Video: LGBTQ Catholics celebrate Mass outside Stonewall Inn

NEW YORK — Behind an icon of Jesus splayed on a cross, a bouquet of rainbow roses decorated the altar, draped in the six-color stripes of the LGBTQ community, while the sun started to set.

On June 27, more than 100 people gathered in the triangular park across from Stonewall Inn, hemmed in with pride flags along the fence, to sing hymns, pray, and receive the Eucharist from a Catholic priest.

“Be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient,” a man read 2 Timothy 4:2-5 into a microphone. “Contrive, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching -- for the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but following their own desires an insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and stop listening to the truth. And we will be diverted to myths. But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances, put up with hardship, perform the work of an evangelist. Fulfill your ministry.”

The outdoor Mass was organized by the LGBTQ ministry Out at St. Paul’s, a part of the Church of St. Paul the Apostle on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. On June 28, 1969, a police raid of the gay bar turned violent, and the ensuing demonstrations became a tipping point propelling the gay rights movement.

“Pride is a moment of grace,” said Father Gil Martinez, formerly a parish priest for St. Paul’s and flown in from Los Angeles for the event. “Because after 50 years, a sea of change has come to this country… but there’s a long way to go still. [The world pride celebration] is a celebration that causes us to mourn, in I think a particular Catholic way, where pride seeks human rights… to seek human rights for all persons, that is what our faith stands for and believes in.”

A view of the altar. Photo by Meagan Clark.

A view of the altar. Photo by Meagan Clark.

In his homily, Martinez spoke about Jesus’s call for Christians to be like a city shining on a hill and light in a dark world. He said now that queer people can live in the open, in the light, their experiences can enlighten others.

Out at St. Paul’s is one of several Catholic LGBTQ ministries in New York that support same-sex relationships and sexual intimacy despite condemnation from the Vatican. While Pope Francis has insisted God doesn’t condemn LGBT people, opened up dialogue with LGBT communities and suggested the Church could be open to civil unions, he has remained firm on the Church’s teachings on marriage. Earlier this month, the Vatican rejected the idea that people can change their gender, insisting that men and women sexually complement each other as designed by God. The Catholic LGBTQ groups represent a grassroots schism from the church’s centers of authority that isn’t going away anytime soon.

As Tony Uceda, a volunteer with OSP ministry put it, “the archdiocese isn’t pleased with what we’re doing but they also don’t stop us.”

OSP hosts social events, prayer nights and volunteering with homeless teens and HIV+ and AIDS patients.

According to the Catholic Church’s official teaching, marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and although same-sex attraction isn’t a sin, being sexually intimate outside of marriage and with the same sex is. Illustrating the splintering, in 2017, two books on sexuality made waves in the Catholic world: one called Building a Bridge affirming gay Catholics and one called Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay written by a Catholic man sexually attracted to men but living in celibacy. New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan endorsed the second.

“There are a ton of LGBT groups in the church, but the archdiocese will never come out and affirm them because they’re upholding the tradition that it’s fundamentally wrong and disordered,” said Jason Steidl, a theology professor at Fordham who’s volunteered with OSP for three years. “Dolan doesn’t intervene. He’s a great politician… a lot of it comes down to money and power. If he would ever clamp down and come out against the LGBT ministries, there would be a huge blowback.”

According to Pew research in 2014, 70 percent of Catholics (compared to 66 percent of Protestants) believe homosexuality should be acceptable in society. In 2007, 58 percent of Catholics answered the same.

Father Gil Martinez prays over the crowd in Christopher Park on June 27. Photo by Meagan Clark.

Father Gil Martinez prays over the crowd in Christopher Park on June 27. Photo by Meagan Clark.

The Paulist brotherhood that founded the St. Paul’s church brands itself as missionaries to the downtrodden, friends with Jews, Muslims and other people of faith, paying special attention to increasing diversity and stretching their church communities to bring faith to others on the outside.

In 1858, five men in New York City founded the Paulist community to reach people without faith, people who have abandoned faith and people seeking answers. They had all come to a Catholic faith from Protestant Christianity, like Steidl.

Steidl grew up a conservative evangelical Christian in Ohio and joined the Catholic Church in his twenties when he “was looking for truth with a capital T.”

“I started wrestling with what the church actually teaches, but the church is wrapped up in history, for good and for bad,” he said. “And the church doesn’t teach or recognize the experience of many Catholics like myself.”

Being in an LGBT affirming Catholic community, and a few serious dating relationships, have helped him reconcile his faith with his sexuality, he said.

“I’ve grown in my understanding of liberation theology, faith that goes to the margins, the excluded and those who are suffering, and brings life and freedom,” Steidl said. “I’ve discovered that freedom in my own life.”

Meagan Clark is the managing editor of Religion Unplugged. Video by Micah Danney, a Poynter-Koch fellow for Religion Unplugged.