Amid Mixed Messages And Controversy, LGBT Catholics Prepare For Pope's Visit
Pope Francis will wrap up his first tour of the United States next weekend with a stop in Philadelphia, where the World Meeting of Families is being held.
Founded by Pope John Paul II in 1994, the Meeting convenes every three years and is organized by the Pontifical Council for the Family, which "promotes the pastoral care of families [and] protects their rights and dignity in the Church and in civil society."
This is the first time it's being held in the U.S., and upwards of two million people are expected to attend various events.
The theme this year is “Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive,” emphasizing the impact of the love and life of families on society.
New Ways, a national catholic ministry that promotes equality for LGBT people in church and society, had originally been welcomed to host an official World Meeting event at St. John’s the Evangelist Catholic Church in Center City.
But the event, "TransForming Love: Exploring Gender Identity From Catholic Perspectives,” was suddenly canceled by the church.
“We had been in touch with Pastor John at St. John's and he welcomed the workshop,” New Ways Executive Director Francis DeBernardo told me. “The pastor said he would like to host it. ‘All are welcome at St Johns’ he told me. So we scheduled it there.”
“We developed a print and PDF brochure for the workshop. We mailed those out by e-mail and postal mail. Then a week later the workshop was canceled,” DeBernardo told me. “The Pastor told us that the Chancery Office had called and told him that the Archbishop had seen the brochure and he wanted the workshop canceled.”
"Decisions regarding programs offered at parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are made at the local level at each individual parish," spokesperson Kenneth Gavin told NJ.com. "It is expected, however, that any parish sponsored activities would feature content that is in line with Church teaching."
When my calls to St. John's pastor, Rev. John Daya (below) went unreturned, I went to to see him in person.
Rev. Daya came out to the lobby, shook my hand and said, “You’re the writer? I will not be speaking with you,” before turning and walking away.
Lauren Puzen, who coordinates after-school programs addressing education and nutrition, is a proud Catholic and an out lesbian. She described the struggle Pastor John may be experiencing when we chatted about the papal visit.
"It's hard because most of the headlines around the Church and sexual orientation are not accepting," she says.
"But what we have found is that there are community and religious leaders who are accepting. Unfortunately, they have to keep their voices low, and their voices don't get praised. Frequently, they get punished if they speak out on issues like this.”
Archbishop Charles Chaput (above) is in charge of organizing many aspects of the World Meeting of Families. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has already made headlines for denying exhibition space to Fortunate Families, a group which supports Catholic parents of LGBT people.
What has gone largely unreported, though, is that the archdiocese has invited speakers, workshop presenters and exhibitors with ties to reparative therapy—especially programs targeting children and adolescents.
At least one, Courage, has been invited as an exhibitor.
Asked for a statement, the World Meeting of Families sent NNN the following:
“The World Meeting of Families Congress will discuss a wide range of global family issues.
As this is truly a world meeting, we worked incredibly hard to ensure the content of the World Meeting of Families Congress reflects the joys and challenges that families around the globe confront.
We were careful to include as many topics as possible, but of course, given limited time and physical space, anyone looking at the programming for coverage of one single issue will not find it covered in depth.
Every World Meeting addresses a variety of matters affecting families worldwide, including poverty, addiction, immigration, disabilities, death, divorce, co-parenting, and more.
We were able to include a session on same-sex attraction. Attendees in that session will all be able to hear the presenter’s story—and his mother’s—as he describes the development of his thoughts about himself, his faith, and our society in this context.
However, to our knowledge, none of the presenters at the World Meeting of Families Congress will promote or discuss the practice of conversion therapy.
In fact, Ron Belgau, a presenter at the Congress, specifically challenges reparative therapy in his blog, calling the approach ‘misguided.’”
Of course, many LGBT Catholics are still looking forward to the papal visit. Puzen began to cry when she imagined what she'd say to Pope Francis if she met him.
"I would say, 'Thank you. Thanks for living in solidarity. Thanks for setting people's hearts on fire.'"
She's writing a book about the LGBT experience in the Catholic Church with friend and fellow out Catholic Seth Jacobson.
Jacobson is also helping get the word out about the New Ways Ministry workshop that is still happening, although at Arch Street Methodist Church up the street.
He's hopeful, telling NNN, "Pope Francis has signaled a dramatic shift in discourse with respect to homosexuality. My hope is that he and the Church continue in this direction, recognizing and affirming the Church’s diversity and its discontent over an antiquated teaching."
Indeed, the Pew Research Center reports that more than 55% of American Catholics are in favor of same-sex marriage, and nearly 89% of young American Catholics are accepting of homosexuality.
And other Philadelphia groups are scheduling unofficial programs to coincide with the Pope's visit, as well.
The LGBT Family Papal Picnic on September 26, featuring appearances by mayoral candidate Jim Kenney and Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal, was scheduled after the gender identity workshop at St. John's was axed.
Activities include a film screening, and children of LGBT families writing letters and drawing pictures of their families to show to Pope Francis, who has been invited.
Additionally, William Way Community Center will host a visit from the drag activist group the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, as well as a curated meditative environment for travelers looking to rest, ruminate and recharge.
"We want to be a mental safe space," program director R. Eric Thomas told me.
"There is all of this conflicting information about how accepted LGBT people will be at the World Meeting. But some of it is not conflicting—some of it is very against LGBT people."
Thomas says his goal is for queer people to know "you are not only welcome to walk around the center, you are welcome to find solace and sanctuary here, as well."