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Necessary Affirmation

Editors’ Note: We’ve asked a number of authors to discuss the state of the American parish and what it means to be church in a time of migration and movement. We also wanted to offer practical suggestions for how parishes can be more welcoming, just, and Spirit-filled in these times. Together, our contributors provide a picture of the U.S. church today, one not so much in decline as undergoing a profound transition. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The American Parish Today.


I first heard about Out at St. Paul (OSP), the LGBTQ ministry of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Manhattan, on a date. I was new to New York City, a PhD student in theology who still had not come out to my Midwestern evangelical family. My date was a confident medical professional and lay leader who invited me to his LGBTQ-affirming parish. I appreciated the invitation, but was not ready to accept it.

Years later, after I’d been in my first serious relationship, found a theological home at Fordham University, and settled into my calling as a gay man, I visited OSP for the first time. The Mass I attended took place just after Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, the notoriously homophobic Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage certificates to lesbian and gay couples, when he visited the United States in 2015. The pontiff who asked “Who am I to judge?” had broken my heart. I felt betrayed. I needed to be with my people.

The community that OSP provided that night—and ever since then—has been a balm within a church that continues to wound.

I am not alone. The ministry—set on the northern edge of Hell’s Kitchen, New York’s lively gayborhood—has a mailing list of more than five hundred. Many LGBTQ people have embraced their Catholic faith because OSP exists. Some were expelled from other parishes. Others lost their biological families when they came out.

OSP began in 2010 when Fr. Gil Martinez, then head-pastor of St. Paul the Apostle, noticed a number of parishioners who, in another era, could be described as “festive,” “flamboyant,” or “queer.” How could he better minister to the lesbians and gays under his spiritual care? He had a heart for his neighborhood and the multitudes of LGBTQ people exiled from the church. A decade before Fr. Gil’s arrival, there had been a vibrant lesbian and gay ministry at the parish led by Catholic activist Donald Maher, but that was a distant memory for most. Fr. Gil began a new work that fostered servanthood and spiritual formation for lay leaders.

Since its founding, OSP has never tried to hide that it serves out and proud Catholics. The parish prints OSP’s calendar of events in the bulletin alongside other ministries. OSP members give announcements at the end of Sunday’s 5:15 p.m. Mass. The ministry even celebrates a Pride Mass every year in Sheridan Square, the hallowed ground outside the Stonewall Inn where the modern movement for LGBTQ liberation began.

This openness to LGBTQ Catholics has made OSP a target for the Archdiocese of New York and outside agitators. Why can’t LGBTQ Catholics just stay quiet? Shouldn’t they join Courage, the church’s twelve-step program for those “afflicted by same-sex attraction”?

As a gay man, it often feels impossible to remain Catholic. So much of the church’s official teaching is harmful and so many of its leaders are homophobic.

What makes OSP necessary is its affirmation that LGBTQ people are created in the image of God. Many OSP members are partnered or married. Our diverse sexualities and genders are expressions of the divine, gifts to the church and world. We are not ashamed of God’s goodness revealed in our romantic and sexual relationships, which testify against a tradition that describes us as “intrinsically disordered.”

Our parish is full of allies. Many young people and families do not want to be part of a homophobic church. We welcome LGBTQ people as lectors, Eucharistic ministers, Sunday school teachers, and choir members. Without them, these ministries would languish. Hospitality toward LGBTQ people also advances the charisms of the Paulist Fathers. Following the example of their founder, Fr. Isaac Hecker, the Paulists carefully listen to the Spirit’s calling, which has led them to minister at the margins for more than a century and a half. OSP is a Gospel ministry of reconciliation and healing.

OSP’s mission “seeks to engage our Catholic faith through service to our community, social activities, and the exploration of Catholic spirituality.” Service takes the form of a monthly dinner at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, where OSP members prepare and serve meals to folks living with HIV/AIDS.

[30 percent of Catholics attend a parish other than the one closest to their home. See the data here.]

Social activities double as opportunities for evangelism. We regularly meet newcomers in gay bars who may be afraid to enter a church but are happy to discuss faith over a drink. We hold a monthly supper club at local restaurants to foster intergenerational friendships. Other social events include holiday parties, dance classes, museum trips, and hiking.

