For the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to minister among the LGBTQ community in Chicago, often by celebrating Masses for the Archdiocesan Gay and Lesbian Outreach (AGLO). Walking alongside this community, I have learned more about how the church can better accompany LGBTQ people, and their friends and families, as they seek to live out their faith.
Recently, I was invited to share some of what I have learned through this ministry with a group of transitional deacons, young men from around the country preparing for the priesthood. These are ten points I shared.
1). The LGBTQ community is active and vibrant in the church, regardless of what some Catholics may say.
Even when the church uses language like “intrinsically disordered” and other words and phrases that some find hurtful, LGBTQ Catholics are among the most faithful people I have met in my priestly ministry. They are faithful volunteers and participants in various ministries who take their faith seriously. Embrace this.
2). A priest is not a judge, but an agent of mercy.
Jesus said, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Mt 9:13). It is our job as a priests to bring God’s love and mercy into the world. In confession practicum classes at the seminary, we were always encouraged to be merciful. Show that same pastoral mercy when speaking with and counseling LGBTQ persons.
3). Vital ministry to LGBTQ Catholics will be part of your every assignment as a priest or deacon.
At each of my priestly assignments, there have been LGBTQ people. There has and always will be LGBTQ people in the pews—and their family members who worship each Sunday and participate in the life of the parish.
It’s likely that a priest will encounter a range of pastoral scenarios. Here are a few I’ve experienced in my eight years as a priest.
Some Catholics, even active and faithful members, will be angry at the church because of language that they feel isn’t helpful as they consider their identity. Using words like “disordered,” and remembering the church’s call for chastity for LGBTQ persons, will cause some people to be mad at the church.
There could also be anger toward LGBTQ family members who live outside Catholic teaching. “Is my kid going to hell?” a parent asked me because of church teaching around sex and sexuality.
Some will not know how to feel; they love the church and their loved one. They might feel torn. They’re faithful people who have accepted church teaching on human sexuality, but they also love their child, grandchild, niece, nephew or best friend. But they still have love for God. They still have a love of the sacraments and the Eucharist. So they might ask, “How do I love both the LGBTQ people in my life and God, especially if I have a certain understanding of God?”
There will be some people in your pews who may never ask you pastoral questions about LGBTQ issues, but it is still on their mind. Most members of the LGBTQ community will not come up to you and self-identify. However, through the ministry of presence, priests can minister to the LGBTQ community just by standing at the ambo every Sunday.
After you preach, the majority of congregants will never come to you and say, “Hey Father, your homily affected me in this way or that.” However, you’re still ministering to the LGBTQ community and their families by the words you choose. When you preach about sexuality, when you preach about the dignity of the human person, you are affecting someone’s life. You are influencing the way people see themselves.
There’s a real grace and obligation to minister well to the people in your pews. Always be pastorally sensitive in your preaching and presence—and remember who might be listening to your words.
4). Listen—and don’t be afraid to sit with the uncomfortable.
If someone from the LGBTQ community does want to talk, listen honestly and openly. Don’t be afraid to sit with the uncomfortable. You won’t know their whole story, but it’s your job to sit with them and to learn as much of it as you can.
In my own ministry, I’ve seen the presence of God most remarkably in the moments when I simply sit with people. I get out of the way and I listen to stories about how they grappled with their identity, figured out their sexuality and considered their relationship with God in the midst of the church. It’s a real blessing and grace to enter into that vulnerability in people’s lives.
But that may get uncomfortable. These conversations may stir something in you. They may challenge your experience of church and how you think the church should work, and their experience of coming to have a relationship with God may be different than what you’ve experienced firsthand.
That’s okay. None of this mitigates this person’s desire of and search for God.
If we believe, through our ordination as priests, that we work in persona Christi, then we need to be able to sit with everyone—just like Jesus.
5). As priests, we have a responsibility to discern the Spirit of God with all members of the LGBTQ community.
Our job as priests is to see how God is working in lives of our people and to invite everyone into a deeper relationship with God. If we really believe that the Lord is working within us, we have to believe with our whole heart, mind and soul that the Lord is working in the lives of all members of the church. This includes the LGBTQ community.
