Jesuit-sponsored LGBTQ conference provides space for queer spirituality

Views Nicholas Fagnant / June 8, 2023 Print this:
Students attend the Ignatian Q conference at Fordham University in April 2023. (Photo courtesy of Dana Maxson and Chris Gosier)

Ignatian Q is a conference run by and for LGBTQ undergraduate students of Jesuit colleges and universities. After a pandemic hiatus, it gathered again in April at its original home: Fordham University. More than 200 LGBTQ students, faculty, staff, friends and allies from 15 Jesuit universities attended Ignatian Q 2023.

The Fordham students and staff were hospitable, dedicated and fabulous. They volunteered specifically because they wanted to share their words and reflections with the Outreach community.

The energy at this year’s Ignatian Q conference was palpable, as if the Holy Spirit had sprinkled glitter on every heart. The conference featured panels with local and national activists sharing stories of how queer friendships are at the root of calls for LGBTQ justice. There was dedicated time and space to make new friends, build community and foster solidarity.

As college students trickled in for Sunday morning Mass, though, things felt different. Even with rainbow flags, gorgeous arrangements of flowers and warm rays of sunlight filling the room, many LGBTQ students seemed trepidatious. Their bodies were tired from a packed weekend but their eyes betrayed their readiness to shift into fight-or-flight if they felt the need to protect their own spiritual safety.

I know that I am not alone among LGBTQ Catholics when I admit that although the Eucharist is central to my faith, attending Mass can be more spiritually precarious than edifying. Countless times over the years, I have felt extremely unwelcome at liturgies. The Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our faith but for many LGBTQ folk, the Mass also signifies the source and summit of our exclusion, desolation and pain.

However, when the Ignatian Q choir began singing “All Are Welcome” as the gathering hymn, the message of the song felt…true. For the first time in a long time, many of these LGBTQ college students let their bodies, minds hearts and souls relax at Mass.

I know I am not alone among LGBTQ Catholics when I admit that although the Eucharist is central to my faith, attending Mass can be more spiritually precarious than edifying.

The trans woman could listen attentively to the daily readings because she was not nervously looking over her shoulder to scan threats to her wellbeing. Ben, a gay Fordham student and conference planning chair, shared his hopes for “all God’s children” during the Mass. “Our communal wholeness includes a multiplicity of religions, races, and gender and sexual identities,” and “we really wanted to accept people in their wholeness.” 

The queer sophomore of color could be assured the priest would not marginalize his embodied love by using it as the congregation’s example of sinfulness. Tina, a lesbian woman and cradle Catholic studying at John Carroll University, in Ohio, shared that, during Mass, “all those worries about whether I was really a Catholic or whether I really belonged sort of melted away.”  

The gay man heading up his university’s LGBTQ affinity group could brainstorm new ideas for invitational, inclusive and communal experiences of queer spirituality for his own campus. And Joan Cavanagh, the director of spiritual and pastoral ministry at Fordham, said the liturgy was “one of the most touching and inclusive Masses I have ever attended.”

The Rev. Bryan Massingale, a Fordham professor and theological ethicist who gave the conference’s opening keynote, began his Sunday morning homily by professing his love for “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” (I thought I couldn’t have respected Father Massingale more than I already had, but it turns out the God of surprises had one more in store for this huge nerd!)

Father Massingale detailed the plot of an episode, which involved young Wesley Crusher searching for his identity and struggling to find meaning both at home and at school. Only when a wise elder invites Wesley to examine his own sacredness is he able to truly walk his journey of self-discovery. “You are sacred,” Wesley was told. This was also Father Massingale’s message for the LGBTQ students: Even if no one has ever told you, you are sacred.

Everyone in the congregation was then invited to bless each other with holy water, the Sign of the Cross and that simple, yet profound, truth. Some of these students had not attended Mass in years, but they waited in line with reverence, hungry to participate. The blessing felt extremely Christian, in that it asked us to recognize the beauty and goodness of our own humanity, and it challenged us to do the same for others.

In a few short minutes, “All are Welcome” were not simply the words of the opening hymn. LGBTQ students and staff, friends and allies were invited to sacred belonging. 

“All those worries about whether I was really a Catholic or whether I really belonged sort of melted away.”  

Not every student felt connected to this ritual. There is no panacea for the life-long pain of feeling intentionally left out of Catholic “universality.” Some students from other faith traditions, who attended Mass in solidarity with their Catholic peers, resisted the focus on “sacredness.” Their traditions understand the concept as “set-apart-ness,” so these students’ felt hindered in their desire for belonging with the Catholic congregation.

