Father James Martin: How parishes can welcome L.G.B.T. Catholics
This talk was delivered at the Vatican’s World Meeting of Families in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 23, 2018.
One of the more recent challenges for Catholic parishes is how to welcome L.G.B.T. parishioners, as well as families with L.G.B.T. members. But that challenge is also where grace abounds because L.G.B.T. Catholics have felt excluded from the church for so long that any experience of welcome can be life-changing—a healing moment that can inspire them to go to Mass again, return them to the faith and even help them to believe in God again.
Over the past few years, I’ve heard the most appalling stories from L.G.B.T. Catholics who have been made to feel unwelcome in parishes. A 30-year-old autistic gay man who came out to his family and was not in any sort of relationship told me that a pastoral associate said he could no longer receive Communion in church. Why? Because even saying he was gay was a scandal.
But cruelty doesn’t end at the doors of the church. Last year a woman contacted me to ask if I knew any “compassionate priests” in her archdiocese. Why? She was a nurse in a hospice where a Catholic patient was dying. But the local parish priest assigned to the hospice was refusing to anoint him—because he was gay.
Is it surprising that most L.G.B.T. Catholics feel like lepers in the church?
The same is true for families. The mother of a gay teen told me her son had decided to come back to church after years of feeling the church hated him. After much discussion, he decided to return on Easter Sunday. The mother was overjoyed. When Mass began she was so excited to have her son beside her. But after the priest proclaimed the story of Christ’s Resurrection, guess what he preached on? The evils of homosexuality. The son stood up and walked out of the church. And the mother sat in the pew and cried.
But there are also stories of grace in our church. Last year, a university student told me that the first person to whom he came out was a priest. The first thing the priest said was, “God loves you, and the church accepts you.” The young man told me, “That literally saved my life.” Indeed, we should rejoice that more and more Catholic parishes are places where L.G.B.T. Catholics feel at home, thanks to both the parish staff and more formalized programs.
Is it surprising that most L.G.B.T. Catholics feel like lepers in the church?
My own Jesuit community in New York is next to a church called St. Paul the Apostle, which has one of the most active L.G.B.T. outreach programs in the world. The ministry is called Out at St. Paul and sponsors retreats, Bible study groups, speaking engagements and social events for the parish’s large L.G.B.T. community. At every 5:15 p.m. Sunday Mass, when the time comes for parish announcements, an L.G.B.T. person gets up in the pulpit to say, “Hi! I’m Jason or Xorje or Marianne, and I’m a member at Out at St. Paul. If you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, we want you to feel welcome. Here are some events coming up this week.” And I just learned that two members of that group are entering religious orders this year.
Sadly, much of the spiritual life of L.G.B.T. Catholics and their families depends on where they happen to live. If you’re a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person trying to make sense of your relationship with God and the church or if you’re a parent of an L.G.B.T. person and you live in a big city with open-minded pastors, you’re in luck. But if you live in a less open-minded place or your pastor is homophobic, either silently or overtly, you’re out of luck. And the way that Catholics are welcomed or not welcomed in their parish heavily influences their outlook not only on the church but on their faith and on God.
That’s the real scandal. Why should faith depend on where you live? Is that what God desires for the church? Did Jesus want people in Bethany to feel God’s love less than people in Bethsaida? Did Jesus want a woman in Jericho to feel less loved than a woman in Jerusalem?
Sadly, much of the spiritual life of L.G.B.T. Catholics and their families depends on where they happen to live.
So what helps a parish to be welcoming and respectful? How can priests and deacons, sisters and brothers, directors of religious education, lay pastoral associates and all parishioners help parishes become homes for L.G.B.T. Catholics and their families?
The following observations are based on not only conversations with L.G.B.T. people but also on the experience of L.G.B.T. ministries and outreach groups that I consulted for this talk. I asked them: What are the most important things for parishes to know and to do?
