Bergoglio effect: At World Meeting of Families, Homosexuality dominates talk.
By Peter Smith
PHILADELPHIA – About 1,000 people filled every seat in the conference room and stood several deep along the walls.
The session started a little late because of a room change, but it lasted nearly three times longer than its one-hour time slot Thursday afternoon. The crowd gradually dwindled but many people remained lined up at microphones to ask often agonized questions about homosexuality.
This was clearly not just another session at the World Meeting of Families, which has drawn about 17,500 people to the Pennsylvania Convention Center here. The triennial international gathering is the anchor for Pope Francis’ ongoing visit to the United States, and he will celebrate Mass here on Sunday as its closing event.
And as an official Catholic gathering, all of the speakers at the sessions are on board with church teaching about marriage between one man and one woman as the only moral setting for sexual activity, and for such marriage to be open to children, or avoiding artificial birth control.
But clearly the subject of homosexuality was on the minds of many in the year when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, something supported by many Catholics in opinion polls despite outspoken opposition from the Catholic hierarchy. And even though the conference was drawing a self-selecting group of people more inclined toward traditional church teachings, many in this room came to the microphone to speak of anguished conflicts over people in their own families coming out as gay, or friends tempted to suicide over rejection for their orientation.
The featured speakers included Ron Belgau of Washington state, who is openly gay but committed to living in celibacy out of fidelity to church teachings, and his mother, Beverley Belgau. They spoke on their experience of Mr. Belgau coming out as gay as a young man and her fears, which proved unfounded, that his father would reject him.
Mr. Belgau is one of the organizers of the blog Spiritual Friendship, a role he shares with the Rev. Wesley Hill, a professor at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge. They affirm that they are gay and speak out against homophobia, yet commit to celibacy. In the concept of deep spiritual friendships, they argue, such a life doesn’t need to be lonely.
The issue of homosexuality is crucial, Mr. Belgau said, as “one of the biggest points of conflict between the church and surrounding culture.”
He cited an online post he had seen from a 17-year-old gay Catholic. “The church has a lot to say about what I’m not supposed to do,” the youth wrote. “But … I couldn’t find any church document (about) what a gay person is supposed to do with his life. I feel abandoned by the church.”
He said the church teaches much about the beauty of marriage, but then tells its gay members they “can’t have this wonderful thing.”
“It often appears as no. No sex, no romance, no marriage. It seems like that means no love. Lifelong loneliness.”
But he said Pope Francis is changing the tenor of the conversation. The title of the Belgaus’ session, “Always consider the person,” comes from Francis’ own words about homosexuality in an interview. “God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation,” the pope said.
Mrs. Belgau echoed the sentiment.
“The problem isn’t that people don’t know what the church’s teaching is,” she said. “The problem is we haven’t done enough to help people live it.”
She said she has often heard cruel invectives against gay people in church settings, and cautioned that no matter what one believes about homosexuality, there are people in their families and parishes who are gay and they need to respond to them lovingly.
While some conservative Christians have criticized those in the celibate-gay movement for even affirming being gay as a positive part of their personality, such sentiment was not much in evidence here. The Belgaus’ comments were frequently applauded.
But some, including members of the group Equally Blessed, which supports the inclusion of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics including those in sexual relationships, disagreed that celibacy is the only option.
One speaker, Cindy Towle of New York State, said she has a sister and two nephews who are gay, as well as a transgender niece.
“We chose love, because we choose every other method in our family, and it caused only destruction,” she said.
Delfin Bautista of Athens, Ohio, agreed. He told the speakers that the church should bless his and his husband’s relationship.
“The struggle is with the rejection which is perpetuated by society and also the church,” against LGBT people, he said.
Mary Ellen Pellegrino of Greensburg, however, said Mr. Belgau did “an excellent job articulating the church position.”
She added: “He’s able to field a lot of questions from diametrically opposed views and do it with charity and comfort and sensitivity.”