Philadelphia — Homosexuality was such a combustible topic at the World Meeting of Families, a four-day Catholic gathering under way here, that it was doused twice.
First, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput earlier this month barred LGBT Catholics from holding a workshop at a Catholic parish near the event. It moved to a local United Methodist Church instead and is operating simultaneously, but with vastly smaller numbers than the 17,000 people on hand for the main event at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Then, just as the single session on homosexuality at this Vatican-approved meeting of Catholic families was to begin on Thursday afternoon (Sept. 24), a conference official took the stage in the main hall, capable of seating at least 10,000, and announced the location had been moved.
Thousands of people got up and made their way up one floor to another room capable of seating only about 1,000. Hundreds of others were turned away, the doors shut on them by convention center officials citing fire code regulations.
Inside the session, it was standing room only, with some people sitting on the floors and in the aisles. All were silent as Ron Belgau, the sole openly gay man allowed to make a presentation here, took the microphone and, with his mother Beverley, described how he follows a “traditional Christian sexual ethic” that says homosexual activity is sinful.
“Some people have described me as the official face of gay celibate Catholics,” Belgau, 40, said from a small podium at the front of the room. “But the last thing I want after this session is people looking at me. Every parish has gay kids, every family has a member suffering with same-sex attraction. I hope that when you return to your parishes you will be able to accompany them in whatever struggles they face and speak up” against the stigma of same-sex attraction.
At that, the crowd broke into applause -- something they did multiple times throughout the session. They seemed especially absorbed when Belgau’s mother, Beverley, took the podium and described her son’s coming out at age 21 as “the worst day of my life.”
“You may think the fact that he is celibate makes my life easier, and in some way it does,” she said. “But to be attracted to the same sex and publicly celibate in a sexually free society is no easy road to walk.”
World Meeting of Families organizers were not immediately available to answers questions about the last-minute move to another room.
But for members of Equally Blessed, a coalition of several groups supportive of LGBT Catholics who are not celibate, the move was an echo of the earlier rebuffs.
"We are just trying to understand and give them the benefit of the doubt," said Ryan Hoffmann, director of communications for Call to Action, one of the groups in Equally Blessed.
Hoffmann was there with several members of Equally Blessed. He characterized Ron Belgau's appearance as "generous," "sincere" and "courageous."
But he added: "The frustration is that he didn’t speak to the many expressions of love LGBT Catholics and their families experience every day."
Still, he said, the fact that so many were turned away is a positive sign.
"This just speaks to the fact that people want to talk about LGBT Catholics and their relationship with the Catholic Church," Hoffmann said.