It sounds obvious, but parishes need to remember that L.G.B.T. people and their families are baptized Catholics.
So I’d like to talk about three areas. First, what are some fundamental insights for parishes? Second, what can a parish do to be more welcoming and respectful? Finally, what might the Gospel say to us about this ministry? Let’s begin with six fundamental insights.
1) They are Catholic. That sounds obvious, but parishes need to remember that L.G.B.T. people and their families are baptized Catholics. They are as much as part of the church as Pope Francis, the local bishop or the pastor. It’s not a question of making them Catholic. They already are. So the most important thing we can do for L.G.B.T. Catholics is to welcome them to what is already their church. And remember: Just to remain in the church L.G.B.T. people have often endured years of rejection. Our welcome should reflect that and so should be, to quote Luke’s Gospel, “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.”
2) They do not choose their orientation. Sadly, many people still believe that people choose their sexual orientation, despite the testimony of almost every psychiatrist and biologist—and, more important, the lived experience of L.G.B.T. people. You don’t choose your orientation or gender identity any more than you choose to be left-handed. It’s not a choice. And it’s not an addiction. Thus, it is not a sin simply to be L.G.B.T. Far less, it is not something to “blame” on someone, like parents.
3) They have often been treated like lepers by the church. Never underestimate the pain that L.G.B.T. people have experienced—not only at the hands of the church but from society at large. A few statistics may help: In the United States, lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are five times as likely to have attempted suicide than their straight counterparts. Forty percent of transgender people in the United States attempt suicide. Among young L.G.B.T. people in the United States, 57 percent feel unsafe because of their orientation. Also, one study shows that the more religious the family they come from, the more likely they are to attempt suicide. And one important reason that L.G.B.T. youth are homeless is that they come from families who reject them for religious reasons. So parishes need to be aware of the consequences of stigmatizing L.G.B.T. people.
Never underestimate the pain that L.G.B.T. people have experienced—not only at the hands of the church but from society at large.
Most L.G.B.T. Catholics have been deeply wounded by the church. They may have been mocked, insulted, excluded, condemned or singled out for critique, either privately or from the pulpit. They may never have heard the term “gay” or “lesbian” expressed in any positive way or even a neutral way. And even if hateful comments did not come in the parish setting, they may have heard other Catholic leaders make homophobic comments. From their earliest days as Catholics, they are often made to feel like they are a mistake. They fear rejection, judgment and condemnation from the church. In fact, these may be the only things that they expect from the church. This often leads them to exclude themselves from the church.
Parents of L.G.B.T. children face similar pain. There is a saying, “When a child comes out of the closet, the parent goes into the closet.” It can be confusing, frightening and embarrassing for parents to accept the reality of their children’s orientation or gender identity. They may suffer shame in front of relatives and friends. Having a child come out or say that they are transgender can make the parent feel not only that they have somehow failed but that they will be isolated, judged and excluded from the church. Sometimes they feel that they must choose between their child and God. Parents also worry that their children will leave a church that is seen as rejecting them. As a result, parishes must let parents and families know that they are still welcome, that they have nothing to fear from the church and that the church is their home.
4) They bring gifts to the church. Like any group, L.G.B.T. people bring special gifts to the church. Now, it’s usually wrong to generalize, but for a group that has been seen in the church almost exclusively in a negative light, it’s important to consider the many gifts of the group. To begin with, because they have been so marginalized, many L.G.B.T. people often feel a natural compassion for those on the margins. Their compassion is a gift. They are often forgiving of pastors and priests who have treated them like dirt. Their forgiveness is a gift. They persevere as Catholics in the face of years of rejection. Their perseverance is a gift.
