LINCOLN PARK — When Katherine Abel held the first meeting of Affirmed, a ministry based at St. Clement Parish in Lincoln Park that welcomed LGBTQ Catholics, she expected maybe a dozen people to show up .
To Abel’s surprise, more than 40 Catholics from the Chicago and Indiana area showed up for a reading focused on building bridges between Catholicism and the LGBTQ community.
“We had someone coming from northwest Indiana, so he was driving two hours,” Abel said. “But it was something he didn’t have in his area, and he needed it so badly that it was worth it for him once a month to come and join us in person.”
Abel, who is a direct ally, co-founded Affirmed in 2019 in hopes that she could create a space where her sister, who is queer, would feel safe. She was not afraid to approach her pastor to form the group; St. Clement’s had a history of caring for members of the LGBTQ community, and Abel knew members of the church who identified as gay.
The group gathered with members from other nearby parishes, including St. Vincent de Paul and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, for the Affirmed meeting.
“I wanted to make it very clear and explicit: … We accept here, we are inclusive and we have a space for you if you are interested,” said Abel, 38.
After the first meeting, the members decided to create Affirmed as a reading and faith-sharing opportunity, whether as a Bible study or a book club. Senior members also began volunteering with homeless youth, many of whom identified as LGBTQ.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, members of Affirmed paused their in-person ministry but continued the book club. The tradition has become a beacon not only for gay Catholics, but also for those seeking a sense of normalcy during COVID, members said.
“It was the presence of the book club, which was just something that always happens every week at the same time, that gave me a sense of stability,” said member Hyunmin Park. “Especially during the pandemic when everyone was so scared and confused, it was an online space that we could all go to and somehow people were really determined to come to this group. “
Going to church was a big part of Park’s childhood in South Korea, where queer communities still face discrimination and lack of protections. She didn’t go to mass for a while after becoming bisexual in her mid-twenties, but she was looking for ways to get back when she found out about St. Clement.
“I knew there were Catholic churches that were LGBT affirming, but I wasn’t sure how to say it,” Park said. “I felt like every time I went to a Catholic church there was always a chance I would hear something that would make me feel unwanted. Second, I just didn’t want to put myself at that kind of emotional risk.
Park struggles with what the Catholic Church says about his sexuality and believes the institution has harmed gay people. Yet she also said affirming LGBTQ communities is central to Christian teachings to love your neighbors, and she believes the church is moving in a positive direction.
Ryan Zieman saw signs of that progress when he watched Old St. Patrick’s Church pastor Father Tom Hurley give the blessing at Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s inauguration, he said. .
“I’m like, well, if he’s doing this for our new queer mayor, they must be a really open-minded Catholic parish,” Zieman said.
After researching LGBT-friendly parishes, Zieman discovered Affirmed and attended one of its first meetings in the fall of 2019. He was in his late twenties; before that, had never met or really heard of other young gay Catholics, he said. Like Park, he has stayed with the church because he feels its traditions, Mass order and history provide him with a source of stability in a chaotic world, he said.
“I will never be a Catholic for all these reasons. I could join another… sect of Christianity that is more like “rah, rah, rainbows and unicorns, come out gay”, but that’s not who I am and that’s not why I have the faith that I have,” Zieman said. “I try to do my small part to advance the church and at the very least be part of an open and welcoming space for queer Catholics or even just to let people know we exist.”
Affirmed is not the premier ministry for gay Catholics in Chicago.
In 1988, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin created the Archdiocese Gay and Lesbian Outreach. Bernardin was a pragmatic centrist who found common ground within the Church hierarchy on gay issues, said Michael O’Loughlin, author of “Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear”. At the time, adopting a more conciliatory tone with the LGBTQ community and starting a group was a once-in-a-lifetime decision for a cardinal.
Bernardin has been unwavering in his support of Chicago’s gay community, especially during the AIDS crisis, said Joe Vitek, director of community outreach at Archdiocese Gay and Lesbian Outreach.
But the archbishop’s relationship with homosexuals was more complex. In 1986, he opposed a proposed ordinance in Chicago banning discrimination against homosexuals. The following year, he supported the decision of five local parishes to administer communal rites to people with AIDS. The cardinal also called on Catholics to “open their doors and their hearts to those affected in any way by AIDS, as well as to their friends and family.”
For some gay Catholics, Bernardin’s words of comfort rang hollow. Rick Garcia, then executive director of the Catholic Advocate for Lesbian and Gay Rights, wrote in a 1987 Tribune editorial that the archdiocese had failed to provide meaningful outreach to those who were suffering.
“While other Catholic dioceses have funded direct services for people with AIDS, opened hospices and taken on leadership roles in AIDS education, the Archdiocese of Chicago has done next to nothing,” said wrote Garcia.
St. Clement parishioners took action. Its location not far from Boystown put it at the epicenter of the outbreak. The parish already served sick people who couldn’t leave their homes and adapted those services for HIV and AIDS patients, O’Loughlin said.
“What might have been unique about St. Clement and some other parishes across the country was that they were willing to engage in ministry with such a marginalized community and the subject of homosexuality was so taboo in the church,” he said. “It took a lot of courage.”
Saint-Clément’s services were simple. AIDS made patients sick to the point that they became confined to their homes. Cut off from friends and family, parishioners shopped for groceries, cooked meals and cleaned their homes for them, O’Loughlin said. The volunteer visits also provided respite from the loneliness inflicted by the social stigma that accompanied AIDS at the time.
“You had groups in Catholic parishes like St Clement who would just listen to these issues, engage in conversations about them, provide some kind of pastoral care, maybe send a priest who you knew wouldn’t be judgmental and would be present,” O’ Loughlin said. “These kinds of things, they seem a bit mundane, but they were vital, especially in the early years before pharmaceutical treatments improved.”
The church has also become a haven for people mourning loved ones lost to AIDS. In “Hidden Mercy,” O’Loughlin describes the AIDS Pastoral Care Network’s candlelight vigil that takes place every Memorial Day weekend. Beginning in 1986, the vigil would begin in St. Clement’s and moderate walkers would pass through Boystown. Catholics, leatherworkers and an African-American Catholic children’s choir sang, wept and prayed during an interfaith service held inside the ornate Byzantine church.
Whether St. Clement is today an exception in his attitude on LGBTQ issues or a leader in a progressive liberalization of the church is a difficult question, even for queer Catholics in Affirmed. For every progressive parish like St. Clement’s or Old St. Patricks, there are more conservative churches.
“There will always be these little internal struggles and movements, but this thing has been around for 2,000 years and, God willing, it will continue,” said Affirmed member Marty Malone. “There’s been a good movement right now over the past twelve years with the LGBT community, but it’s still so small in scale… That said, I’m still very positive about the outlook.”
While there may be hints of change from Pope Francis, senior member Brian Christ has not seen enough evidence of progress at the organizational level.
“I think individually people feel very welcome. They feel part of their individual parishes and communities,” Christ said. “Maybe that’s where the change will come from.”
For Affirmed members like Park, it’s the people they meet through ministry groups that bring them back to the church, not the message from Pope Francis, who she says should take a tougher stance and more assertive on LGBTQ issues. Although not all Catholic communities welcome her full identity, she is grateful to have found Affirmed.
“For a long time, I felt like I couldn’t exist in both spaces at the same time, or that I couldn’t maintain both identities at the same time, being Catholic and being queer,” Park said. “And it was just a matter of finding the right group of people. … So I just want to say that for the sake of other people who feel isolated and feel like they can’t maintain both identities, just that it is possible. You just have to find other friends who look like you.
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