“Hello Father Martin,” wrote one mother, “I am a parent of a 13-year-old girl who identifies as gay. She is loving, kind, funny and has a heart as large as the continent. We have stopped going to Mass because all of our local parishes are pressing a hard anti-gay message, and I cannot sit in a pew with the thoughts that run through my head.”
“Hi Fr. Martin,” another mother began, “My parish has a new pastor and our first introduction to him was a piece in the bulletin where he wrote about the ‘diabolical’ nature of Pride Month.”
In the past year, I’ve received numerous messages from Catholics who report listening to homilies, reading parish bulletins and hearing comments from parish staff that target, insult or condemn LGBTQ people. To be clear, I don’t mean messages that the listener simply didn’t agree with; rather, I’m referring to outright attacks on LGBTQ people and their “agenda.” Recently, a woman in Louisiana sent me a homily, later printed in the diocesan newspaper, where the pastor railed against “sodomites” and other “radical demons.”
One parent described listening to comments in a homily directed against LGBTQ people during Mass at their local cathedral: “All the while, my teen gay daughter was sitting with me, holding my hand to what felt like hate speech.”
Many parishioners, after encountering such comments from the pulpit, in bulletins or during one-on-one interactions, experience understandably intense feelings of anger, sadness and discouragement—on behalf of not only themselves but also family members.
Besides the anger, sadness and discouragement comes another reaction: confusion. After telling me what happened, people will often ask, “What should I do?” In the moment, and even long afterwards, LGBTQ Catholics can feel powerless. “I was wondering,” wrote one parent, “if you have any particular resources for talking to pastors about this type of issue.”
The following is a summary of what I usually suggest, beginning with the most benign response and proceeding to more serious actions, depending on whether the previous steps have proven effective. All these steps should be done in charity. I’ll focus on what you might do after hearing a homily that contains homophobic messages, but these steps can apply to personal encounters, parish bulletins and other public communications. And here I’m speaking to Catholics who want to remain in the church, despite the homophobic messages they have heard.
1. Remind yourself that you are a member of the Body of Christ
The first step is a spiritual one. In these tense situations, it can feel like you don’t belong in the Catholic Church, that the whole church is aligned against you (or your family), and that you are not welcome in your own parish.
Therefore, the first thing to do is to remind yourself that one priest or deacon is not the whole church. Also, remember that you are as much a member of the church as is the priest or deacon, the local bishop or the pope. So is your LGBTQ child or family member. Before you go any further, take a deep breath and ground yourself in your baptism, your sacramental membership in the church.
2. Ask yourself if you misunderstood
Admittedly, this is usually not the case, since what the priest or deacon says is often clear. Nonetheless, it’s an important first step that errs on the side of charity. In his book The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola offers what he calls the “Presupposition,” a hallmark of Jesuit spirituality, in which he says that everyone should try, as far as possible, to put a positive interpretation on what another person says.
In other words, give people the benefit of the doubt.
“It should be presupposed,” says St. Ignatius, “that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it.”
It’s possible that the homilist mentioned LGBTQ people in a way that seemed offensive but was meant differently. Or perhaps the homilist didn’t know that what he was saying was offensive.
But, based on what I’ve heard from most parishioners, that’s usually not the case, as when the pastor equated “sodomites” with “radical demons.” This brings us to St. Ignatius’s second step: “If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love.”
Let me suggest a few ways to “correct the person with love.”
3. Speak to the homilist
Some people have told me that after hearing homophobic comments in a homily, they felt the need to leave Mass immediately. Usually, this is not meant as a protest, but is rather a reflection that they were so upset that they could no longer focus on the liturgy.
But if you stay in the pews, there is another alternative: addressing the homilist.
You can speak with the homilist after Mass, when what you heard is still fresh in your mind and your emotions are on the surface. Even in such circumstances, it is not a bad thing for a homilist to see how his homily has affected a parishioner. In all cases, I would refrain from insulting or verbally attacking the priest or deacon. (“You’re so homophobic,” etc.) Not only is this against Christian charity, but human nature being what it is, it makes any further discussion more difficult.
The time that one has on the steps of a church with a priest or deacon after Mass is usually limited, but even a brief interaction can help. In this setting, there are a few good ways of “correcting the person with love.”
The first is to explain the effect this homily had on you. This can be a helpful approach, because the other person will feel less attacked, and again, if a person feels attacked, then it is harder for that person to hear you, much less engage in any kind of dialogue. Also, the homilist will have a hard time saying, “You didn’t feel this way.”
So, for example, you might say, “Father, when you said LGBTQ people are going to hell, you made me feel unwelcome in my own parish.” Or “Father, my child is gay and I want you to know how angry what you said made me feel.” Or, more simply, “Father, those comments really hurt me as an LGBTQ member of this parish.”
Generally speaking, this approach is also more fruitful than trying to address any theological issues or church teachings on the steps of the church, when there is little time for a thoughtful discussion. The homilist may be sincerely open to listening but, at that moment, he also needs to greet other parishioners. And, frankly, if you tie up the line, you will just end up annoying people.
If that approach is not possible, or does not satisfy, then there are some other steps.
4. Write a letter and/or meet with the priest or deacon
If a meeting after Mass is impossible, or unsatisfactory, or if you want a more in-depth conversation, then you can write to (or email or phone) the priest or deacons and either express your concerns and/or ask for a meeting. Sometimes the anger of the moment makes it difficult to organize your thoughts and speak clearly, so a letter or email may enable you to express your thoughts more articulately. (If the homilist was not the pastor, you can also write a letter to the pastor, and copy the priest.)
