Six takeaways from the Outreach 2023 LGBTQ Catholic Ministry Conference

Views James Martin, S.J. / June 19, 2023 Print this:
Conference attendees gather at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, in New York City, on June 16, 2023. More than 250 people from eight foreign countries attended the Outreach 2023 LGBTQ Catholic Ministry Conference this past weekend. (Photo courtesy of Cristobal Spielmann/America Media)

Before we turn to the takeaways, I would like to thanks all those who made the Outreach 2023 LGBTQ Catholic Ministry Conference such a grace-filled event. 

First, thanks to Ryan Di Corpo, our managing editor, who pulled the conference together logistically. Our keynoters—Tania Tetlow, Marianne Duddy-Burke and Juan Carlos Cruz—and panelists came from around the world to share their wisdom, expertise and experience with more than 250 participants. Our incredible musicians offered us beautiful morning and evening prayers, and Archbishop John C. Wester flew in from Santa Fe (after a day-long storm delay) to celebrate our closing Mass at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle. (Thanks to the Paulist Fathers, too!) 

Thanks to Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., Fellows and interns at America Media, our parent organization, for shepherding our participants around Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus during the weekend. We are grateful to America Media, Fordham University’s Center for Religion and Culture, the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and Clear Faith Publishing for co-sponsoring the event.

Our keynoters—Tania Tetlow, Marianne Duddy-Burke and Juan Carlos Cruz—and panelists came from around the world to share wisdom, expertise and experience with more than 250 participants. 

Finally, thanks to our attendees who came from around the world—Argentina, Australia, England, Italy, Spain, Malta, Belgium and Germany—and around the United States, to share best practices, build community and worship together.

Now, a few takeaways.

1). LGBTQ Catholics are interested in the Bible

From left: Harold W. Attridge, Amy-Jill Levine, James Martin, S.J., and Brandan Robertson take part in a conversation on the Bible and homosexuality at the Fordham University School of Law on Friday, June 16, 2023. Not pictured is panelist Grant Hartley, to Robertson’s left. (Photo courtesy of Cristobal Spielmann/America Media)

We already knew this from the many views on our “Outreach Guide to the Bible and Homosexuality” and the fact that an article on that topic by Walter Brueggemann, the esteemed biblical scholar, is our most popular article ever

But if this were ever in doubt, our panel “The Bible and Homosexuality” was the proof positive. A standing room-only crowd, the largest of the conference, crammed into the Moot Court room at Fordham’s Law School to hear some top biblical scholars and students of the Bible expound on what are often called the “clobber verses,” that is, those used against LGBTQ people. 

We were incredibly fortunate to hear from distinguished scholars like Harold W. Attridge, former dean of the Yale Divinity School (and an expert on John’s Gospel) and the inimitable Amy-Jill Levine, author of The Misunderstood Jew, an essential and even brilliant book about the Jewishness of Jesus. They both reminded the audience that the passages in the Bible on homosexuality cannot be understood outside of their historical context.  Brandan Robertson, author of The Gospel of Inclusion, and Grant Hartley, a theology student, both spoke not only from an academic perspective, but from their own experiences as members of the LGBTQ community.

In a similar vein, another packed house attended the panel “Catholic Theology and the LGBTQ Person,” which showed the desire for serious theological reflection among LGBTQ Catholics.

2). LGBTQ Catholics want to know their own history

Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA, delivers a keynote address during the Outreach conference at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle on Saturday, June 17. 2023. (Photo courtesy of Cristobal Spielmann/America Media)

Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA, offered a fascinating and moving keynote on the 50-year history of this historic LGBTQ organization. Ms. Duddy-Burke was not the only one in tears when she described the experience of ministering to LGBTQ people with H.I.V./AIDS around the same time that Dignity was being expelled from many Catholic parishes after initial support from many in the American hierarchy. (She also noted that this was the first time that she had been invited to speak inside a Catholic church since 1986.)

After her talk, in which she shared lessons learned (e.g., “The needs and realities of those being served must drive ministry”), a few of younger participants said to me, “I had no idea about all that. It helps me to better understand our place in the church today.”

3). We can support one another worldwide

From left: Willy Bombeek, Don Andrea Conocchia, Christopher Vella, Don Cristóbal Rodríguez and Marc Frings discuss international LGBTQ Catholic ministry at the Fordham University School of Law on Saturday, June 17, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Cristobal Spielmann/America Media)

One of the most fascinating panels for me was “The International Experience: LGBTQ Catholics Worldwide,” where we heard speakers from Belgium, Germany, Malta, Spain and Italy, some clergy and some lay men. 

Part of the panel was offered in Italian by Don Andrea Conocchia, who works with transgender people in Italy, a story recently told in Outreach. Supertitles in English behind him–and behind Don Cristóbal Rodriguez, a Spanish priest who works with LGBTQ people–enabled the English-speaking crowd to follow along easily. Panelists spoke of not only their experience in their individual countries, but also about the need for building support networks among international groups, especially as we move along the Synodal Path.

