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Gay Catholics struggle to reconcile their faith

April 22, 1999

Catholic retreatBy BRENDAN KIRBY / Staff Writer

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer




For Washington County resident Jane Rooney, religion has been a jumble of contradictions.

"I grew up Catholic and I was born gay," she said.

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Like other gay Catholics, Rooney has struggled with her place in an institution that does not condone homosexual relationships. But she said she has been unable to turn her back on her religion.

It hasn't been a smooth ride. Rooney, 48, said there were periods when she did not attend church. She said she also tried other religions, but they didn't take.

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"I've always wanted to belong," she said. "Once you're Catholic, you're always Catholic. You just can't get it out of you."

Rooney said she is looking forward to a spiritual retreat for gay and lesbian Catholics planned for next month in Adamstown, Md.

The event, set for May 21-22, is sponsored by Outreach Ministry to Gay and Lesbian Catholics at St. Agnes Church in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Donna Acquaviva, an outspoken advocate for church reforms who helped found the ministry about a year ago, said the retreat will include presentations, dialogue, quiet time and socializing.

"It's a pretty basic retreat, not much different than any retreat," she said.

Acquaviva, who lives west of Inwood, W.Va., said she and her husband helped form Outreach Ministry because they wanted to reach out to gay and lesbian Catholics and educate others.

"So many gay and lesbian Catholics have been alienated by their church," she said. "It's like being raised by a mother who has abused you. You still love her, but you cut off contact."

Finding a place

After moving to Washington County from California about 3 1/2 years ago, Rooney said she attended a few Masses at other churches before discovering St. Agnes.

She said she sat quietly in the back row for several weeks until she met Acquaviva. Rooney said the Outreach Ministry has allowed her to feel comfortable in her church.

"I think the ministry really helped me reconcile myself with the church and feel Catholic again," she said.

It is possible for gays to find a home in the church - even if it is not always comfortable, according to those who promote reconciliation for gay Catholics.

"There's a lot more hopeful things going on in the church than people realize," said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which educates family members of gays and lesbians and other members of the church community.

The Mount Rainier, Md.-based organization, founded in 1977, has a mailing list of about 5,000 people and keeps a list of about 80 "gay-friendly" parishes throughout the nation that have some sort of outreach ministry to homosexuals.

Next month's retreat was inspired by a presentation DeBernardo made to the St. Agnes group, Acquaviva said. She said the group has sent 800 invitations; it needs at least 20 in order to reserve the retreat center.

To pull it off, Outreach Ministry will need to attract people like Martinsburg, W.Va., resident George Oliver.

Oliver, who teaches English and writing at the University of Maryland, said he is considering attending. But he said negative experiences with the church have left him with mixed feelings about his religion.

He recalled a particularly painful experience in college. Then a member of a Catholic student group, he said he confided his homosexuality to a priest and asked for advice about how to come out to a straight friend.

"He basically lumped me in with the drunkards and adulterers and child molesters," Oliver said.

Worse, Oliver said the priest went behind his back and outed him to the friend.

"He sort of represented the church's position at the time," he said.

Oliver, 52, said he dropped out of the student group after that. Although he continued to attend Mass for a time, his devotion to the church faded.

But after years without religion, Oliver said he began seeking spirituality.

"The only place I knew to look for it was the churches," he said. "I went back to what I was familiar with."

Internal struggles

The Catholic Church's views on sexuality are not only a source of confusion for gays and lesbians. Church leaders, too, have struggled to define homosexuals' place in the religion.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement last summer to clarify the church's position. In "Always Our Children," the bishops urge parents not to reject their children when they reveal they are gay.

They also urge priests to welcome gays and lesbians into their parishes.

"God does not love someone any less simply because he or she is homosexual. God's love is always and everywhere offered to those who are open to receiving it," according to the statement.

The Rev. T. Mathew Rowgh, pastor at St. Agnes, said the parish has used that statement as the framework for its outreach efforts.

"You're welcome here at St. Agnes and we want you to be a part of our community," he said.

Church doctrine does not consider it sinful to be homosexual. But it does forbid intimate relationships between people of the same sex.

" it is God's plan that sexual intercourse occur only within marriage between a man and a woman," according to "Always Our Children."

Some priests contend that means that the church has a right to expect celibacy from homosexual members, even as they welcome them.

"I don't think the person can expect the church, in any moral matter, to change that moral stand," said the Rev. Alfred E. Smith, pastor of St. Augustine Church in Williamsport.

For some, that's not enough.

Acquaviva said she understands those who have given up on the church. As a woman, she has often considered doing the same, she said.

But she said she concluded that the only way an institution can be reformed is from within.

"The church moves very slowly. But it does move," Rowgh said.

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