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Mass for LGBTQ Catholics met with protesters in St. Louis

NewsViews Michael J. O’Loughlin / April 26, 2024 Print this:
The interior of St. Francis Xavier College Church at St. Louis University.(Photo courtesy of Abby Hericks)

Abby Hericks attends Mass each weekend at St. Francis Xavier College Church on the campus of Saint Louis University. When she was recently given the opportunity to welcome other LGBTQ students from across the country to Mass as part of the Ignatian Q conference, she jumped at the chance. But last Sunday, as she walked to the lectern to greet the roughly 120 conference participants, she was confused and then alarmed. 

In the front rows of the church sat a crowd of about 20 people, separated by gender: men wearing jackets and ties seated on one side of the church, women in long dresses and veils on the other. Together, they were praying the rosary, in Latin and English, and many looked slightly older than the undergraduates at the conference. Both their attire and demeanor made them stand out. Many of the conference attendees sported clothing and accessories with rainbow and transgender flag colors.

When Ms. Hericks began the announcements, the group kept praying. Then they chanted the “Salve Regina,” their voices growing louder as she tried to get the crowd’s attention for her welcome. It was at that point that Ms. Hericks, a junior forensic science major from Sioux Falls, S.D., realized that the unfamiliar guests were not in church simply to pray or sing, but to protest.

In the wake of increased visibility for the wider LGBTQ community, church authorities and other believers have targeted these kinds of celebrations.

Ms. Hericks pressed on, welcoming the conference participants, explaining church rules about who is eligible to receive Communion and inviting the congregation to join in the opening hymn, “All Are Welcome, All Belong.”

But the protesters had gotten to her.

“I went back to my seat and cried through the first 30 minutes of Mass, because it was overwhelming to have those people there in a space where I’m supposed to feel safe, in a church I go to every weekend,” Ms. Hericks told Outreach. 

Other Mass participants said the rest of the Mass was tense, because it was unclear what the group planned to do, perhaps even trying to block students from receiving Communion.

Protesting the presence of LGBTQ Catholics

Founded in 2014 at Fordham University, Ignatian Q offers LGBTQ students at Jesuit colleges and universities a chance to gather for worship, faith sharing and networking. Each year it is held at a different Jesuit college or university, and this year’s was the first meeting in the Midwest. The conference is a relatively rare opportunity for LGBTQ Catholic students to gather in church spaces and celebrate their identities. 

In the wake of increased visibility for the wider LGBTQ community, church authorities and other believers have targeted these kinds of celebrations.

Last year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took to social media to suggest Catholics use June to celebrate “Month of the Sacred Heart,” a message some Catholics interpreted as a protest against Pride Month. Around the same time, a group of Catholics in Pittsburgh, Pa., who hoped to gather for a Mass aimed at welcoming the LGBTQ community scrambled to find a new location after protests made hosting the Mass in the original location untenable. In Washington, D.C., a Jesuit parish hosted a Mass last year for LGBTQ Catholics, who were greeted by protesters gathered outside praying the rosary.

Though protests during Masses are relatively rare, several events in recent years have attracted attention. 

Even though the Mass was entirely licit, a group of Catholics opposed to LGBTQ people decided that the Eucharist needed protection.

Three people were arrested following an interruption during the Easter Vigil earlier this month at New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, during which at least one protester yelled, “Free Palestine” as he left the church. Last year, a group of Catholic protesters interrupted a group of LGBTQ Catholics gathered for Mass in Lisbon, Portugal, which coincided with World Youth Day. And following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022, a group of protesters reportedly interrupted Mass at a parish in the Archdiocese of Chicago, protesting Catholic teaching on abortion. 

What made the actions in St. Louis relatively unique and particularly upsetting for those who were targeted was that even though the Mass was entirely licit, a group of Catholics opposed to LGBTQ people decided that the Eucharist needed protection. From what or whom, exactly, is unclear. One conference participant who interacted with the protesters said that they may have conflated other on-campus LGBTQ events, unrelated to the conference, with the Mass.

Conference organizers say that they still do not know who was responsible for the protest inside the church. A liturgical minister discovered that the group had left incendiary pamphlets in the pews of the church, and she scrambled to remove as many as possible before conference participants found them. Before Mass began, a Jesuit priest at the church asked a member of the group if they would leave the front row pews when they were finished praying the rosary, as they were reserved for conference participants. The group refused, saying that they planned to occupy the space as a form of protest, relegating the LGBTQ participants to the peripheries of the church, a reality the priest described as “gut-wrenching.” 