OSP’s emphasis on spirituality becomes clear at its quarterly Masses, monthly book club and faith sharing, lectures by theologians, and annual retreat. Seventy men and women involved with OSP, young and old, attended the most recent retreat on the Jersey Shore. We foster a lively dialogue with academic and pastoral leaders. Our experiences are a rich source for the church’s ongoing discernment of LGBTQ pastoral care. We are also strong advocates for LGBTQ people both within and outside the church. One of our most successful initiatives was producing a short video called Owning Our Faith, which shared the spiritual journeys of several community members.

For all of its strengths, OSP has growing edges as well. Two years ago, we spent time considering sexual ethics. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus and LGBTQ? We have invested in loving relationships that allow us to be honest and vulnerable as we seek to answer difficult questions together. This year, we have struggled through issues of intersectional justice. How can we build a community that welcomes and affirms all people? OSP is overwhelmingly white, cisgender male, and middle- to upper-class. Where are the least among us? Most glaringly, women are underrepresented. While three OSP members have gone on to seminary, there are no such opportunities for our sisters.

As a gay man, it often feels impossible to remain Catholic. So much of the church’s official teaching is harmful and so many of its leaders are homophobic. Whenever my soul aches, however, I find healing and a home at St. Paul the Apostle. I am Catholic because I know that I am loved and supported there. OSP is Christ’s heart beating for LGBTQ people in Hell’s Kitchen.


Three Simple Words to Help Your Parish Go Digital

Digital media, including social media, presents both unique opportunities and serious challenges to Christian evangelization. This is the focus of the Word on Fire Institute’s third issue of its Evangelization & Culture Journal. Subsequently, several pieces on the blog this week will offer observations and constructive ideas for how to best use new media as a missionary tool. A few years ago, I spoke to hundreds of priests from the Archdiocese of Chicago about evangelization and digital media. Throughout my talk, their eyes were glowing. I could sense their excitement as they saw the potential new media held for their parishes and ministries. Afterward, one of the priests approached me. He said that he was excited after my presentation, but he still had a troubling realization: “I have no clue where to begin.” That’s not unusual. Our priests are brilliant, our parish staff members are hardworking, but when it comes…

Coronavirus, Confession, and the God Who Knows

Cleaning out a bookshelf, I found this thought scrawled—uncharacteristically for me—in the back of a book I’d brought on retreat some years ago. Since we’re all thinking of our mortality these days—the COVID-19 virus and its worldwide impact has brought us a Lenten season that is decidedly Memento mori in mood—I thought I’d share it. When we meet God face to face, it is always a moment of grace, but too it is a moment of judgment for us. Judgment day, then, can be any day, any time, any particular moment of an hour. And so our death can happen many times, a process of conversion, a process of turning to. We die to ourselves, die to a particular sin or attachment, and begin again, turning toward. We no sooner die to one thing that we immediately…

St. Joseph the Great

St. Joseph’s solemn feast is today! It’s a day of exuberant and Lent-defying celebration for the whole Church. And it’s a special joy for men everywhere who have the distinct privilege of being fathers—yes!—but also of being guardians of God’s beloved daughters. St. Joseph, Spouse and Abba St. Joe rocks. Foster-father of God’s Son and spouse of the God-bearer. When I ponder the fact that he bore the fearsome role of being the earthly image for Jesus of the heavenly Father, it fills me with wonder and awe. When Jesus first said Abba, he meant Joseph. And, as with all fathers, the vocation of Joseph was to provide for Jesus as seamless a transition from father to Father as possible. Joseph was a craftsman, working by the sweat of his brow and teaching Jesus the dignity of doing the same. He was a just man, a man who walked in…

Malick’s “A Hidden Life”: The Cost of Conscience (Part II)

