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Ministry with gays and lesbians celebrates 15 years

NCR Staff
Eagle Rock, Calif.

In the darkened church moments before liturgy began, seconds before those attending lit candles that would banish the darkness, a calm voice rang out quoting scriptural injunctions against homosexuality. The man was led gently out of St. Dominic’s Church. Outside, too, was a lone placard waver who earlier had vainly tried to give those arriving for Mass pamphlets that named AIDS as the plague in Revelations.

The Los Angeles archdiocese’s Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Catholics has surmounted far larger obstacles than these on the way to this celebration. On Feb. 4, some 600 lesbian and gay Catholics -- many with members of their families -- a bishop and two dozen priests marked the ministry’s 15th anniversary. There would have been three Los Angeles auxiliary bishops present, but the scheduled presider, Bishop Gabino Zavala, and retired Bishop Juan Arzube were taken ill. Bishop Joseph Sartoris was the celebrant.

“The doors are open, this is our Jubilee,” Carmelite Fr. Peter Liuzzi, director of Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Catholics, told the enthusiastic gathering. “Fifteen years ago,” said Liuzzi, “Cardinal Roger Mahony had the vision, and somewhere between 1986 and now all of you saw that vision. Let the lesbian and gay Catholics fill the churches, as we do tonight, to live out their call to discipleship by virtue of their baptism.

“Parents, as well as siblings and friends, are witnesses in the church that orientation is all about family life,” a life that includes birth and church families, said Liuzzi.

At the rear of the church, a video camera recorded the event.

No doubt somewhere in the congregation, someone was taping every word to send to Rome and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “I’ve probably got my own file drawer there,” said Liuzzi during an interview.

He, like the ministry, walks a fine line that adheres closely to church teaching, but is fraught with obstacles.

[One major obstacle arose last year when The California Catholic Bishop’s conference provided $300,000 to help support Proposition 22. Under the proposition, which was apporoved, “Only marriage between a man and a women is valid or recognized in California.” Scores of members left the archdiocesan organization.]

Lesbian Catholic Marilyn Piers of the St. Matthew’s, Long Beach, group didn’t walk away, but the episcopal war chest was a problem for her. An attendee at the St. Dominic’s liturgy, she said that while she still supports her parish, she stopped contributing to archdiocesan activities. “I didn’t want them spending my money to fight me,” she said.

The church’s war chest was a major difficulty, too, for Liuzzi, 11 years at the helm, and the ministry’s third director. He publicly attacked the decision because it allied the Catholic bishops with “Mormons, Dr. James Dobson and others who certainly do not share our understanding -- doctrinal, pastoral or otherwise about homosexuality -- and clearly are involved in a totally anti-gay agenda.”

Dobson is founder of a conservative organization, Focus on the Family, which is stridently anti-homosexual.

Summarizing the ministry, Liuzzi said, “I’ve come to appreciate that in 1986 Cardinal Mahony was very astute. There’s a large gay community in Los Angeles, true of all port cities in the country. And he saw that pastorally and politically this was a concern. The key, though, I think was his desire to never separate the gay and lesbian Catholic from ordinary parish life. That’s why it’s ministry with not ministry to.”

To Liuzzi, the ministry’s bottom line is that lesbian and gay Catholics are baptized people, “and the church, having baptized them, has an obligation to them, and they to the church. If someone’s gay, we’re not talking about a choice, it’s something that’s discovered. The bottom line is that we’re not following a sergeant. Like the rest of the church, we’re following the Lord in a relationship. We do the best we can, and that should be sufficient -- the rest is God’s love and mercy that saves us.”

“We’re saying, be ordinary Catholics, engage in all the parish’s ministries,” said Liuzzi. “There are things that are problematic in the lives of all Catholics. There’s not a denial that the teaching of the church is problematic, but we’re not attacking that teaching. We’re saying that it’s more important to admit, yes, it’s problematic for many people, but also to get in there and live your life, be authentic, and leave it up to the church to discern.”

On issues of sexual practice, Liuzzi responds that “we’re not sidestepping anything.” As for all Catholics, he said, these are “not easy questions. They are issues dealt with in spiritual direction, with a confessor, on retreats.”

“We are dealing with devout people,” he said. “All Catholics pray, grapple with their problems, make practical decisions. What we are saying is sexual orientation can never be the entire focus of one’s life as a Catholic. It is part of a whole picture.

“The ministry is very centrist, moderate,” said Liuzzi. “The members are generally somewhat conservative people in fairly conservative parish settings. I pay a price for that from a whole other circle,” he said.

Others, he said, charge “that I’m really compromising, leading lesbians and gays to a kind of passive role. I agonize. That’s my cross.”

If that’s Liuzzi’s downside, the upside, he said, is that if, through the Los Angeles archdiocese’s approach, other diocese’s listen, then headway is being made.

He takes the same tack in his recently published book, With Listening Hearts: Understanding the Voices of Lesbian and Gay Catholics (Paulist Press; foreword by Stockton, Calif. Bishop Stephen E. Blair) that, he said, was examined by four theologians before it was submitted for publication. “I hope, through the book, bishops will listen to me.”

NCR sent the book to another priest, formerly a chaplain to gay and lesbian Catholics. The priest, who did not want his name used, said the book “is always emphasizing that the ministry is in accordance with church teaching. I can understand Peter’s need to do that, but it’s not my concept of what the ministry should be doing.”

The Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Catholics is certainly a boon to the many parents of lesbians and gays who were at the St. Dominic’s celebration, or who belong to one of the archdiocese’s four parents’ support groups.

Marge Mayer, instrumental in establishing those support groups, became involved in the ministry when her son, Tim, at 27, came out to his family in 1990. “After I got over the shock and surprise of having a gay son,” she said, “I decided to get an education in what the church taught.”

She experienced, she said, what almost every parent in a similar situation goes through: “Did I cause my son to be gay? Did he choose to be gay? And I soon learned,” said Mayer, “that I didn’t cause it and he didn’t choose it, which was very comforting.”

Even so, she said, over those first few weeks she was dealing with the issue “out of her emotions.” Her husband dealt with it “much more easily -- he was his son, he loved him, and that was it. I was angry because I didn’t like the way he was treated by the church or society.”

Because she wasn’t satisfied with what the church was doing, Mayer wrote to “the top, the cardinal.” She got a letter back from Liuzzi telling her he had a job opening. She’s been No. 2 in the ministry office for a decade. She’s as impressed now as she was then that the archdiocese would fund two full-time people in the ministry.

Across the 290-parish archdiocese, there are six other churches that, like St. Dominic’s, have a parish outreach group. Two of the groups are for Spanish-speaking Catholics. In addition, there are nine “welcoming parishes,” where lesbians and gays find a welcome but not an active Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Catholics group. And there is Sophia’s Circle, a lesbian prayer group.

Liuzzi is in constant motion, out speaking or organizing. The latest ministry effort is to launch a support group for spouses who acknowledge they are gay, or those whose spouse has come out in the marriage.

Liuzzi’s first panel discussion on gay spouses will be at an archdiocesan event, the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, Calif., later this month.

Arthur Jones’ e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2001 [corrected March 30, 2001]