Why it’s “gut-wrenching” for LGBTQ Catholics

That the optics alone felt “gut-wrenching” makes sense. I have been fortunate to have attended a handful of “Pride Masses” over the years, and what strikes me about these gatherings is the sense of joy that animates the liturgies. Often, LGBTQ Catholics try to blend into the crowd, afraid that drawing too much attention to themselves or their relationships could bring about unwanted conflict. Masses specifically aimed at welcoming LGBTQ Catholics allow for defenses to be dropped and the hypervigilance of one’s surroundings to lessen a bit. Connecting with God, praying in a community and receiving the Eucharist feels that much more vibrant when one is free from worry and anxiety. 

Conference organizers say that they still do not know who was responsible for the protest inside the church. A liturgical minister discovered that the group had left incendiary pamphlets in the pews.

That atmosphere was supposed to prevail at the Ignatian Q Mass, but instead, the LGBTQ Catholics gathered in College Church were greeted with pamphlets calling their worship experience “blasphemous.” The protesters sought “to make communal reparation through public prayer, for a blasphemous Mass,” according to the pamphlets the group distributed. It went on to say that the group was comprised of students and community members and the pamphlet cited a controversial funeral service recently held for activist Cecilia Gentili in New York as an impetus for their action. 

During that service, more than 1,000 people gathered to remember the transgender activist, but raucous chants from the crowd eventually drew condemnation from some church leaders who questioned whether the cathedral was an appropriate venue for the gathering. 

The pamphlet suggested that those gathering in opposition to the “Queerly Beloved” Ignatian Q Mass “join us in the front rows to pray the rosary, gentlemen on the right, ladies on the left.” The prayers, in Latin and English, were offered “for the conversion of all suffering sexual temptations, heterosexual and homosexual.” The group wrote in the pamphlet, that they were not gathered “to demonstrate but to pray.”

But Lane Hartman, a transgender Catholic who leads the SLU Rainbow Alliance, said that the message was clear. 

“It really hit me that these people are here because they hate me, or because they think that people like me can’t have full spiritual lives or relationships with God,” Mr. Hartman told Outreach. 

“It’s hugely important for us to be visible in the church because maybe if I had this visibility in the church when I was growing up, maybe I wouldn’t have walked away.”

A senior studying math and chemistry, Mr. Hartman said that he had grown up Catholic but had walked away during high school when he was grappling with his gender identity. Because his church community had no visible LGBTQ members, he felt he had to choose between living authentically and his faith. 

“I spent a lot of time praying God would fix me, and when he didn’t, I figured God hated me,” Mr. Hartman said.

But during college, he attended Mass with a friend and realized he had wanted to practice his faith again. He signed up to be a lector during the Ignatian Q Mass but when he realized that the encouraging community he was used to at College Church had been targeted by protesters, he broke down. A member of the campus ministry team offered to have someone take his spot for him, but Mr. Hartman refused.

“It’s hugely important for us to be visible in the church because maybe if I had this visibility in the church when I was growing up, maybe I wouldn’t have walked away,” he said. 

Meeting bigotry with joy

Nick Fagnant, a doctoral student at Boston College’s Clough School of Theology and Ministry, who was at the Mass, said that what disturbed him about the protest was the message it sent to LGBTQ Catholics who had been away from the church but who sought a welcoming space to worship as part of the conference.

“What will this teach them about the Catholic Church?” he recalled thinking when he realized that a protest was taking place. “They finally show up, they have the courage to say yes to going to Mass for whatever reason, and this is how the church responds.” This was, after all, Catholics protesting against other Catholics during a Mass.

“Students met the protest and the bigotry with joy. The counterprotest was queer joy, community and celebration.”

The protesters remained kneeling in prayer during the entirety of the Mass, reciting the rosary aloud and at some points, shaking their rosary beads, apparently in protest. Mr. Fagnant said he was moved by the way conference staff, including some Jesuits and lay ministers, modeled a welcoming attitude toward the protesters while also standing up for the conference participants by ensuring that the Mass would continue. But mostly, he was heartened by the reaction of the undergraduates.

“Students met the protest and the bigotry with joy,” he said. “The counterprotest was queer joy, community and celebration.”