4). Pope Francis and other church leaders support us

Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, N.M. (third from left) presides at the closing Mass for the Outreach conference at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle on Sunday, June 18, 2023. The archbishop is joined, from left, by the Rev. Jay Woods, O.F.M.; James Martin, S.J.; and the Rev. Eric Andrews, C.S.P. (Photo courtesy of Cristobal Spielmann/America Media)

A few weeks ago, we received a beautiful handwritten note from Pope Francis, greeting conference organizers and participants. In a fascinating keynote address yesterday, Juan Carlos Cruz, an openly gay man and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, spoke about his personal relationship with the Holy Father and his knowledge of the pope’s love and affection for LGBTQ people. 

The pope’s friendship, Mr. Cruz said, “shows that the highest levels of the Catholic Church are capable of love, understanding and acceptance” for LGBTQ people. And as if that weren’t enough, he shared with the crowd that the pope had called him that morning, just a few hours before his address, and asked Mr. Cruz to pass his greetings along to us. 

Pope Francis’s friendship, Mr. Cruz said, “shows that the highest levels of the Catholic Church are capable of love, understanding and acceptance” for LGBTQ people.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, also wrote us a warm welcome letter to the conference, as did the Very Rev. Joseph M. O’Keefe, S.J., the provincial superior of the USA East Province of the Society of Jesus; and so did Tania Tetlow, the president of Fordham. 

On our closing day, many of us heard news that Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, celebrated a Mass marking the 35th anniversary of AGLO, the archdiocesan LGBTQ outreach program. So we felt the support of many in the institutional church throughout the weekend, which was capped off by a Mass celebrated by Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe.

5). Transgender topics are urgent

Hilary Howes, a transgender Catholic woman, served as a conference panelist. (Photo courtesy of Cristobal Spielmann/America Media)

In one panel, “LGBTQ Ministry in High Schools,” the panelists decided that the most pressing issue facing Catholic school educators was ministry to transgender students and so their panel highlighted that issue. (Another panel, “The Church and the Transgender Catholic” focused on that topic exclusively, but focused mainly on adults.)

David Palmieri, a contributing writer at Outreach and theology teacher at Xavierian Brothers High School in Westwood, Mass., asked the participants to move from a model of potential conflict with church authorities to more “transcendent” approach that focuses less on conflict and recognizes the individual situation of each student. Another urgent need, many panelists throughout the weekend recognized, was the need for greater intersectionality. (Outreach hopes to have more women, more people of color and more transgender people on the panels in future conferences.)

6). Ours is a joyful ministry

Eder Díaz Santillan, Isabel Gonzalez Flores and Yunuen Trujillo pose outside the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, in Manhattan, on Friday, June 16, 2023. (Photo courtesy of James Martin, S.J.)

Many panels this past weekend focused on admittedly serious topics. In a discussion with representatives from national LGBTQ groups, including GLAAD and PFLAG National, panelists described the increased bullying, harassment and persecution faced by LGBTQ people in the last year.

But the conference was marked mainly by endless hugs, warm embraces and smiles of recognition on people’s faces, not only during the laughter-filled mealtimes, but also during the joyful morning services and ebullient closing Mass. This was a conference about an often challenging ministry but also one about the “joys and hopes” of the LGBTQ community.  At a Saturday night wine-and-cheese reception, sponsored by the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, I remarked to a few people, “Gee I didn’t expect everyone to come!” And a young man said, “Father Jim, we know how to celebrate!”

Next year, we are aiming to host events in conjunction with other colleagues and friends. Our keynote speeches and closing Mass are already online, and we’re planning to publish as many of the panels discussion contributions as possible. In the meantime, keep following us here on Outreach and our social media accounts for the latest on ministering with our LGBTQ friends in the church we all love.   

James Martin, S.J.

James Martin, S.J., is the editor of Outreach and the editor at large of America Media.

All articles by James Martin, S.J.

Outreach is part of America Media. To support Outreach you can make a donation or subscribe to America.

  1. Thank you so much for this conference. Clearly, Outreach is on a prophetic journey at a time when the world is becoming a less welcoming and inclusive place. Your commitment to life, at a time when violence, imprisonment and capital punishment are being used against people solely based on their identity, is a beacon of Light. I cannot thank you enough for what you do and for accompanying so many as we start each day following The Way.

  2. It is a pleasure to celebrate the success of Outreach 2023 and particular hopeful to have the support of the Episcopate.. we will continue to support this good and holy work!
    Thank you, Jim, and congratulations to all participants and organizers!

  3. I’m so grateful you had this conference, and I love your takeaways! I’m inspired to research LGBTQ history.

  4. I went to this conference to represent my parish and also the all-girls Catholic high school where I teach Scripture and Social Justice. I came out with so much positive information to help us jumpstart LGBTQ+ prayer ministry in our parish, as well as inclusive guidelines that will help us support and care for our LGBTQ+ students at our school.

    The warmth, love and connectedness I found at this conference was incredible, truly beautiful souls at work this entire weekend, thank you for the opportunity to attend!

  5. Blessed work.