St. John’s Catholic Church ‘outstretched hand’ reaches furtherAround the City, Latest Issue, Top Highlights Thursday, September 14th, 2017
San Diego Catholic Diocese Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan and Father Lucio Castillo are about to celebrate a historic Mass at St. John the Evangelist Church on the 20th anniversary of a pastoral document offered in 1997 as an “outstretched hand” from the nation’s bishops to “families of the LGBT community.”
“For us as a Catholic Church, [Aux. Bishop Dolan] is a representative of the local head [of the church] and the idea – that symbolism – that the church as an institution is with the people, with all people; that’s the message: that we want to be with all people,” said Laura Spencer-Martin, director of the Diocese’s Office for Family Life and Spirituality.
“As a diocese we want to be with people, with everyone; especially when people have been hurt,” Spencer-Martin continued. “I think he wants to send a message of love, compassion, listening and being with all the people.”
In 2014, Pope Francis sought to inculcate language that was more accepting of sexual diversity in its 2015 Synod of Bishops report, issues facing the world’s families. But, in a rare defeat for the pontiff, he was rebuffed by his Vatican charges.
Though Francis accepted the Bishop’s report gracefully, it was a crushing blow for those in the progressive and LGBTQ communities, especially those within the church itself, who had hoped that Francis’ earlier remarks, including his famous rhetorical question, “Who am I to judge [gay people]?” had been perceived as a harbinger of new acceptance emanating from the Holy See outward into the ranks of clerical establishment.
Asked if now, in San Diego, Aux. Bishop Dolan was taking a risk by celebrating a Mass aimed squarely at LGBTQ families and perhaps less directly at LGBTQ individuals, Laura Spencer-Martin was circumspect.
“Is he taking a risk? I don’t know. But I feel inspired by his decision to do this and privileged to be with these families and help with some kind of reconciliation in my own ministries,” Spencer-Martin told San Diego LGBT Weekly. “I know people have been hurt and their relationships with God have been hurt by misunderstandings in the Church.”
‘The bishop is definitely sticking his neck out for our community’
“This is a truly historic Mass,” said City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, a longtime national LGBTQ-rights activist based in San Diego and honorary mayor of Hillcrest.
“When you remember that this is the same diocese that 12 years ago refused to give a funeral to John McCusker and just five or six years ago did the same thing again to SRO’s owner, John Sanfilippo, but now this bishop is welcoming LGBTs and our families to celebrate Mass,” Ramirez continued. “There are still people in the church who don’t want us there. I think it’s courageous.”
In 2005, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, John McCusker, owner of now shuttered, but then wildly popular gay dance bar, Club Montage, was pointedly denied a funeral at The Immaculata Church located on the campus of the University of San Diego, a prestigious, private Catholic university.
The 2005 decision to deny McCusker a Catholic funeral ceremony and last rites because of the nature of his “business practices” as a gay bar owner had come straight from the top, from none other than then-Bishop Robert Brom.
However, (now Emeritus) Bishop Brom soon reversed his decision and ultimately presided over McCusker’s ceremony after a group of protestors including LGBTQ Catholics, among them Nicole Murray Ramirez, held a vigil outside the church. Years later, in 2011, when SRO Lounge owner John Sanfilippo died and a Catholic church in Little Italy did likewise, at first denying Sanfilippo a funeral, the situation was similarly corrected, according to the Union-Tribune. The diocese blamed the latter affair on a visiting priest who didn’t know local custom.
But even as the San Diego Catholic Diocese’s Office of Family Life and Spirituality hosts the upcoming Mass marking the 20th anniversary since the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released its pastoral document titled, Always our Children: A Pastoral Message To Parents Of Homosexual Children And Suggestions For Pastoral Ministers, a level of perceptible ambiguity and perhaps even remoteness insulates the diocese from being seen as going too far astray from current Catholic orthodoxy.
As was the case with the 20-year-old document itself, groundbreaking and moving as it is, at a certain level the language of marketing material for the Oct. 7 Mass at St. John the Evangelist Church in Hillcrest keeps queer people at arm’s length.
The Mass’ still warmly written invitation reads, “Join us for the 20th Anniversary Celebration of ‘Always Our Children’ Mass for families of [emphasis added] the LGBT community” – arguably playing it safer in the eyes of church hierarchy than might have been printing verbiage that directly addresses the LGBT community and our families (versus “families of the LGBT community).
Arguable ambiguity of printed material notwithstanding, the director of the Diocese’s Office of Family Life and Spirituality Laura Spencer-Martin was decidedly unambiguous during our interview, passionately and directly urging lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and people from all communities to join the celebration of Mass next month with Aux. Bishop Dolan and Fr. Castillo at St. John’s Church.
“We want to be with all people,” she said.
Nicole Murray Ramirez sees no problem with the invitation, no ambiguity in the Mass and least of all no timidity nor ambiguity on the part of Bishop Dolan.
“He is sticking his neck out for our community by celebrating this Mass,” Ramirez said.
Lasting change comes slowly
When it comes to Christianity’s oldest and longest-enduring institution, the Catholic Church, change comes very slowly, according to theologians and religion experts.
“The pope goes slow because he wants to be sure that the changes have a deep impact,” Archbishop Victor Fernández told an Italian newspaper in 2015.
“The slow pace is necessary to ensure the effectiveness of the changes. He knows there are those hoping that the next pope will turn everything back around. If you go slowly it’s more difficult to turn things back,” Archbishop Fernández, a close confidant of Pope Francis, continued during his interview with Corriere della Seratwo years ago.
“Yes, that’s true,” said Aaron Bianco, pastoral associate and coordinator of LGBT ministry at St. John the Evangelist Church in Hillcrest. “But when the church does evolve – and I know it happens at a frustratingly slow pace – however, it doesn’t go backward.”
But change does come to the Catholic Church, both on the world stage and here in San Diego. Aaron Bianco was quoted in the Wall Street Journal in 2015 about his having been told by the bishop who replaced Emeritus Bishop Brom, the man who once denied a local gay bar owner the last rites, not to worry about losing his job with the church for being openly gay.
From the Wall Street Journal:
But the new bishop assured Mr. Bianco that he wouldn’t lose his job because he is gay. Bishop [Robert] McElroy “let me know that [being gay] should not hinder me from participating fully in the life of the church,” said Mr. Bianco, who has since taken another position outside the church.
A stridently rightwing Catholic news site recently lamented Bishop Dolan’s “LGBT-friendly” ethos, citing this decidedly benign quote purportedly uttered by the auxiliary bishop as evidence of his ill-fittedness for the robes of clergy: “Young adults have an acceptance of the LGBT experience. It is simply a part of their world, and they look at us, and say, ‘What is the problem?’”
Apparently change comes even more slowly in some Catholic corners than others.
Always Our Children
Mass for families of the LGBT community
Saturday, Oct. 7, 11 a.m.
St. John the Evangelist Church
1638 Polk Ave. in San Diego
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