LGBT-ministering organizations await news on exhibit space at World Meeting of Families

This story appears in the World Meeting of Families feature series. View the full series.

by Julie Gunter

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Two Catholic organizations that minister to the LGBT community nationwide continue to wait for answers regarding the status of their applications for exhibition space at September's World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. One of the groups, Fortunate Families, has seen its application rejected twice, and the other group, the Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry (CALGM), is still waiting for a final response.

A third group, Courage International, which ministers to "persons with same-sex attractions," according to its website, confirmed with NCR that its request for exhibit space was approved shortly after submitting an application last year.

Held Sept. 22-25, the World Meeting of Families is a triennial gathering sponsored by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family. The event, which coincides with Pope Francis' visit to the United States, is expected to attract an estimated 20,000 attendees and precedes a festival for families and papal Mass that could draw millions more. The meeting's adult and child congresses are organized around a central theme: "Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive."

Opening and closing ceremonies and most other programs for the World Meeting of Families will be located in the Pennsylvania Convention Hall, which will also have a "marketplace" for exhibition booths, performances, and other activities.

Fortunate Families, an all-volunteer Catholic organization ministering to parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children, applied for exhibit space in August. That application was rejected for "lack of information," according to Deb Word, president of the Fortunate Families board of directors.

Word reapplied in mid-February, and learned May 8 that the group's reapplication also was rejected.

Acknowledging that "without knowing why we were rejected, it's hard to know what information would change their minds," Word sent a follow-up email intended for committee members asking for the rationale behind their decision and listing the love-based messages aligned with church teaching that she'd hoped to share from an exhibit booth.

NCR inquiries to the World Meeting of Families planning committee were directed to Ken Gavin, communication director for the Philadelphia archdiocese.

In an email to NCR, Gavin wrote: "Applications for exhibitors are reviewed by staff within the World Meeting of Families Office and WMOF-Philadelphia 2015 reserves the right to approve or deny various applications. ... If an organization has a question about the status of their application or the decision rendered, they should be in contact with the entity directly."

Word said she also plans to submit a request for Fortunate Families to be allowed to sponsor an advertisement in the World Meeting of Families program distributed to attendees. She said the request marks the group's final attempt to participate as a contributor at the meeting.

Arthur Fitzmaurice, resource director for CALGM, told NCR he is confident that meeting organizers will "resolve this." He submitted his group's application for exhibit space last year, complete with credit card information, and reapplied using the same form in early 2015.

Based in Berkley, Calif., CALGM is a network of outreach ministries that include nearly two dozen ministries sponsored by Catholic dioceses and parishes and "work[s] within the fullness of Catholic teaching to provide life-saving pastoral ministry to LGBT Catholics and families," Fitzmaurice said. "We have no reason to believe our presence at [the world meeting] would be a concern for the Vatican; in fact, our ministry represents many ministries doing the work of the church and reaching out to the margins as Pope Francis has called for."

He added that CALGM has "met cordially" with the local ordinary, Bishop Michael Barber.

Courage International, an organization founded in 1980 that bases its ministry on five goals that include chastity, prayer, and fellowship and utilizes a 12-step format based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model, will send "a handful of members" to the meeting with materials to share, according to the group's associate director, Fr. Philip Bochanski. The self-described "mainstream Catholic Apostolate" is partly funded by the New York archdiocese and the diocese of Bridgeport, Conn.

Fitzmaurice said because of the differing missions of Courage and other LGBT groups, as well as the diverse needs of the population that these organizations serve, additional Catholic voices at the World Meeting of Families are needed. He highlighted Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez's recognition and support of a substantial pastoral ministry for LGBT Catholics as well as the local Courage chapter in the Los Angeles archdiocese as a notable example.

Word said she still wonders why Fortunate Families, which marked its 10-year anniversary in 2014, wasn't approved as an exhibiter and questions whether members' "acceptance of children in relationship with their partners" or the group's affiliation with the reform group network Equally Blessed, which includes Call to Action, DignityUSA, and New Ways Ministry, were determining factors in the planning committee's decision.

Fitzmaurice, too, said his group doesn't want to be "outside the tent. We deserve a table, and we can't be told there's no room at the inn." Yet he envisions opportunities for healing, too: "At the Mass with Pope Francis, we will be one," he said, referring to the Sept. 27 liturgy that will take place on the scenic Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the heart of Philadelphia's cultural district. "In the Mass, everything is transcended in the moment of the Eucharist."

Beyond his role with CALGM, he said he also plans to help coordinate LGBT-focused events during the week both in Philadelphia and in Washington, D.C., and to help with outreach activities for church leaders and educators, including sending invitations "to Pope Francis and to all bishops who wish to come meet LGBT Catholics."

Word said Fortunate Families will also "be there with or without a table and will host two parent gatherings a few blocks from the convention site for those who want to talk and share their stories."

New Ways Ministry also plans to host a workshop on gender identity issues; co-sponsor a reception for LGBT Catholics, families, and allies; and sponsor several dozen Catholic "pilgrims" from nontraditional families who will be sent out each day with the "message that lesbian/gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons are also part of families" during the week.

Word said she was contacted by Mary Beth Yount, director of World Meeting of Families content and programming, in February about the possibility of serving on a three-person panel for a breakout session focused on the church and homosexual issues.

Word said she believes her name was forwarded to the planning committee following an email exchange she had with Bishop Charles Chaput in late 2014 about her experiences as a mother and grandmother caring for discarded gay and lesbian youth. (Word's work was featured in the June 7-20, 2013, print edition of NCR.)

Word said she told Yount in the course of the conversation that she was also president of Fortunate Families. The phone call ended "cordially," Word said, and a few weeks later, she received an email from Yount with the news that the panel would have just two speakers: Ron Belgau, a celibate gay Catholic, and his mother, Beverley Belgau.

[Julie Gunter is a frequent contributor to NCR.]

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