Walking into my parish church Aug. 13, I took notice of the sun streaming through the skylight in our church commons, gleaming on the water of the baptismal font. It was a bright and warm summer afternoon, typical for August in Indiana. On this afternoon, I had been summoned to a meeting with my pastor of 13 years.
After a polite exchange and a thank-you for meeting, my pastor recounted to me the news of a rumor mill among a group of parishioners. He was troubled by reports that I had publicly questioned the church's teaching on same-sex relationships and that I had criticized the actions of certain Catholic leaders. Some postings on social media were at the heart of this concern.
My response was simple. I have chosen to be honest about my journey of faith as a gay Catholic person. I believe that same-sex relationships are a blessing and a sign of God's goodness in the world, and I have indeed raised concern over practices within the church that I recognize as pastorally and spiritually damaging to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. To be sure, this understanding has been informed by a deep process of prayer and discernment over many years.
During the course of our meeting, my pastor notified me that I could not publicly disagree with official moral teachings and simultaneously hold positions of leadership within the parish. He asked me how I wished to proceed. It quickly become clear that I could not continue in volunteer parish ministry if I held firm to my convictions on the issues facing LGBT Catholics. My choices were quite limited. As a matter of conscience, I made a heartbreaking decision that afternoon. I resigned my position on the parish council. I resigned my position on the young adult board I had helped to found a year earlier. And I resigned my position as sacristan and eucharistic minister.
Recognizing the difficulty of the situation, my pastor sat with me for about an hour and entertained the questions and thoughts I expressed. At the end of our meeting, he wished me well, invited my continued participation in the liturgy and sacraments, and urged that we remain friends. Our meeting was as cordial as one could expect under the circumstances.
But this meeting should never have happened.
My loss of important positions within the parish is part of a much broader trend in American Catholicism today. Almost weekly, it seems that a breaking news story recounts the removal of a church employee or volunteer for holding LGBT-positive views or entering into a civil same-sex marriage union. I was not the first to encounter this resistance, and recent months have proven that I was not to be the last.
Much has been said and written about the injustice this presents. I concur with what others have said, but I wish to address another issue entirely. In reference to the lives of LGBT people, Pope Francis said in 2013, "It is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person." Yet there should be little doubt that the current atmosphere within our church has interfered in the spiritual lives of LGBT Catholics, causing considerable injury and erecting significant obstacles to the hearing and embracing of the Gospel.
Like all Christian people, we LGBT Catholics stand in need of the church's ministry. We share in that same baptismal responsibility to be disciples of Jesus, serving the church in holiness and carrying God's light into a sometimes darkened world. We are fellow parishioners and co-workers in the vineyard of our God. But this mission has been frustrated in too many parishes and Catholic institutions. The effects of exclusionary and punitive actions against LGBT people are many.
We know that LGBT men and women continue to face significant rejection and hardship in many communities. Employment and housing discrimination are real. Even within their own families, LGBT people can encounter rejection. We also know that LGBT persons -- especially young people -- remain particularly susceptible to depression, suicide and substance abuse. Violence against us remains a possibility even today.
In the midst of this brokenness and adversity, the church is equipped to be a powerful channel of God's grace and healing. Regrettably, our Catholic institutions sometimes serve only to reinforce pain and brokenness.
LGBT people who choose to remain in the church are often subject to attacks upon the genuineness of our faith. Our love for God and our loyalty to the Catholic tradition are frequently and cavalierly called into question. This has served to create an environment in which we cannot honestly discuss our concerns, our spiritual lives, or even our relationship with God.
Most startling of all, we know that far too many of our LGBT brothers and sisters have parted ways with the church and given up on the Gospel of Jesus Christ altogether. We also know that there are young LGBT people sitting in the pews of every parish, waiting for the church to speak hope to them. And because we are widely failing at this endeavor, their departure too is imminent.
What then becomes of those persons who choose to leave? How are they ever to know Jesus Christ and reach their potential as his disciples without a viable connection to the Christian community? How will young LGBT persons ever know that they can be faith-filled Catholics when no role models are permitted to exist within their parishes or schools?
A large section of the gay community has internalized the message that they are neither wanted nor needed within the church -- and that they are better off without Jesus. The mission of the church remains to make disciples of all. But in the case of LGBT people, there can be little doubt that we forgot this mission long ago.
I think it is reasonable to suggest that we have a pastoral emergency before us. More importantly, we have a pressing moral matter. In the harsh treatment of LGBT Catholics, we have done more than injustice. Indeed, we have erected a substantial stumbling block to knowing Jesus Christ, hearing the Gospel, and living a life of Christian discipleship. We have lost too many of our people: God's people.
This current state of affairs merits intense prayer, deep conversion and courageous action. This is a task for the entire people of God: laity, pastors and religious.
By most estimations, Catholics are among the most supportive of LGBT people in the United States today. Large numbers of Catholic laity and clergy have accepted, loved and welcomed their LGBT brothers and sisters for decades. But many remain hesitant to engage this issue within the Christian community.
Our Catholic parishes and institutions must become places of hospitality, refuge and grace for LGBT people. We would be wise to discern creative and perhaps altogether new ways to make space for every woman and man who seeks God with a sincere heart. We would also be wise to create truly safe environments within our parishes where we genuinely listen to the voices of LGBT Catholics. To be certain, all efforts to welcome people should be grounded in continual dialogue and prayer.
Clergy and pastoral leaders must seek ways to actively welcome LGBT people into Catholic spaces. They must become willing to speak unequivocally and with new ardor about Christ's love for his LGBT brothers and sisters. They would do well to make provisions for the full participation of LGBT people in the life of the church, whatever challenges this might present. Silencing the voices of LGBT people, their friends, and families should be carefully avoided. Ideally, pastors would seek out LGBT parishioners and actively listen to ways they can better welcome and serve this community.
Lay Catholics of all sexual orientations have a key responsibility as well. We must become willing to be voices of welcome, compassion and justice within our communities. In every parish, there exist young people asking difficult questions about themselves, older parishioners who have been suffering silently for years, and parents of LGBT children seeking support and counsel. These people must be guaranteed the unyielding support and grace of their fellow parishioners.
For some, reaching out to LGBT Catholics might mean taking up a cross. Some will surely find themselves subject to questioning, misunderstanding and suffering. Obedience to the Gospel has posed such a risk in every land and generation. Those who seek to build a better church for LGBT people should be assured that there are many Catholic people who already stand with them in this endeavor.
Some months now stand between me and that warm summer afternoon when I resigned my positions in the parish. I have lost the life I once had as an actively engaged parishioner. My relationship with my faith community of 13 years has suddenly changed.
But the Christian person recognizes that only in losing our life do we ever truly gain it. I take great hope in the new life that lies ahead of me, although I know nothing about it at this time. And I remain steadfast in my pilgrimage as a gay Catholic man, trusting in God and striving to follow the way of the Gospel. I continue to love my parish. I continue to love my pastor. And I persist in my love for the church. My service to God and to the church has clearly changed, but certainly not ended.
[Sam Albano lives in Carmel, Ind. Until August 2014, he served as a sacristan and parish council member, and helped co-found his parish's young adult ministry. He currently serves as the secretary of DignityUSA's Young Adult Caucus.]