The ALL ARE WELCOME series is an occasional feature on this blog which highlights Catholic parishes and faith communities that support and affirm LGBT people.
Though we report and comment a lot on this blog about bishops and the Vatican and politics and theology, for the vast majority of Catholics the deepest experience of “church” is not at the hierarchical level, but about what happens in their local communities and their day to day lives. That’s why parish life is so important–and so important that it be a community life where LGBT people and their parents feel welcome and affirmed. Although there are no statistics about it, I think more people decide whether to stay in or to leave the Church based on what their local pastor or fellow parishioners say to them than anything that is said by the pope or the bishops.
News reports recently from different parts of the country gave a close-up view of the work that several parishes are doing to make sure that LGBT people and family members know they have a place at the table.
The Journal-Sentinel of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, reported on a vibrant program that began ten years ago at Good Shepherd parish, Menomonee Falls, and has since expanded to at least three more nearby parishes. “Gay and Straight in Christ” was founded by Ann Castiglione, a parishioner whose godson is gay, and since that time she has planted seeds for programs at St. Mary parish, Hales Corners, St. Joseph parish, Grafton, and Our Lady of Lourdes parish, Milwaukee.
The programs at each parish vary, but all share the common threads of prayer, support, sharing stories, and discussing topics that are relevant to LGBT people, such as raising a family as a same-gender couple. The effectiveness of these programs is evidenced by the testimony of participants and observers. For example, the newspaper article reported:
“John still feels welcome in the church. That’s due in part to his parish priest, but also to a cadre of faithful who gather regularly to pray and explore what it means to be part of the body of Christ, regardless of one’s sexual orientation. . . .
” ‘The Gay and Straight in Christ ministry has been a huge help for me,’ said John, who asked to be identified only by his first name in deference to his wife, who has struggled with the revelation that he is gay. ‘They make you feel that you can still be part of the church and that there are people who are supportive, even if the hierarchy and individual people aren’t.’ “
A local theological expert also praised this type of pastoral program:
“These kinds of ministries are consistent with church teachings on human dignity and conscience, and efforts by Pope Francis to balance church doctrine with mercy and compassion for the ‘messiness of people’s lives,’ said the Rev. Bryan Massingale, who teaches moral theology at Marquette University.
” ‘They are witnessing to the totality of our Catholic teaching, not just teachings on sexual acts … but on the dignity of the person who is loved by Christ regardless of their behavior.’ “
The tension between church teaching on sexual abstinence vs. the individual’s conscience is certainly present in such ministries, but , as Deacon Sandy Sites of Good Shepherd stated:
“What we are saying is that you are welcome here. Your story is between you and your confessor and God. I don’t care who you are. When it comes to the teachings of Christ, it’s not about the sin, it’s about the person.”
In Baltimore, Maryland, St. Matthew parish has been leading the way in that archdiocese by proclaiming a welcome to LGBT people through their LEAD ministry (LGBT Educating and Affirming Diversity), which recently hosted a panel of LGBT people and parents telling their stories so that the wider parish community could learn more about them. The Catholic Review, the archdiocesan newspaper, reported on the event:
“About 50 people attended the two-hour event, which included a question-and-answer session. Attendees asked for advice on personal situations, including navigating conversations with family members.“ ‘People find themselves in a confusing place because they have a faith that allows them to be strong in the face of adversity, but they sometimes have a church that’s been challenging them about how they should see their family members who are gay,’ said Father [Joseph] Muth [pastor] in an interview after the event.”
“I think through that storytelling, people begin to see how hurt people have been and how they’ve turned away from the church. With the church’s whole emphasis on this new evangelization, this is a real opportunity to reverse the attitude – to have a more welcoming, compassionate, listening attitude, to tell people they can be included.”
“The church teaching may or may not change at some point down the road – that’s not something I can do anything about – but the initial step to people who have felt rejected and put aside for many years is to create an atmosphere of welcome.”