(Part I of Jennifer Frey’s exposition on “A Hidden Life” may be found here.) Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice’s sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. —Matthew 5:10 As we continue our examination of Terrence Malick’s conscience-singeing exposition of the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, we find images of speeding, hissing trains stalking Franz’s imagination during his final weeks in St. Radegund. The trains symbolize his fear of losing control over the direction of his life and sharply contrast with the pastoral calm of his mountain refuge. When the real train inevitably arrives to carry him away from his beloved home, Franz holds his wife Fani’s gaze as long as he can. She is the center of his happiness, and it pains him greatly to leave her behind. Almost immediately upon his arrival at the military barracks Franz is arrested…

“I Am Patrick” Is Perhaps the Best Film Yet on Ireland’s Greatest Saint

On March 17 and 18, I Am Patrick, a movie on the life of Saint Patrick, will have a limited theatrical release before showing on Netflix.  Much like a papal encyclical, the title of the film comes from the first words of Patrick’s Confessio where he introduces the reader to the story of his life with the words: “I am Patrick, I am a sinner, the most unsophisticated and least among all Christians.” In my view, the movie is the best effort yet to tell the story of one of the most fascinating saints of the early Church, whose missionary successes in Ireland influenced millions and continues to do so to this day. I am proud to be associated with this film. In 2013, I completed my doctoral thesis with a work entitled: “The Experience of God in…

What I Don’t and Do Know about the Coronavirus

Yesterday, our clinic’s medical staff held another meeting to debrief about the coronavirus. The intent of the gathering was to review the state of the pandemic, presenting symptoms, triage protocols, and the proper use of personal protective equipment. As my colleague Dr. Johnson (not his true name) capably walked us through the complex, multi-step process of “donning and doffing” our gowns, masks, face shields, and gloves (as well as demonstrating with a swab up his nose how to acquire the nasopharyngeal swab for the COVID-19 PCR diagnostic test), I began to wonder: What do I really know about this virus and our very human reaction to it? Less than I think. And I, like you, have questions. Lots of questions. And I bet they’re very similar to yours. With respect to the disease itself: while there are websites (most notably from Johns Hopkins University) tallying the number of confirmed…

Through a Glass Darkly: Seeing the Other in My Reflection

Lord, help me see these men the way you do. This was a prayer I made often during my first months of ministry as a chaplain at the DC Jail. It was not a pious request. Instead, it was a desperate plea. That’s because I was really, really struggling to recognize God in the inmates I was seeing there. In fact, I didn’t want to go see these men at all. They say jail is meant to be a deterrent, right? It certainly was for me. As soon as you leave, you don’t want to go back inside. I was assigned to visit men in the “lockdown units,” a section of the facility (think: solitary confinement) where prisoners generally go either because they are awaiting trial for the most serious of felonies or because they have been violent or unruly in “gen pop” (the general prison population). Being inside a corrections facility, especially the…

St. Thecla: Model of Prayer in a Time of Plague

As I write this, Italy is closed. The whole nation. As the novel COVID-19 virus spreads, multiplying its victims like lilypads, Italy has been hit hard, particularly the prosperous Northern regions Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, and Veneto. The Corona virus, the spread of which has been frequently compared to the speedy and efficient way some lilypads reproduce, has put those regions back on their heels, so to speak. As I read on social media—from medical people who are there, experiencing and trying to treat this pandemic on the ground—there is an eighteenth-century painting that has been occupying my mind and working its way into my prayer. It is a depiction of a saint pleading with heaven to end a plague that had occurred a hundred years or so earlier, in the picturesque city of Este—in the same Veneto region that is again under siege. Saint Thecla is the…

Malick’s “A Hidden Life”: The Cost of Conscience (Part I)

It is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. —Plato, The Apology The Catholic view of the moral life is that we are created to be happy—deeply fulfilled and satisfied as rational creatures who naturally seek to know what is true, love what is good, and delight in what is beautiful. But while our desire for happiness is natural, there is no path toward it except through the cultivation and exercise of the virtues, most especially faith, hope, and love, since these virtues dispose us towards our perfect and eternal happiness with God. There are as many ways to seek happiness in one’s circumstances as there are unique human persons that exist, but there are some kinds of actions that are opposed to happiness and therefore never choice-worthy: for instance, adultery, murder, judicial condemnation of the innocent, and the swearing of a false oath or perjury. A wise person…