As a piano played in the background, five men and women from HIV/AIDS Ministry carrying white candles walked deliberately down the center aisle of Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood, whose worn wood pews were nearly filled on this Saturday evening.

“The year was 1986. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles had a new archbishop. And there was a new disease, an epidemic sweeping the nation and the world. It was a frightening time. Many were attending five, six funerals each week,” Arthur Fitzmaurice, coordinator of the Ministry to Lesbian and Gay Catholics, was saying from the pulpit last Saturday, Oct. 22. 

“On February 2nd, 1986, then-Archbishop Roger Mahony presided at a Mass for those with AIDS and their caregivers. Right here in Blessed Sacrament, he addressed the congregation with these words: ‘The current AIDS epidemic … places upon the Church and its members a pastoral obligation … to respond with care and compassion to the individuals suffering from this disease. The heart of this response must be unqualified respect for the value of human life and for the dignity of the human person.’”

The candle-bearers placed their candles at the foot of the sanctuary, as four members of parish outreach ministries to gays approached the altar. 

In an even voice, Fitzmaurice pointed out that so began both the archdiocese’s HIV/AIDS Ministry along with the Ministry to Lesbian and Gay Catholics (MLGC), which was being celebrated this evening. “[The archbishop] called for parish outreach groups to form with the mission of ‘fostering a spirit of community and fellowship among gay Catholics so that they can offer and receive mutual support in living out their lives of faith within the Church,’” he said. 

As more representatives from parents’ groups, Sophia’s Circle of lesbian Catholics, Spanish-speaking ministries and finally MLGC brought their candles to the altar, the doctoral graduate student at Cal Tech summarized some of the highlights of the special ministry. In 1997, U.S. bishops published the groundbreaking pastoral letter “Always Our Children.” It called on parents to “reach out in love and service to other parents struggling with a son or daughter’s homosexuality.” 

But even before this, parents in the Los Angeles Archdiocese had come together to offer support as well as to talk to church leaders about accepting their children.

Fitzmaurice also reported that the group “Emmaus” and other Spanish-speaking organizations have helped Latino families embrace their gay and lesbian members. And then he brought up MLGC’s new thrust to reach out to confirmation teachers, Catholic high school teachers and other catechists. Since last year, teams have given 21 workshops in English and 16 in Spanish, speaking to about 1,000 people. 

“The Holy Spirit continues to call us in new ways, to serve not only our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters, but all people in the archdiocese,” he declared. 

Then — to begin the Eucharistic celebration with the theme “Modeling Love: 25 years and beyond” — the congregation stood to sing a stirring version of “We Are the Body of Christ.” 

‘Coming out’ Church

During his homily at the anniversary liturgy, Father Brian Doran observed that tonight was a “kind of a vigil,” with candles and celebration and lots of open talk about gays and lesbians, transgender and bisexual people. The retired priest, who ministered to these marginalized Catholics as pastor of St. Ambrose Church in West Hollywood, pointed out how such openness would have never happened 10 or 15 years ago. But it did, in fact, occur 25 years ago, he reminded, when Cardinal Mahony had the foresight to established MLGC plus the HIV/AIDS Ministry in this very church. 

“And to me, he’s one of the heroes,” he said. “Despite the fact that he would get criticism for this, he went ahead and established this ministry. And we are still here 25 years later.”

Father Doran also recognized, however, that coming out as gay people can often still be terribly lonely and painful, especially for gay and lesbian Catholics, who many times find their own parish community unwelcoming or downright inhospitable. But he suspected that the church, itself, is now undergoing a metamorphosis.

“I feel that the Church might actually be going through a process of coming out for us,” he said. Just as it was very difficult and time consuming for individuals to confront and own up to their sexual orientation, the Church also had to go through stages, the priest explained. First there was denial, then recognition, followed by anger, bargaining, acceptance and, eventually, joy. 

“The denial part has been around for a long, long time: ‘There are no gays in our Catholic high schools.’ ‘There are no gay priests,’” he maintained. “And we still know people who are still in denial. You have met people in your own parish who are angry and upset, too. Some might move on to bargaining: ‘OK, you can come to church, but I don’t want you talking about being gay or organizing yourselves.’

“And the acceptance part is on the way, it is coming,” he noted. “Now the joy part? Well, you know what? We may never live to see the joy part on behalf of the Church. But there are 287 parishes in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and I’ll bet you that there are hundreds of little baby gay and lesbian people who were baptized this day. Because we were gay before we were baptized. And 25 years from now, they will be standing up here — those little gay Catholic people. And they, God willing, will be talking about the joys that they are experiencing and that we have worked for and brought their way.” 

So what, asked Father Doran, do we do in the meantime?

He said if you go to a church and don’t feel welcomed, simply try another one of the nearly 300 parishes in 122 cities throughout the three-county archdiocese. It was well worth the gas. 

“We continue to do what we’re doing,” he remarked. “We continue to live and to love and to nourish ourselves, and to raise families and to go to church and just live the way we are.” 

Father Doran, who also works with the local Catholic deaf community, closed his homily with a bit of sober wisdom: “Jesus, who brought compassion to us, did not come to make our lives easy, but to make our lives better. And so we continue with his compassion, with his love, loving the Lord Our God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.” 

‘Always Our Children’

Jenny Naughton’s son Johnny came out six years ago, when he was 19. That was fine with her, but not with John, her husband. In fact, he was desperate and full of grief. 

“It was so painful to watch,” she told The Tidings at the anniversary reception after Mass. “And my focus is to allow parents not to have to go through that, or to do something so that parents wouldn’t have to go through that. So what I initially started was a ministry for parents.”

She still meets with the parents of gay and lesbian children once a month. They talk about their struggles, their pain — and getting beyond their fears. She tells dads and moms who come to the Always Our Children gatherings: “Come on! He’s still your son. Nothing has changed just because now you know that he’s gay.” 

The Diamond Bar resident and St. Denis parishioner, who received the Lumen Christi Award along with eight other individuals for their steadfast support of MLGC, recalls a mother who came to the MLGC booth at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress last spring desperate because her gay son was seriously thinking about suicide. 

Another young man got her phone number at a gay pride parade. He lived in West Covina and wanted to know about a local church he could go to where he would be accepted and comfortable.

“My heart sank,” she said, “because all I could tell him was, ‘You’re not going to be any more comfortable than you are at most other parishes, including my own.’ But my goal in life is if a person wants to go to a Catholic church, they don’t have to call in advance to make sure it’s a safe place to be.”

Naughton says Latino parents are particularly distressed when they find out their child is gay. A big part of it is cultural “machismo” or masculine pride. And then there’s the Catholic religious aspect. Hispanic parents want to know if their gay son or daughter can still go to church and receive Communion. “So they really need support,” she stressed. 

The middle-aged suburban mom readily admits the prejudice against gays that exists in parishes today is hard to deal with. She tries to just keep a dialogue going with other parish ministries at St. Denis like the Knights of Columbus, hoping that understanding will eventually happen. 

“We have had at Congress more and more catechists coming to our booth saying, ‘Kids are coming out to me’ or parents saying, ‘My son or daughter is coming out. And I think I know what the Church wants me to say, but I don’t think I can say that to them. There’s not enough hope there. So what is it that I’m supposed to be saying?’”

After a moment, she went on: “I hope that we are able to continue to protect people’s lives in a way that stops kids from wanting to kill themselves and helping them live a full and decent holy life — and to be comfortable going into any Catholic church and to be celebrated for who they are.” 

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