Here is where it may help not only to share what you felt, but also point out any “corrections.” For example, “Father, you made it seem like LGBTQ people are the only ones whose lives are not in conformity with church teaching, when, of course, there are many people in that category.” Or, “Father, you mentioned the Bible verses against homosexuality, but of course there are many things that the Old Testament condemns that we see differently these days.” Or, again, you could relate how these comments made you feel. “Father, using a term like ‘sodomite’ is pretty offensive to LGBTQ people.” Or, “Father, can you see how equating LGBTQ people with the devil can make someone feel?”
From what people have shared with me, meeting in person with the priest or deacon is probably the best approach. Some have told me that while these meetings are usually tense, they sometimes bear fruit.
Let’s be clear: Most priests and deacons are not homophobic or intent on targeting LGBTQ people. They may simply not have much experience with LGBTQ people or their families. Sometimes they need to engage in an encounter with someone to understand their lives.
Several years ago, the father of a gay son wrote to me about a homily that his local bishop gave, which the father considered extremely homophobic. The father requested a meeting with the bishop, in a medium-sized U.S. diocese. The bishop responded and they have been meeting regularly for several years.
Recently, he told me that, while they still disagree on certain topics, the bishop has been open to listening and has even started to say more welcoming things about LGBTQ people. Some might say, “Too little, too late,” but this is how change begins, through the “culture of encounter” that Pope Francis talks about.
5. Write to your bishop
Bishops receive many letters from Catholics concerned about many important topics: the sex abuse crisis, parish closings, priests speaking out on political matters, as well as other issues regarding the parishes in his care. So bishops are busy people. Nonetheless, if you fail to get a satisfactory response from the homilist or the pastor, it can help to let the bishop know what happened.
After all, the bishop’s traditional role is not only to “teach” and “sanctify” but to “govern” the diocese. If several people write, he may also decide to speak with the homilist.
On the other hand, the bishop himself may agree with the content of the homily or the parish bulletin. In that case, it’s still important for you to speak up.
The Second Vatican Council’s document on the church, “Lumen Gentium,” spoke of the need for lay people to speak up. And it does so in strong terms: “They [the laity] are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church” (#37). (Emphasis mine.) Certainly, an LGBTQ person has “knowledge” and “competence” about their own situation.
But what if nothing works? What if the pastor ignores you, the bishop doesn’t answer you and the homophobic comments continue in your parish? In that case, you have two options.
6. Stay in your parish if you are able
It’s hard to remain in a parish where you feel disrespected. And I don’t want to diminish the pain that some LGBTQ people feel. But membership in your local parish flows from your identity as a Catholic. The parish community, as Pope Francis has said, is the “human context where the evangelizing work of the church is carried out.” You have a place in that “human context” as much as any Catholic does.
Moreover, by virtue of your baptism, you are as much a Catholic as the pope, your local bishop or your pastor. As St. Paul wrote, “For in the one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13). Staying in your parish can remind you of your own unique place in the church; it can show your fellow parishioners that you are persevering in the face of homophobia; and it will allow you to contribute to the ongoing discussion in your parish. A friend told me that she stays because, as she said, no one has the right to kick her out of her own parish. “I’m not going anywhere,” she said.
Going to Mass in your home parish, even if you have felt insulted there, is not as much an act of protest (for going to Mass should not be seen as such) as fidelity to your baptismal call as a Catholic.
When Thomas Merton wrote in protest of nuclear war and expressed his pacifist stance in the 1960s, he was silenced on that topic by his Trappist superiors. But he gave no thought to leaving his order, even if he disagreed with his superiors’ stance. “I am where I am,” he wrote to his friend Jim Forest. “I have freely chosen this state, and have freely chosen to stay in it when the question of a possible change arose. If I am a disturbing element, that is all right.”
7. Find another parish if you still feel unwelcome
Staying in a parish where you feel disrespected is not for everyone. Many LGBTQ Catholics have had to find another parish simply to remain in the church with a sense of human dignity. “I couldn’t stand worrying when I was going to be insulted next,” a friend told me recently.
A few of Catholics told me that when they left their home parishes because of homophobic messages, they wrote letters to the pastor (and sometimes to the bishop) outlining the reasons they decided to leave. Some said that not only the leaving itself, but also telling the pastor (and the bishop) why they left, was important for their spiritual well being.
Finding a place where you feel more welcome can help you enter more fully into the life of the parish and also into the Mass itself, where the goal is “fully conscious and active participation,” in the words of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s document on the liturgy. Here, Outreach’s Gaudete page of welcoming parishes and New Ways Ministry’s list can be a help to finding a new parish.
8. Pray to be able to forgive
Pray for the ability to forgive the person, if you can. While the homilist may seem angry, resentful or bitter, there is always the possibility of conversion of heart. Pray that he may come to see LGBTQ people as he sees other members of the church, as pilgrim people. Pray for him, try to be open, encounter him as you are able. This may sound impossible (or even masochistic) but this, after all, is part of Christian discipleship (Mt 5:44). Remember that nothing is impossible with God.
Most of all, remember that no matter what hateful things you may hear from a few people, you are still part of the Body of Christ.