In fact, recently some American parishes have fired L.G.B.T. people after they were legally married. And something about these situations always mystified me. Every time I would hear these stories, it would always be about the “most beloved” teacher, parish associate or music minister. It made me wonder why they were the “most beloved.” Then I realized why: L.G.B.T. people working for the church really have to want to be there, given the way they’re treated. They stick with their ministry despite the rejection that they experience. It’s the same with L.G.B.T. parishioners: They must make a conscious decision to stay with a church—to persevere. So when you think about their gifts, you may have the same reaction that Jesus had with the Roman centurion: amazement at their faith.
Like any group, L.G.B.T. people bring special gifts to the church.
5) They long to know God. Like many Catholics, many L.G.B.T. people struggle with various aspects of the church’s teaching—for example, terms like “intrinsically disordered.” At the same time, many aren’t as focused on those parts of the tradition as people think. Many want something much simpler: They want to experience the Father’s love through the community. They want to meet Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. They want to experience the Holy Spirit in the sacraments. They want to hear good homilies, sing good music and feel part of a faith community. Treat them like that—not as protestors but as parishioners. Help L.G.B.T. people and their families to fulfill their deepest desires: to know God.
6) They are loved by God. God loves them—so should we. And I don’t mean a stingy, grudging, judgmental, conditional, half-hearted love. I mean real love. And what does real love mean? The same thing it means for everyone: knowing them in the complexity of their lives, celebrating with them when life is sweet, suffering with them when life is bitter, as a friend would. But I say even more: Love them as Jesus loved people on the margins: extravagantly.
With those insights in mind, how can a parish be more welcoming? How can we treat L.G.B.T. people with the virtues that the Catechism recommends: “respect, compassion and sensitivity”? Let me suggest 10 things. Now, the following suggestions need to be fitted to your own parish. No one size fits all. Each parish must develop its own model.
1) Examine your own attitudes towards L.G.B.T. people and their families. Do you believe someone is sinful because she’s lesbian or more inclined to sin than a straight woman? Do you hold the parents “responsible” for a gay teen’s orientation? Do you think a person is transgender only because it’s “fashionable”? Here’s another question: If none or only a few L.G.B.T. people have made themselves known to you, why might that be the case?
God loves L.G.B.T. people—so should we. And I don’t mean a stingy, grudging, judgmental love.
Likewise, are you discriminating against them in your heart? For example, do you hold the L.G.B.T. community to the same standards as the straight community? With L.G.B.T. people we tend to focus on whether they are fully conforming to the church’s teachings on sexual morality. So are you doing the same with straight parishioners—with those who are living together before being married or practicing birth control? Be consistent about whose lives get scrutinized. Pastors are often more sympathetic to the complex situations of straight people because they know them. For example, even though Jesus condemns divorce outright, most parishes welcome divorced people. Do we treat L.G.B.T. people with the same understanding?
What can you do about these attitudes? Be honest about them. But also get facts, not myths, about sexual orientation and gender identity from scientific and social-scientific sources, not from rumors and misinformed and homophobic online sites. Then talk to God and your spiritual director about your feelings and be open to God’s response. Invite your pastoral team to speak about their feelings and experiences. This leads to the next step.
2) Listen to them. Listen to the experiences of L.G.B.T. Catholics and their parents and families. If you don’t know what to say, you might ask: “What was it like growing up as a gay boy in our church?” “What is it like being a lesbian Catholic?” And an important question, “What is it like being a transgender person?” We still know little about the transgender experience, so we must listen. Invite the parents of an L.G.B.T. child to speak with your pastoral team. Ask them: “What is it like to have a gay child?” “How has the church helped you or hurt you?” “How has your understanding of God changed?” And pay attention to what they say. To that end, be attentive to language that they say they find offensive and needlessly hurtful: “sodomy” for example. Names, words and terminology matter.
Do you hold the L.G.B.T. community to the same standards as the straight community?