Personally, I’m glad they felt comfortable and safe enough to share their struggles. To put it kindly, many Catholic communities hesitate to practice the virtues of “respect, compassion and sensitivity” when LGBTQ folks share their concerns. That these students expressed their hesitations is a testament to Ignatian Q’s success in continuously discerning and responding to the signs of the times.

“[The Mass] is not an obligation. It’s an invitation to meet new people,” said Kayla, a non-Catholic spiritual practitioner attending Loyola University Maryland.

Kayla explained that, as a Black and queer person, she searches for campus clubs and activities that celebrate the entirety of her identity. She was grateful for how Ignatian Q created spaces that “cultivate” new friendships and offered opportunities for students of color to explore the joys and complexities of living at the intersection of LGBTQ and BIPOC identities. “I felt like I was seen,” she said.

Samiksh, a queer South Asian student at Boston College, echoed Kayla’s struggles about the daily realities of attending predominantly white institutions.

“By virtue of being a Jesuit and Catholic community, even the queer community remains primarily white. And that poses sometimes a big issue for queer people of color,” Samiksh explained. “We are a minority within a minority, and that poses its own issues to deal with in the queer community.”

Samiksh appreciated that the Mass, like all of the programming, was optional, and he hopes that future Ignatian Q conferences will continue to be intentional about actively working for racial justice. 

“We are a minority within a minority, and that poses its own issues to deal with in the queer community.”

Kayla said that when students were engaging in breakout sessions or discussions after panels, “the staff got involved as well. They made themselves known in solidarity and community. They want to be equally engaged and involved at every single event.”

Kayla appreciated that the staff modeled what it means to be a LGBTQ adult, still on the journey of self-discovery and self-love. “None of us have it fully figured out. We are all still learning about ourselves,” she said.  

I attended Ignatian Q and facilitated a breakout session as a student of practical theology. Its goal is to understand and support where the Spirit is laboring through the sensus fidelium to “dream God’s reign anew” in the church and world. I often return to the Vatican’s 2020 Directory for Catechesis, which explains that the goal of Catholic education is to be a “living encounter with the Lord who transforms life” (6).

At Ignatian Q, I witnessed this “living encounter” in real time. Nathan, a trans Catholic at Boston College, shared that she often prays with the phrase “God is big enough.” Nathan loves her faith and wants to dive deeper into how the intersection of her identities can help her continue to grow together with the rest of the Body of Christ. 

The Directory recognizes that God has a preferential love for “those who are wounded and rejected” (386). Because they “know the suffering Christ,” they “have much to teach us” (387). Listening to the Ignatian Q students’ stories of marginalization and isolation, I became increasingly unsatisfied with merely “welcoming” LGBTQ college kids. Especially as Jesuit universities, we are called to the magis, to something more.

What if welcoming was the baseline and not the ceiling? The church is called to help “heal their wounds.” Guided by the vision of the Synod on Synodality, the church has the opportunity to embrace humility so that the Body of Christ can be “healed by them” and “to let ourselves be evangelized by them” (387).

Nathan reflected that as “a trans person of faith, I want to demonstrate the way that my faith and my queer identity inform, empower and embolden each other. At Ignatian Q, I was blessed to learn from LGBTQ students’ “dynamism” that has the power to accompany the church in our metanoia.

What if welcoming was the baseline, and not the ceiling? The church is called to help “heal their wounds.”

If university administrators are seeking examples of formative programming that fulfills the Jesuit and Catholic educational missions, tell them about Ignatian Q. Numerous students I spoke with at the conference’s closing brunch were on fire with a spirituality that, instead of asking them to hide their light under a bushel, invited them not just to shine, but to sparkle. Heading home on Sunday afternoon, the students were excited to bring their new knowledge and relationships back to their campuses. 

Tina shared that the Mass “was just so healing because I had never experienced, from a religious perspective, someone telling me that I belong and that I am loved for being a queer person.” Many students said they want to begin working more intentionally with their universities to better support the health and safety of trans students living on campus. Most students made concrete plans to build networks of solidarity within and among Jesuit universities. 

Kayla was emphatic that “I want to build up [solidarity] in everything we do. Not just one day a year. We have made so much progress already.” The gratuitous and inexhaustible love of God did not conform these LGBTQ students to a quiet complacency. Instead, it transformed them into Ignatian leaders, passionate about responding to the call of a faith that does justice.

Nicholas Fagnant

Nicholas Fagnant is a doctoral student at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. A former Jesuit high school instructor, he holds a bachelor’s degree in theology from Creighton University and a master’s degree in education from the University of Notre Dame.

All articles by Nicholas Fagnant

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1 Comment
  1. This is wonderful!