Walking with the LGBTQ+ community
A local church in Albuquerque learned about my ministry with the LGBTQ+ community through my participation in the Pride Parade. They invited me to reflect on the following questions so that they might share my responses in their Church newsletter. I was touched that they asked, and I found the reflection meaningful.
1. What's been the general tone of responses you get when you attend pride events and festivals?
I have been ordained as a Roman Catholic priest for a little over a year and have discovered that a critical piece of my ministry with the LGBTQ+ community is reconciliation. One thing that has continued to surprise me is the impact that a simple, authentic apology can have on someone who has been profoundly wounded by the institutional Church. I find it surprising because the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community has been and continues to be so vicious and cruel that it is hard to believe a simple apology from an individual priest would be meaningful. Yet, time and again, it is. I think this willingness to receive the apology at all speaks in general to the human desire to be seen, and speaks in a special way to the inspiring resilience and heart of the LGBTQ+ community. This community is truly graced as one of the most loving, understanding, and accepting communities I have had the pleasure to experience, and they extend this openness and generosity to all.
2. Do you think your presence and support makes more of an impact specifically because of your ties to religion?
Yes. When I put on the Roman collar, I am no longer an individual, but a symbol of the entire Roman Catholic Church. In fact, it is the apology paired with the collar that has the real impact. When I visited a university last fall to give a talk, I met a lovely young graduate student who was raised Catholic. When she came out to her family, they did not accept her. This not only deeply wounded her, but it understandably led her away from the faith. After some time together, I looked into her eyes, called her by name, and apologized for all that she had endured. I explained that the Church was wrong on this issue, that God loved her into being exactly as she is, that she is an expression of God. She quietly cried. I was humbled and moved, taken aback by how these simple words offered some healing. Before we parted ways, she said smiling that she intended to attend Mass when home for Christmas. This interaction captures something that the Church does not seem to understand: when it persecutes people for whatever reason, it not only turns those people away from the Church, it can–and often does–turn them away from God. This is the true tragedy, for God’s greatest desire is to have intimate, dynamic, love relationships with each of us. I do all I can as a Roman Catholic priest to help restore this most central relationship.
3. Were there any big learning curves when you started your outreach to the queer community?
While some people desire the apology of the Church, others may want to have space to express their anger. Because in the Roman collar I represent the Church, people sometimes need to use me as a target for the pent-up frustration they feel towards the institution. In other words, it may be freeing, even healing, for someone who has been deeply hurt by the institutional Church to verbally attack or personally insult any particular priest. In these instances, I must submit to the experience and allow it to happen without retaliation, for I am no longer an individual but a stand in for the Church. As a priest it is imperative that in such moments I do not contribute to the emotional and spiritual harm the person has already endured. I enter into this work as a spiritual practice, asking God to help me grow in wisdom and charity.
4. Do you have any particular advice for someone who wants to start reaching out more?
The most important thing for any ministry is to pray–to lay ourselves bare before God over and over with the intent of listening to and receiving what God has to say. Pray in preparation for being with people, and once you experience being with them, bring that experience back to prayer. The point of any priestly ministry is to facilitate an encounter with the living God. It is not us but God who heals, who reconciles, who guides, who liberates. As priests we are simply helping to make people present to what God is always and already trying to give them. The only way we can be God’s partner in this work is through an uncompromising commitment to our own prayer life and to our relationship with God. It must come first, always.
5. Have your experiences and relationships with the queer community changed your experience and relationship with God?
One thing that the life of Jesus reveals to us is that we have an incarnational God—that is, it is God’s nature to incarnate, and so God expresses God’s self in all of material creation. The LGBTQ+ community is an ongoing expression of the living God. They continue to teach me about God’s resiliency, God’s creativity, God’s goodness, God’s joy. Of all the many gifts the community offers us, I would say its core gift is that it gives to all the world the experience of the unconditional acceptance of our loving God. Above all, though, the LGBTQ+ community reveals over and over the power of the paschal mystery: though they are crucified at the hands of injustice, they continue to rise and claim their rightful place at the altar of creation. This is the resurrection at work–the unstoppable power of God’s Spirit incarnating through the community to bring all of creation into alignment with God’s vision of justice and love. Through their participation in the life of God, they continue to bolster me in my own faith, for I see how profoundly God works through them and I am reminded one again of God’s ceaseless commitment to the good of the world.
a turn of the Spirit
I went to Mass this past Sunday. In fact, I went to Mass the week before for Christmas as well. Since my ordination in October 2021, I have avoided going to Mass in the institutional Church. You might think it is because I am excommunicated, but that is not the reason. It is important to understand that excommunication does not mean I cannot enter Catholic spaces. I can. What I cannot do is participate: I cannot receive sacraments, volunteer, hold a paid position. I am, as my friend Rev. Shanon likes to say, in time-out: banished to the corner so that I can think about what I have done, feel remorse, and recant. For a person who wants only to participate in the Roman Catholic Church, this is not a fun place to be.