Overall, whether you are participating in a ministry like an L.G.B.T. outreach program or are meeting with an L.G.B.T. person one-on-one, begin with their experiences. To that end, trust that the Holy Spirit will guide them in their formation as Christians. We don’t treat other Catholics by simply repeating church teaching without considering their lived experience. So avoid doing that with L.G.B.T. people. Notice how Jesus treated people on the margins: for example, how he treated the Samaritan woman. Does he castigate her for being married several times and living with someone? No. Instead, Jesus listens to her and treats her with respect. So be like Jesus: listen, encounter, accompany. If the church listened to L.G.B.T. people, 90 percent of the homophobia and prejudice would disappear.
3) Acknowledge them inhomilies or parish presentations as full members of the parish, without judgment and not as fallen-away Catholics. L.G.B.T. people should never be degraded or humiliated from the pulpit—nor should anyone. Just mentioning them can be a step forward. Sometimes in homilies I’ll say, “God loves us all—whether we’re old or young, rich or poor, straight or L.G.B.T.” Even something small like that can send a signal. It also sends a signal to their parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. You may not think you have any L.G.B.T. people in your parish. But you certainly have parents and grandparents of L.G.B.T. people. You have people who love L.G.B.T. people in your parish. Remember that when you’re speaking about L.G.B.T. people you’re speaking about their children.
4) Apologize to them. If L.G.B.T. Catholics or their families have been harmed in the name of the church by homophobic comments and attitudes and decisions, apologize. And I’m speaking here to the church’s ministers. They were harmed by the church, you’re a minister of the church. You can apologize. It doesn’t solve everything, but it’s a start.
5) Don’t reduce gays and lesbians to the call to chastity we all share as Christians. L.G.B.T. people are more than their sexual lives. But sometimes that’s all they hear about. Remember not to focus solely on sexuality but on the many other joys and sorrows in their lives. They lead rich lives. Many L.G.B.T. Catholics are parents themselves or are caring for aging parents; many help the poor in their community; many are involved in civic and charitable organizations. They’re often deeply involved in the life of the parish. See them in their totality. And if you talk about chastity with L.G.B.T. people, do it as much with straight people.
L.G.B.T. people are more than their sexual lives. But sometimes that’s all they hear about.
6) Include them in ministries. As I’ve mentioned, there is a tendency to focus on the sexual morality of L.G.B.T. parishioners, which is wrong, because, first, you often have no idea what their sexual lives are like; and, second, even if they are falling short, they are not the only ones. As a result, L.G.B.T. people may feel they have to be dishonest about who they are and that they have no place in ministries. Like everyone else in your parish who does not live up to the Gospels—which is everyone—L.G.B.T. people should be invited into parish ministries: eucharistic ministers, music ministers, lectors, bereavement ministry and every ministry. By the way, by not welcoming them the church misses out on their gifts. They will simply go to where they are welcomed, to where they can bring their whole selves. Also, asking someone who has felt left out his or her or their whole life can be a life-changing.
7) Acknowledge their individual gifts. Not only should we acknowledge the gifts that L.G.B.T. people offer in the church as a group but their individual gifts should be valued. For example, one of the cantors in my Jesuit parish is a gay man. He is kind and compassionate, and his beautiful voice has made him an essential part of our worship for 20 years. You probably have similar people in your parish. Remember how important it is to acknowledge them, to praise them, to raise them up. Don’t hide their light under your bushel basket!
8) Invite everyone on the parish staff to welcome them. You may have a welcoming pastor, but what about everyone else? Does the person answering the phone know what to say to a lesbian couple who wants to have their child baptized? At funerals, are the gay adult children of the deceased treated with the same respect as other children? What about the teacher in a parish school who has two fathers coming to a parent-teacher conference? How does a deacon treat the father of a gay man who just died and who wants a funeral for his son? Are gay and lesbian Catholics welcome in bereavement groups when a partner dies? Is your parish open to the children of all couples, not just straight couples? Are the children of lesbian and gay couples welcome in parish schools, educational programs and sacramental preparation programs? Is your parish staff educated in the full range of church teaching on nondiscrimination and pastoral outreach?
