I have never seen so many male churchgoers in short shorts.
As the priest concludes Mass, my eyes follow them—a platoon of twenty-somethings—ferrying boxes of chicken from Buffalo Wild Wings down through the neo-gothic side chapels and into the parish center. These are members of Out at St. Paul, an official parish group that ministers to the LGBTQ Catholics of St. Paul the Apostle in Hell’s Kitchen, New York.
Several other West Side parishes boast similar organizations (Blessed Sacrament and Church of the Ascension both have sizable gay fellowships), but none matches OSP in strength and numbers. Founded in 2010 by Fr. Gil Martinez at the request of a gay parishioner, OSP organizes Bible studies, pub crawls, and Pride Masses—part of an overarching program seeking to forge a truce between hedonism and Catholicism. It hosts queer-and-Catholic lectures and promotes homoerotic readings of the saints. It has won the praise of several LGBTQ activist priests, chief among them Fr. James Martin, S.J., whom OSP hosted in 2017 to promote his book on gay inclusion in the faith.
Immediately following the 5:15 Mass tonight, OSP will host its first-ever “Mission and Prayer” meeting, an open forum intended for discussion about integrating gay Catholics into parish life.
When I walk into the meeting, an older priest and a scraggly-faced layman clutching a copy of Karl Rahner’s Prayers and Meditations are talking about how much fun they had at an upstate lake early in July. At the other end of the room, a young teacher named Marianne assures me that almost all the parish priests at St. Paul are openly gay or fully endorse active homosexuality, and even the ones that aren’t forward about it—“well, everyone knows.”
When one of the leaders, a young man named Jason, walks up to a podium and addresses the gathering, he reminds everyone that Fr. Gil founded OSP to give a voice to the downtrodden (even affluent West Siders can be oppressed), but that the fight is far from over.
“We’re going through a time of transition,” he says. “Fr. Gil headed out to Los Angeles, and now we have Fr. Joe here at the parish. We wanted to take some time to listen and to dialogue with you.”
Jason then lists OSP’s achievements since its beginnings.
“The ministry team established the group’s foundational principles, and Fr. Gil provided spiritual guidance. He encouraged the leadership to be evangelical in its outreach in Hell’s Kitchen. They decided on the name Out at St. Paul, because for so long, LBGTQ Catholics had been hidden in the Church’s closet. OSP would be something different, defiantly proud of its queer Catholic identity and unafraid to make its presence known in the parish and in the archdiocese.”
Jason praises Fr. Gil for raising the group’s profile in the parish by encouraging members to deliver testimonies at the end of the 5:15 Mass and by selecting same-sex couples to carry up the gifts at the offertory. He also credits the increase in gay Eucharistic ministers and altar servers to Fr. Gil’s enthusiasm.
“After Mass, OSP members often linger at the back of the church until closing time at 7 p.m., when more intimate groups depart for dinner or drinks at nearby restaurants,” Jason says amid sustained chuckling from the room. Apparently Fr. Gil’s zeal has led to more romantic interludes as well.
But now that Fr. Gil is gone, Jason explains, OSP must carry on his legacy through lay leadership. He directs us to a questionnaire and asks that each table write up answers to one of the following questions:
What words would you use to characterize OSP? Why?
What are our community’s strengths? Where do we follow Jesus’s example?
What are our community’s weaknesses? Where do we fail to follow Jesus’s example?
What communities do we serve well?
What communities do we not serve well?
Where do you see opportunities for OSP to grow?
Jason emphasizes that, when filling out the questionnaire, we should be thinking above all about how to follow Jesus’s example while living the LGBTQ lifestyle.
The various tables produce many responses, but all agree that the organization’s “zesty” pride gives it strength. They lament its lack of transgender members and its paltry lesbian contingent. Some express a desire to proclaim the parish’s solidarity with the LGBTQ community at large by flying rainbow flags from the church belfry, but Jason discourages the idea, saying the archdiocese wouldn’t approve.
A young man wearing an orange polo with a popped collar draws a big laugh when he rises from his seat and others struggle to extend the cord of Jason’s podium microphone to reach him.
“Sorry, it’s not long enough,” Jason says.
“That’s what he said,” the young man quips.
After joining the room in laughter, the man sitting next to me confesses that flamboyant strains of humor amuse him, but he thinks it gets old sometimes. He tells the table that he often goes cruising to pick up guys at bars, but wishes he knew how to live a more stable sexual life. My table sighs in agreement: Being queer and Catholic is a hard line to walk.
At the meeting’s end Jason requests that everyone ask God to guide OSP.
“If you feel comfortable praying, pray out loud,” he says. “If not, maybe mention one or two things you’d like to see God do in OSP. Then end with an Our Father or a Hail Mary—everyone knows those ones, right?”
My table decides on the Hail Mary—since it is the shorter prayer—and prayer intentions hover at the level of activism. The table asks God to grant us greater feminism among lesbians, to instill courage in LGBTQ youth who are afraid to embrace their queer and Catholic identities, and to inspire a revision to the Catechism on same-sex marriage. It’s a carnival of virtue-signaling. But what else is prayer for, in a community that has not been instructed to seek forgiveness for sin? In the back of the room, the older priest from earlier pours himself a cup of Pepsi. While his parishioners pray for guidance, he stands apart, sipping his soda—watching without a word.
Nic Rowan writes from Washington, DC.
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