17th Street, Northwest, was nearly impassable by foot or car near the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle Monday, the site of Pope Francis‘ 11:30 AM prayer session with US bishops. Throngs of onlookers packed the sidewalks hoping to catch a glimpse of the pontiff. Among them were a somewhat surprising set of supporters: members of Dignity Washington, a group of LGBT Catholics in the Washington area.
Members of the group had stationed themselves outside the Human Rights Campaign’s headquarters across the street from the cathedral. Rather than condemn the Catholic Church’s stance toward its LGBT parishioners—the group meets at St. Margaret’s Episcopal church in Dupont Circle, for example, as it is not permitted to use Catholic facilities—Dignity members were cautiously celebrating a recent thaw in the Church’s stance toward LGBT individuals, and hopeful that it would continue.
Dignity Washington partners with the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) Catholic Initiative to extend HRC’s reach into Washington’s LGBT community.
“He’s embraced us,” says Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, director of the Latino and Catholic Initiatives at HRC, of Pope Francis. But much progress, Rivera says, is outstanding. “We ask for [the Catholic Church] to officially welcome us home. There are so many parishes in which that is already a reality. And there should be a way and a moment in which the bishops hear the body of the church and let us walk in with our heads held high.”
Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, stressed that that the sheer size of the LGBT Catholic community was reason enough to grant them entrance into mainstream Catholic life, saying, “Millions of Catholics are LGBT. Millions of LGBT folks are, in fact, Catholic. And that’s part of the message that was sent here today. These are LGBTQ Catholics who are here excited and welcoming this pope, and also respectfully advocating that [they] be welcomed and embraced with open arms.”
Two onlookers invited by HRC, Margie Winters and Andrea Vettori, were a reminder that the church’s relationship with LGBT people is still fraught. Winters was fired from her post as the director of religious education at the Catholic school Waldron Mercy Academy in Merion, Pennsylvania, after a parent complained about her marriage to Vettori. The pair says they’re grateful Francis appears to be “changing the conversation,” but they want to see concrete steps to embrace the LGBT community.
Over all, American Catholics approve of Pope Francis. A recent New York Times/CBS poll found that 53 percent of all Catholics “strongly approve” of the direction in which he’s leading the church. In a 2015 Pew Research poll, 57 percent of US Catholics said they support same-sex marriage.
Asked if he feels Pope Francis is bringing change to the Catholic Church, Dignity Washington member John Strickland, a 64-year-old Virginia resident and government IT specialist, says, “There’s a fresh wind blowing. I don’t know that it’s going to change everything, but the church is 2,000 years old, and it changes slowly.”