Still, the excommunication is not what has prevented me from going to Mass. What kept me away was the conundrum I faced each time I considered attending. If I go in clerics, I become a distraction to those who have gathered to focus on God. If I attend in plain clothes, it is a betrayal of self at the deepest level of my being. *Sigh.* What’s a girl to do? I prayed and prayed for weeks before ordination, and every day since. Each time I brought it to prayer, it was the third way that emerged: stay home. And so, I did.
Until recently. The last few weeks a new movement is surfacing in my prayer: return to Mass. Why now, I wonder? Perhaps it is because I deeply miss gong to Mass. I was a daily communicant for many years before getting on the path to ordination. Yup, I went to Mass every. single. day. The Eucharist sustained me in all aspects of my being. My relationship with the Eucharist is so deep that even in its absence it remains at the center of my life. I want to be near it, even if I am denied communion.
Or maybe it’s because I miss being part of a parish. The love and the prayer. The characters and craziness. The formation and the service. The pure fire for God. A parish is a place electric with the joy and challenge of walking with people who come from different backgrounds, political affiliations, positions on doctrine, yet are all deeply Catholic–tied together by a vibrant faith in God that beats at the heart of community life. I miss this. Though I am denied participation in a parish, I can at least witness it in some way, be near it, be reminded that it is an ongoing reality.
The truth is I do not like being outside the institutional Church. You might think it's because my gifts are largely wasted since I have little opportunity to minister as a priest. Or because I have to spend rivers of time on things male priests do not as I work for reform. Or because I struggle with a lack of resources, like adequate health and dental care. Yes, these things get me down sometimes, but they are to be expected along such a path.
What has troubled me over the months is that I find myself too often in spaces that are anti-establishment. Where loving critique is traded for bitterness, even hatred. Where ritual and theology have drifted so far from the current teaching, they are no longer Roman Catholic. I truly understand such responses to the monstrosities that the Church has committed, and I acknowledge they have an important prophetic function that the Church must receive. But for a person who wants only to participate in the Roman Catholic Church, even with all its failures, this is not a fun place to be. It can cause me to feel depressed at times.
This does not mean I am not overflowing with gratitude. What I am denied in belonging, I am gifted in freedom. Like presiding over the Catholic rite of marriage of two lesbians, or officiating the wedding ceremony of two atheists—two experiences that are simply not possible within the institutional Church. And though I am starving for opportunity, I do get to do some priestly ministry. Ministry like anointing a friend, saying Mass, hearing a confession or two, presiding over adoration. I am acutely aware that this has not been possible for generations of women before me, and for many who walk alongside me right now, women who eagerly wait for the Church to right this terrible wrong. I do get to live out my call, however limited, and I do so with every single one of these women—past and present—in my heart.
A year into full-time ministry, though, I realize that these gifts are not enough to sustain me. I need the presence of the institutional Church in my life: it is who I am. And God has prepared me to re-engage. Last year, I entered multiple Roman Catholic institutions to argue for women’s ordination. I braved a room of Jesuit priests to attend the wake of a friend. I went to Mass once at a local parish in Albuquerque just to see how it felt. These experiences have formed me to better handle the stress that comes with simply attending Mass: with not knowing how I will be treated when I enter the building; with receiving the confusion or discomfort of the priest who offers a blessing instead of communion; with enduring the long walk back to my pew as everyone straight up stares at me. This kind of thing is hard on me. But what these last two weeks have revealed is that while the experience does not get easier exactly, it does become more familiar, and that familiarity better equips me to navigate institutional spaces.
And this is good news. Because when it comes to the work of opening people’s hearts and minds to the truth that women are called to priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, one of the most compelling images that Catholics can see is the female Roman Catholic priest standing before the male priest being denied communion over and over again. This is what the movement in my prayer is really about. While I may receive some sort of nourishment by going to Mass, the call to return is at its heart the desire of the Holy Spirit to teach.
So, with great love and respect, I comply.