The voice of your parish is not just your pastor’s voice but everyone’s. Think about it this way: By not welcoming and by excluding L.G.B.T. Catholics, the church is falling short of its call to be God’s family. By excluding L.G.B.T. people, you are breaking up God’s family; you are tearing apart the Body of Christ.
By excluding L.G.B.T. people, you are breaking up God’s family; you are tearing apart the Body of Christ.
9) Sponsor special events or develop an outreach program. Like everyone else, L.G.B.T. Catholics want to feel like they are part of the church. And, as for all its children, the onus is on the church to invite them into the community. But for many L.G.B.T. people, the church has not been a place of welcome. So specific L.G.B.T. events and outreach programs are helpful to bridge the gap between your intentions and their suspicions.
As for events, there are many possibilities: You can offer a Mass of welcome, a weekend retreat, a day of recollection, a book club or a speaker. And speaking events don’t have to be focused solely on L.G.B.T. issues. That is, sponsor a speaker to talk to L.G.B.T. parishioners about prayer. Or show a video about a topic that people need to be informed on, like the experience of transgender people. And again, that issue—transgender people—is one that the church needs to learn about because society at large is still learning about. Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt., said: “I see no reason why transgender people would not be welcome in church. There is more evidence...that a lot of this is biological; it’s not just something a person just makes as a fashionable choice or cultural choice. This is who they are...everyone is God’s creature, and I would invite anyone to come to the table.”
As for L.G.B.T. outreach ministries, there are many models. They range from programs where L.G.B.T. people speak with one another privately to ones where L.G.B.T. parishioners meet together with other parishioners; to education programs on church teaching; to more holistic approaches where the group does not focus on sexuality but on the other questions that L.G.B.T. people face; to family groups for parents; to groups that do outreach to the L.G.B.T. community in the area, like working in shelters for L.G.B.T. youth; to what you might call “blending-in” programs, where the parish includes L.G.B.T. topics as one element among many in the parish: in adult education, social justice programs and youth ministry. All of this depends on your parish.
As for parents, one mother said, when I asked what I should say to you today: “The most important thing to give parents is a safe, welcoming space to share their stories with other Catholic parents. So many feel alone and don’t think anyone else is going through this. It’s relief to know that there are others on the journey. ... And they don’t need to hear their children being compared to alcoholics. Hearing positive statements from the pulpit would also be nice, instead of acting as if their children don’t exist.”
Last year, the Jesuit parish where I celebrate Mass—called, not surprisingly, St. Ignatius Loyola—sponsored an evening of sharing stories. Six members of our parish came together—three gay men, the mother of a gay child, the father of a gay child and his gay teen son—to talk about their lives. Their sharing of stories of joys and griefs were healing for them and for the whole parish. Why healing for them? Imagine thinking your whole life that you’re not part of the church and then being asked to speak about your experiences. And healing for the rest of the parish, because it brought us all together in a way that we could scarcely have imagined.
10) Advocate for them. Be prophetic. There are many times when the church can provide a moral voice for this persecuted community. And I’m not talking about hot-button topics like same-sex marriage. I’m talking about incidents in countries where gay men are rounded up and thrown in jail or even executed for being gay and lesbians are raped to “cure them” of their sexual orientations. In those countries, L.G.B.T. issues are life issues. In other countries, it may be responding to incidents of teen suicides or hate crimes or bullying. There are many opportunities for parishes to stand with L.G.B.T. people who are being persecuted.
This is part of what it means to be a Christian: standing up for the marginalized, the persecuted, the beaten down.
The Catechism says, “Every sign of unjust discrimination must be avoided” when it comes to L.G.B.T. people. Do we believe this part of the Catechism? The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote in 1986: “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent speech and action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors whenever it occurs.” Do we believe that statement from the C.D.F?
