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In a Catholic mass, after the priest has consecrated wine and bread into the blood and body of Jesus, he declares “the mystery of faith.” It’s not a whodunit-type of mystery; it’s more an acknowledgment of a key belief, one beyond earthly reason, that Christ died, he rose, he’ll come again, and that’s he’s present—here! right now! for real!—in the sacrament of the eucharist.
How anyone keeps the faith may feel like an actual mystery for those of us who don’t. Even more mysterious is why LGBTQ people choose to stay connected to the Catholic church, which, for all of Pope Francis’ kind words, still labels “homosexual acts” a mortal sin. This very-bad, no-good type of sin (when committed with full knowledge and consent about how very bad and no good it is) bars people from receiving the eucharist, which essentially keeps them from communing fully with God.
But on the Sunday before Memorial Day, more than 40 people gathered at St. Margaret’s on Connecticut Avenue NW for a Catholic mass and received communion—despite the fact that many are LGBTQ persons and are in or desire to be in same-sex relationships. The only noticeable difference from any other mass was the rainbow flag on the altar.
Dignity/Washington has organized inclusive masses for 40 years. The group formed in 1972 as a local chapter of DignityUSA, a national organization that supports LGBTQ Catholics and seeks to further their acceptance in the mainstream church.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the group held mass at Georgetown University’s chapel, but the Archdiocese of Washington expelled them from campus in 1986 following the Vatican’s “Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” (tl;dr: groups like Dignity/Washington were dangerous and needed to be shunned). St. Margaret’s, of the LGBTQ-affirming Episcopal church, has since hosted Dignity/Washington, which owns an office and gathering place on Barracks Row.
Tom Bower joined almost 40 years ago, when the group had just 12 members. “We were as Catholic as the pope, except for this one bitty thing,” he jokes. Bower—who currently serves as secretary of Dignity/Washington’s board—is like many of the group’s members: He was raised Catholic since birth and feels that it’s an intrinsic part of who he is.
The Rev. Bob Fagan is one of a handful of clergypeople who preside over mass for Dignity/Washington. He was ordained as a Catholic priest by the Archdiocese of Washington, but left to marry (his granddaughter helped him celebrate Sunday’s mass). He jokes that when he first began celebrating mass for Dignity/Washington more than 10 years ago, he introduced himself as their “married Catholic priest.”
“We’ve all heard the doors of the church close,” he says of the bond between LGBTQ congregants and priests who’ve been officially shut out. “We celebrate with great devotion.”
Vin Testa, one of the youngest members, joined Dignity/Washington in December 2013.
“I faced about eight years of separation from my faith, and it was somewhat devastating,” he says. “I was missing a part of me.”
With college students away for the Memorial Day weekend, the congregation was diminished Sunday, but even at an average mass, the group’s 200 members are overwhelmingly white and male. Testa, who recently began serving as board president, says he wants to increase outreach to lesbians, trans people, and people of color.
“We are a very mature community,” Testa says. “A lot of our outreach has been to younger people, as well as more women—we have a small population of female members, but we want to broaden that and make sure that everyone knows they’re welcome at our mass.”
Even in a place like D.C.—where LGBTQ persons are widely accepted—it’s not always easy to be gay and Catholic.
“I think it’s difficult to be gay and Catholic anywhere, even in your own gay community,” Testa says. “Because people automatically assume that Catholics are not open to being accepting.”
D.C. has no shortage of well-established LGBTQ-affirming faith communities, from Bet Mishpachah to the Metropolitan Community Church. The leadership in these traditions not only welcome gay people, but perform their marriages, baptize their children, and allow them to become clergy.
“They could have just as easily walked to St. Margaret’s,” board member Jim Sweeney says of Dignity/Washington’s parishioners.
And yet they don’t. The reasons are deeply personal and individual, but there are common threads. For one thing, Catholicism, in some very specific ways, is radically different from other Christian religions.
Bower’s partner is Baptist, and he recalls being struck at hearing the communion bread (pita, in this case) called “only symbolic.” (In Catholicism, the host is the actual presence of Christ, and is placed in a tabernacle if not consumed.)
Perhaps just as importantly, the members of the parish have all been “alienated by the church,” as Sweeney puts it, but they refuse to be alienated from the part of themselves that is Catholic.
“How can I not be Catholic?” says former chapter president Daniel Barutta, who was born and raised Catholic. “God made me who I am, and my gayness is such a gift.”
“I feel even more Catholic than I would in a regular parish, because I want to be here,” he adds.
The mystery of faith.