Michael J. O’Loughlin

Michael J. O’Loughlin is the executive director of Outreach and the author of "Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear." Previously, he was the national correspondent for America. Twitter: @mikeoloughlin

All articles by Michael J. O’Loughlin

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

  1. Think of the event this way:

    The protestors, the ‘holier than thou’ brigade, have no real understanding of the Eucharist.

    By continuing to recite the Rosary during the liturgy, to remain kneeling through the liturgy of the Word, by taking up the front pews, they were actually protesting Mass itself, not fellow worshippers. How silly and stupid of them to defeat their own purpose.

    Add them to the parish prayer list

  2. Outrageous. These protesters have nothing in common with Jesus of Nazareth!

  3. So where is the statement from St Francis Xavier College condemning the actions of the protesters as disruptive, unwelcoming and hateful?

    Unless church leaders nationwide are willing to have the courage to speak out against abusive behavior against LGBTQ+ Catholics there can be no hope of them returning to the church.

    We hear so much about LGBTQ+ Catholics being welcomed by the church. Where’s the welcome?

  4. This behavior shouldn’t surprise me, and yet it does. Jesus is about love and this is about hate. It hurts us all.

  5. The North American Catholic Church seems to be morphing into the same cult that has invaded our political system.

    The problem I have with so many of these individuals is the smallness to which they reduce the Eucharist. Jesus IS present in the Eucharist for me — body, blood, soul and divinity. The same God that created — and is creating — the universe and all life apparently needs protecting from the minions that evolved (or did not). That makes God very small, subservient, and very malleable.

    I usually find this type of God can only abide in the tabernacle of the church rather than going forth in the people who have had the joy and honor to receive in the Eucharist. The Son of God who is to be present in the priest, people, word, and Eucharist needs shelter and confinement. And that is not simply my belief, it is what Jesus taught. It’s why I don’t just finish my Mass with “go forth, the Mass is ended” but say, instead, “now take Jesus into the world!”

  6. Thank you so much for this and courageous response of queer joy and community. Encouraging me to continue to attend Mass inspite of bigotry and condemnations.

  7. Solidarity from LGBT+ Catholics Westminster, London UK ! We experienced similar protests from 2007-2013 at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption & St. Gregory in London’s Soho district, including complaints to the Vatican. This led to our moving to a saver space at the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, Mayfair, London where web have been based since March 2013. In May 2024 we mark, with various celebratory events, the 25th anniversary of Masses welcoming LGBT+ Catholics, parents, families and friends, in Westminster Diocese. Our actual anniversary is 2 May. This was 2 days after a neo-fascist bomber killed 3 adults and an unborn child, 30 April 1999, planting a bomb in the Admiral Duncan Public House in Soho.

  8. As per the comments policy I will try to be a charitable as possible..

    I acknowledge that us as Catholics, we need to be more understanding to Catholics who identify as part of the LGBTQ community. That’s a given. I personally working on that on my own time. I know I can definitely do better when it comes to LGBTQ Catholics. However, it often seem that LGBTQ Catholic is expecting the church to change its unchanging teaching on sexual morality. I don’t think the church is present to accommodate us..

    I think as a community of believers we missing the main point when we keep on trying to customize the teaching of the church to fit our standards.
    Just like Matt 10:39 says we need to lose our lives in order to gain Christ.

    Peace be with you.

  9. I feel a great sadness for the LGBTQ community who had to witness this horrific protest during the Mass. The Catholic Church is the Body of Christ and Jesus welcomes all who want to come to Him.

  10. Keep in mind the Jesus and the Apostles were treated the same way. One cannot discern who can or can’t be Catholic, that’s between each individual and God. It’s nice they were praying and I hope they were praying for their own sins too (Let him who is without sin cast the first stone).

  11. I used to think this passage from Matthew 5:10-12 referred to Christians who were persecuted for being followers of Jesus:

    “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

    But one day it struck me that there was another meaning as well. “Blessed are you when others revile and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you, falsely using my name against you.”

    Christians are sometimes persecuted for following Jesus. Sometimes Christians themselves use the name of Jesus to condemn other people. And blessed are we when that happens to us.

    Nevertheless, I know the joy of having been able to celebrate the Eucharist in the safety of other queer people – safe from priests and bishops who would condemn us or treat us as heathens. I also know the pain of being at Eucharists where the priest has taken the opportunity to condemn us.

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