This is part of what it means to be a Christian: standing up for the marginalized, the persecuted, the beaten down. It’s shocking how little the Catholic Church has done this. Let your L.G.B.T. parishioners know you stand with them, mention their persecution in a homily when appropriate or in the prayers of the faithful. Be prophetic. Be courageous. Be like Jesus.
Because if we’re not trying to be like Jesus, what’s the point? And remember that in his public ministry Jesus continually reached out to people who felt like they were on the margins. The movement for Jesus was from the outside-in. He was bringing people who felt on the outside into the community. Because for Jesus there is no “us” and “them.” There is only us.
To that end, I’d like to close with a story from the Gospels to help us meditate on our call to welcome and respect L.G.B.T. people and their families.
The Gospel of Luke tells us the beautiful story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. Jesus is traveling through Jericho, a huge city. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, and it’s toward the end of his ministry, so he would have been well known in the area. As a result, he probably had a large crowd following him. In Jericho, there is a man named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region and so would have also been seen by the Jewish people as the “chief sinner.” Why? Because he would have been seen as colluding with the Roman authorities. So Zacchaeus was someone who was probably on the outs with everyone.
For Jesus, it’s community first, conversion second. Welcome and respect come first.
Now, here I would like you to invite you to think of Zacchaeus as a symbol for the L.G.B.T. Catholic. Not because the L.G.B.T. people are more sinful than the rest of us—because we’re all sinners. But because they feel so marginalized. Think of the L.G.B.T. person as Zacchaeus.
Luke’s Gospel describes Zacchaeus as “short in stature.” How little “stature” L.G.B.T. people often feel that they have in the church. Luke also says that Zacchaeus could not see Jesus “on account of the crowd.” That was probably because of his height, but how often does the “crowd” get in the way of the L.G.B.T. person encountering Jesus? When are we in the parish part of the “crowd” that doesn’t let L.G.B.T. people come close to God?
So Zacchaeus climbs a tree, because, as Luke tells us, he wanted to see “who Jesus was.” And this is what the L.G.B.T. person wants: to see who Jesus is. But the crowd gets in the way.
Now here comes Jesus making his way through Jericho, probably with hundreds of people clamoring for his attention. And whom does he point to? One of the religious authorities? One of his disciples? No, to Zacchaeus! And what does he say to Zacchaeus? Does he shout, “Sinner!” Does he shout, “You terrible tax collector”? No! He says, “Hurry down for I must stay at your house today!” It’s a public sign of welcome to someone on the margins.
Then comes my favorite line in the story: “All who saw it began to grumble!” Which is exactly what is happening today toward L.G.B.T. people. People grumble! Go online and you’ll see all the grumbling. An offer of mercy to someone on the margins always makes people angry.
But Zacchaeus climbs down from the tree and, as the Gospels say, he “stood there.” The original Greek is much stronger, statheis: he stood his ground. How often have L.G.B.T. people had to stand their ground in the face of opposition and prejudice in the church?
Then Zacchaeus says that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and repay anyone he has defrauded four times over. An encounter with Jesus leads to a conversion, as it does for everyone. And what do I mean by conversion? Not “conversion therapy.” No, the conversion that happens to Zacchaeus is the conversion that we’re all called to. In the Gospels, Jesus calls it metanoia, a conversion of minds and hearts. For Zacchaeus, conversion meant giving to the poor.
All this comes from an encounter with Jesus. Because Jesus’ approach was, more often than not, community first, conversion second. For John the Baptist the model was to convert first and then be welcomed into the community. For Jesus, it’s community first, conversion second. Welcome and respect come first.
This is how Jesus treats people who feel on the margins. He seeks them out before anyone else; he encounters them, and he treats them with respect, sensitivity and compassion.
So when it comes to L.G.B.T. people and their families in our parishes, it seems that there are two places to stand. You can stand with the crowd, who grumble and who oppose mercy for those on the margins. Or you can stand with Zacchaeus, and, more important, with Jesus.