing in younger parishioners and catering to the changing populations of Yorkville and East Harlem.
Pastor Philip Kelly speaks about his congregation with a touch of awe for their enthusiasm and willingness to get involved in the parish community, and he credits them with helping to grow the parish from a few hundred weekly Mass attendees to about 600 today.
The pastor and pastoral associate Jayne Porcelli began a program of reaching out to young single people in their neighborhood. The pastor noted, ““I’d say the average age is 28-30 years old. On Sundays you have to dodge the baby strollers [in the church aisles] – and the scooters.”
But it was the LGBT community in particular played an important role in the parish’s re-birth:
“One of the programs at St. Francis that Porcelli and Fr. Kelly credit with helping to keep the congregation young and vibrant is their LGBTQS Catholic Alliance – a gay-straight alliance group that bills itself as “an inclusive and welcoming fellowship.”
“ ‘I had a very positive experience with my faith and coming out when I was younger,’ said Jay Malsky, who is 29 and the coordinator for the group. ‘When I moved to 102nd and Lexington, [I came to St. Francis], and the message is so clear and welcoming.’
“He said that he wants to help other gay and lesbian Catholics experience the same positive feelings of support and community that he acknowledges they may not have gotten elsewhere. Asked if it truly is an alliance – do straight people join, too? – Malsky laughed. ‘Last night, we were outnumbered,’ he said. Many parishioners join because they have gay family members, or just want to be part of a social group that also shares Scripture readings during their wine and cheese nights.”
On this blog, we never get tired of noting that the younger generation of Catholics is much more acclimated to LGBT people than any previous generation before them. For these younger people, the issues of gender identity and sexual orientation pose no problem–even for religious inclusion. The St. Francis de Sales shows that if a parish wants to attract the younger generation of Catholics, many of whom were alienated from church by previous negative pastoral experiences, the pastoral staff must include LGBT support and spirituality on the parish’s agenda. As theologian Father Bryan Massingale said at a Pax Christi conference in 2013:
“For the young people I teach, equality for gays and lesbians is their civil rights issue. . . . For young people, the litmus test of the credibility of a religious institution is their stances on LGBT rights.”
The St. Francis de Sales story has another lesson, too. It shows that LGBT people want to be part of their church and will respond positively to an invitation and signs of authentic concern for them. And the entire parish can benefit from their gifts and presence.
In many parishes across the nation, participation in parish life by LGBT people has not only been a spiritual boon, but has also helped to re-animate the entire community and often encouraging welcome to other diverse groups. Pastoral leaders should consider not only the Gospel call to welcome all, but also take note of the benefits that such welcome could have for the entire faith community.
Does your Roman Catholic parish welcome LGBT people? How has your community benefited by their presence, in practical and spiritual ways. Contribute your answers to the “Comments” section of this post.
To learn more about gay-friendly parishes, click here to read all the posts in our All Are Welcome series or click the “All Are Welcome” button in the “Categories” box on the right-hand side of this page. You can also visit New Ways Ministry’s list of gay-friendly parishes and faith communities by clicking here.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Crux.com: “Finding the right parish for gays”