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Homosexuality a major pastoral challenge

NCR Staff
Los Angeles

Sr. Kathleen Schinhofen asks a blunt question during early ministry with Catholic parents who have learned that a child is gay or lesbian: "Would you like to stay in a good relationship with your son or daughter or drive them away and destroy the relationship?"

The answer, said Schinhofen, is almost always positive. A Sister of St. Joseph of Orange, Schinhofen gave a plenary address at the Fourth Annual Conference of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries Sept. 4-7.

Her question is one the Catholic church as a whole is more frequently asking of itself. The participants here represent those who are developing cutting edge ministries to homosexuals, ministries that have not infrequently been met with antagonism by some in the church.

Founded in 1994, the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries serves as an information clearing house for about 30 dioceses with personnel working in gay and lesbian ministries.

"In the last couple of years, we have seen an increasing number of dioceses looking for models, for resources," said the organization's president, Fr. James Schexnayder. He attributes the growing efforts to Catholic parents of gay children who are "surfacing and sharing their stories."

Long Beach, Calif., the site of the conference, is symbolic. St. Matthew's church in Long Beach developed one of the first models for ministries with gay and lesbian members, and the Los Angeles diocese, under Cardinal Roger Mahony, has been one of the leaders in this pastoral area.

Mahony and 19 priests concelebrated a Saturday night Mass, and Mahony also attended a fundraising dinner for the organization under the theme "Unconditional Love." Three Los Angeles bishops participated in conference panels.

In his homily, Mahony urged more than 200 participants to "use church documents in ways that dispel ignorance and fear" about homosexuality, which he described as a "complex mystery." He warned that ministers "must be careful not to be more demanding of gays and lesbians than of the rest of the disciples in the church" and emphasized that the church needs the participation of gays and lesbians to "build up the body of the church and to build up the reign of God."

Homosexuality, Mahony continued, "remains a major pastoral challenge." He warned that while it could be "an issue that tears the church asunder, with your talents and zeal, you can turn it into something that heals and unifies the church."

That is what the Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Catholics for the Los Angeles archdiocese is attempting to do, said the director of that ministry, Carmelite Fr. Peter Liuzzi. "Our approach is to integrate gay people into normal parish life," he said. Liuzzi commended Mahony and pointed to the support of many of the Los Angeles bishops. "I've come to know and appreciate Roger. He's brilliant as far as his political understanding and grasp of what's going on. I feel this is somehow a historical moment," he said.

Liuzzi said Mahony's vision is an extension of the diocese's emphasis on inclusivity and celebration of diversity. It is based, he said, on Mahony's insistence that he never wants "to separate gay Catholics." Liuzzi said that when a Los Angeles Times reporter asked him to describe the program for this ministry, he responded, "We don't have a program. Gay Catholics are Catholic first and gay second. Our invitiation is to come and live the call to baptism, part of which is the struggle with being gay or lesbian."

Notable at the conference was a delegation from Dignity, a national organization of gay and lesbian Catholics, including the president of the organizaton, Robert F. Miailovich.

Miailovich said ministry with gay Catholics in Los Angeles began in 1986, when Dignity members were "expelled" from official Catholic locations because of their stance on church teachings on homosexuality. He said he believes Mahony realized something had to fill the void left by Dignity's absence.

"I personally commend the cardinal for creating a local ministry. It's not something a lot of other bishops have done," Miailovch said. "He's gone further than New York, San Francisco, San Diego ... but not far enough."

National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 1997