In early 2020, Fr. James Martin, SJ, was finalizing plans for a major conference event: a conference on LGBTQ Catholic ministry put on by Outreach, an organization that Martin founded under the umbrella of America Media to provide pastoral and spiritual resources for LGBTQ Catholics and their friends, family, and pastors. That first conference did not happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a 2021 conference was held online. But this past June, at the beginning of Pride Weekend in New York City, the Outreach conference finally took place in person, bringing together priests, religious brothers and sisters, theologians, lay ministers, parish workers, parents, students, and ordinary interested Catholics for an afternoon and a day of happy socializing and serious conversation about the state of LGBTQ people in the Catholic Church.
I attended the conference as a writer who writes about Catholic spirituality and theology for a general audience and also as a gay Catholic whose Catholic life consists mostly of going to Mass slightly more often than I’m obliged to and going to Confession far less often than I should. I’m interested in LGBTQ ministry primarily as someone who feels alienated from most of it: I wanted to know what conversations were happening, what kinds of challenges such ministries were facing, and how they might thrive even in the kind of hostile climate that is quickly becoming common in U.S. dioceses. Perhaps more than any of this, I wanted to be in the same place as other queer Catholics asserting our presence, our needs, and our importance at a conference closer to the heart of the institutional Church than any before it.
The point about the conference’s unprecedented institutional endorsement was made by Brian Flanagan during the theology panel session, and it bears underscoring. Never before has a conference for and about LGBTQ Catholics had a keynote address from a sitting bishop, and Bishop John Stowe’s opening talk on Friday night about the particular and unique loves that Christ had for his disciples during his ministry was a fitting beginning to a conference aimed at the needs of people to whom the Church’s professions of love have often felt generic, distant, and far removed from the indifference, cruelty, and abuse that many of us have faced from people who claimed to speak on behalf of that very Church. God’s love, Stowe reminded us, is not that: it comprehends us fully, knows us down to our innermost depths, and loves all that it beholds. God delights that we are and in what we are.
Indeed, it was hard not to feel something of that delight later in the evening as attendants adjourned for drinks and desserts. There are very few spaces in the Church where queer Catholics can be fully ourselves—spaces where we can speak the shared languages of both queer people and Catholics with no seam or boundary between them, expressing the fullness of our communal belongings without reservation. Even casual conversation at a wine bar or over lunch became something marvelous, a small and temporary community that offered us, for the moment, a kind of freedom that we could experience hardly anywhere else. These were not official conference proceedings and so are not fit for detailed discussion, but I cannot overstate the importance of such casual occasions of solidarity.
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