New York City has been a hotspot of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) movement since the movement’s inception in the 1960s. A Catholic parish in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, believes that letting them follow their consicience is the best way to connect with LGBT people.
The Pew Research Center released a survey in 2013 on LGBT spirituality that found that 51 percent of LGBT people have a religion, and 17 percent say religion is "very important" to them.
The Shrine Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (OLMC) is educating its mostly straight parish about LGBT issues and news through an informational ministry called Glad Tidings. By educating its members, the church aims to equip its congregants to get involved in LGBT issues as a way of supporting their gay neighbors. Glad Tidings began as a monthly meeting for LGBT congregants and their allies.
Mount Carmel has been an important presence in its Italian neighborhood for more than 125 years. Most of the parishioners have ancestral roots in the Naples area of Italy. The church is the sponsor of the annual Giglio Festival in July and hosts thirty-four AA-type meetings.
The turn toward a gay-friendly parish
In 2009, Monsignor Joseph P. Calise overheard a conversation that would change his approach to ministering to gays at the Roman Catholic parish he leads.
“At an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting in the church, one woman was talking about her partner, or lover. It was obvious that she was talking about another woman,” said Calise matter-of-factly.
Then, he heard someone respond disdainfully in a low but audible voice.
The offensive statement riled the mild-mannered priest. “All I could think about was how painful it must have been for the woman to hear,” he recalled.
The Monsignor became sensitized to a double standard towards gays in the attitude of many of his church’s members. They were not targeting well-known but relatively invisible straights’ sexual practices that the church officially discourages. “The fact that some people’s orientation or behavior might appear more public than others’ doesn’t make it less or more moral,” asserted Calise, explaining his commitment to homosexual parishioners.
He warranted, “If I want to take a strict interpretation of the law, then any unmarried couple living together should be excluded from church, and anyone who is practicing birth control should be excluded as well.”
Pope Francis has poised a question to people who don’t want gay people in the Catholic church, “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, in an October address to a crowd of prelates, diplomats and journalists at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, summed up his understanding of Pope Francis’ approach. “Don’t lead with the chin, don’t lead with controversy,” Dolan said. “Don’t even lead with the mouth. Lead with the heart and you’re going to win a lot of people.”
The encounter at the AA meeting guided Calise to a breakthrough idea: he would start an AA group for the gay community.
The first thing he did was to reach out to Reverend Diane Jeep Ries, an ordained interfaith minister interested in aiding seekers who are disinterested in conventional modes of religion. Jeep was a lapsed Catholic who had been away from the church for over three decades and has been married to her same-sex spouse since 2008. She was curious about the priest’s pitch.
“I convinced her to hold AA meetings for people from the lesbian and gay community so that they could speak out in a safe space and not be an object of ridicule,” said the Monsignor. And as they say, the rest is history.
Now, two of the AA meetings are specifically tailored for the gay and lesbian community. The church’s support of gay people didn’t end with the AA group.
After seeing the successful reception of these AA groups, Calise decided to go a step further and asked Jeep to start an gay ministry as part of the parish.
Jeep was initially taken by surprise but then eagerly accepted Calise’s proposal. She began by researching Catholic groups that worked with the gay community. She discovered that the internet has worked as a handy connector for the relatively low visibility of Catholic gays.
“I found out about the Catholic Association of Lesbian and Gay Ministry (CALGM) by going on the Internet and learned about starting a ministry through it,” recalled the reverend.
The primacy of conscience
Jeep went down to Tampa, Florida to check out an association conference in Tampa. There, she learned about a Catholic doctrine called “the primacy of conscience. » The doctrine teaches that a person’s conscience is a primary indication of what is right or wrong. Catholic scholar Douglas McManaman stated, “Because one’s conscience is one’s best judgment, one has a duty to obey it.”
However, McManaman carefully specifies the limits of this doctrine. A person’s conscience, he emphasizes, does not determine what is right or wrong. Instead, conscience acts as an internal divining rod that points a person to the right decision when they may be receiving ambiguous or confusing directions from an outside source.
Jeep explained McManaman’s approach this way, “You can sit in contemplation and find in your heart a resonance, or not, of an issue in conflict with another doctrine of Church teaching.” After reflecting on the two sides, “you can then move as your conscience informs you.”
Jeep’s says that upon reflection, her conscience pushed her toward doing something more for the gay congregants at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. She became convinced that the church needed a ministry that would make gay congregants feel included and protected as they followed their faith. She named the newly minted ministry Glad Tidings, a variation of the word 'gospel.' With the name “Glad Tidings,” The church’s message to the gay and lesbian community was that they too deserve God’s love and mercy.
The ministry was affiliated with the Catholic Association of Lesbian and Gay Ministry and was a fully integrated component of the parish. This unique relationship is unlike other LGBT Catholic groups such as Dignity USA and New Ways Ministry, which are not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.
Having accomplished her vision at OLMC, Jeep departed in March 2012 to establish an independent interspiritual ministry called “The God Garage,” which is a portable resource for people taking unconventional spiritual paths. The organization also connects spiritual development to local and global activism.
Educating the Straights
Then, Father Michael Lynch, who was on the steering committee for the church’s pastoral care for LGBT Catholics and their families and friends, stepped up as the director of Glad Tidings. Under his leadership, the ministry expanded from being only a support group for LGBT congregation members and their families. Now, Glad Tidings plays a larger role as an educational initiative for the straight members of the congregation. The ministry is also an information disseminator on LGBT news and issues.
This change in focus was intended to encourage the members of the largely straight congregation to identify with its gay neighbors, even if they are not members of the church. “Just because issues are happening outside of the church doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be involved in them,” Lynch stressed.
Glad Tidings has hosted such events as discussions on World AIDS Day and a theater production on the Tyler Laramie Project to spread awareness about the impact of bullying. Another measure taken by Glad Tidings is to have congregational members take the Upstander Pledge, which is a public promise to step in when bullying or hate acts occur.
The clergy’s acceptance of the gay and lesbian community is also reflected in the attitudes of the Italian-American-orientated parish staff. “They are our children,” said Giuditta Coccia of the Italian Apostolate and Pastoral Care, which is housed at the church. “Our greatest fear is to not be accepted, and they are not accepted in certain environments. But we have opened our doors for them.”
The church’s LGBT initiative has been well received in the Catholic community. “Ever since I have started an outreach with the LGBT community, I have only received one call of complaint,” said Calise.