The very fact that the LGBTQ community is coming to us, the church, means that the Lord is working through them. It’s our job to sit with them and to discern how God is working in the midst of all that, to see how God is inviting them to a deeper relationship with Himself and the church.
There’s a real wisdom in letting God be God, and accepting that our role is to help discern what God is doing each day in their lives.
6). You may not have the right answers, but it is your responsibility to walk alongside the LGBTQ community.
Seminarians usually spend six to eight years of formal study in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. It is our responsibility to know the Gospel through and through. But we also must learn how to be attuned to the lived experiences of people.
Just because you have been steeped in church teaching does not mean you need to constantly quote the catechism. It’s our job to take what we believe and walk with all people, to journey alongside them and help them integrate church teaching into their lives as well. We must be honest with ourselves and those to whom we minister. If you are still wrestling with a theological question around a certain aspect of LGBTQ ministry, admit it, but work at getting better.
We should be able to stand on the foundation we have created through our priestly preparation. But when confronted with difficult questions, the less often you invoke, “Here’s what the church teaches” or “Here’s what the catechism says,” the more opportunity there is for genuine encounter. Instead, try saying, “Let’s explore this together.”
7). Don’t get involved in political fights, but defend the rights and dignity of the human person.
As priests, we are not called to comment on policy, but to walk with people as they journey through life and help them draw closer to Christ. It’s not our job to be political, but it is our job to defend the dignity of the human person.
I’ll give you an example. Just weeks before the end of my last semester in the seminary, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. As a class, we had a big discussion about the prudence of preaching about it and what approach would best serve our congregations. The debate tipped the hands of those who wanted to get into the political side of the issue and those who wished to deal with it as a pastoral question.
We are not politicians. We are priests.
8). Don’t label people.
Trust a person when they tell you who they are. That is their identity, not necessarily yours. Call them what they want to be called. Don’t try to put a label on somebody because that’s not your label to place. When you try to put a label on someone that they have not given themselves, you are presupposing a lot of information that may or may not be true.
Even if someone places a label on themselves, allow them to express to you how they see themselves, so that you can be more attuned to their experience and discern with them. LGBTQ life is lived out in so many different ways, just like any other person.
9). Keep reading theology.
It is easy to read theology that supports your personal position or ideology, but we should also try to read theology that challenges our points of view. It makes us better theologians and priests. Confidence in your theological training should not make a priest shy away from reading from different viewpoints.
If you stand in front of a congregation and say, “I’m a minister of the Gospel and the church. I know what it means to be a priest, and it’s my job to help you get to heaven,” you already have a theological foundation. You already have a strong faith foundation because you know what it means to be a priest and a pastoral minister. That foundation won’t crumble simply by exploring ideas that challenge you.
Quite the contrary, reading diverse viewpoints will make you a better priest and a better pastoral minister. And it’s also going to make you a better person, someone who tries to listen. We’re called to do this work, of listening to the people of God, and we have to be rooted in our theological tradition. But we also have to be rooted in the pastoral life of the church to be able to walk with this community.
Some books I’ve read that have been helpful include:
Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear by Michael J. O’Loughlin (Broadleaf Books, 2021)
Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer: The Church and the Famine of Grace by Jarel Robinson-Brown (SCM Press, 2021)
Stumbling in Holiness: Sin and Sanctity in the Church by Brian Flanagan (Liturgical Press, 2018)
Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity by James Martin, S.J. (HarperOne, 2017)
Radical Love: Introduction to Queer Theology by Patrick S. Cheng (Seabury Books, 2011)
10). Most of all, remember that everyone has a deep desire to be seen and loved.
It is part of our ontology and anthropology to love and be loved. Everybody has a desire to be seen and to be loved. They first and foremost want to be seen and loved by God, and your job as a priest is to help them to be seen and loved by God and others.
We are each called God’s beloved, and if we really believe this, we must live it out in our ministry. Everyone, no matter their race, creed, sexual orientation or social status, is loved by God. Our role as priests is to help remind people that they are loved by God.
Your role as a priest is to affirm the dignity of LGBTQ people as beloved children of God. You have the ability to create a space in the church where members of the LGBTQ community feel safe, seen, loved and respected.