With a message of humility, faith in times of suffering and God's unconditional love, a bishop with the Archdiocese of Baltimore celebrated Mass yesterday at a service devoted to gay and lesbian Catholics.
"As bishop, being here this afternoon in this community, I do so with genuine affection and gentleness to you," Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, the eastern vicar, told those gathered at St. Bernadette Roman Catholic Church in Severn, a parish that has had a thriving gay and lesbian ministry since 1997.
Reflecting on Scripture readings about the Apostle Paul's admiration for the Thessalonians as "faithful people who embraced the cross at a time of suffering," the bishop added, "In our own time, you know the struggle, some of you, of being gay and lesbian."
The service - the second in five years sponsored by Baltimore's Archdiocesan Ministry with Gay and Lesbian Catholics and offered by St. Bernadette's - attracted same-sex couples, single gay men and women, and parents of gay children, as well as churchgoers hoping to send a message to Catholic leaders with their presence at such a Mass.
Attendees traveled from Pennsylvania, Virginia, the District of Columbia and across Maryland for the religious service - and, more important, they said, an inclusive welcome that is not available to them at many Catholic parishes.
"It gives me hope," said Ed Smith, 53, of Glen Burnie. "It says to me that we can be who and what we are intended to be and that people will accept it. That our religion will accept it and let us be Christians. It tells me that someone has been reading the Bible and learning that Jesus loves everybody."
Deacon Paul A. Weber, director of the archdiocese's gay and lesbian ministry, acknowledged in an interview after the service that the Catholic Church's teachings on homosexuality are "difficult."
"It's our belief that people with same-sex orientation are, in and of themselves, just like everyone else and that we must treat them with the respect and dignity that any other person deserves and has a right to," he said.
But the church draws a distinction between homosexuality - a same-sex attraction or orientation, he said - and homosexual behavior. That, he said, "has nothing to do with orientation. It's what they do with it."
As such, the church does not condone same-sex relationships, Weber said, adding that some Catholics similarly struggle with church teachings that men and women ought not to live with each other before getting married.
Those who attended the Mass said they were encouraged by what they saw as the church's steps - however small - toward progress.
"I don't think of the church as having changed its position. I think it's clarified its position," said Vicki Darnes-Brooke, 44, of Upper Marlboro, who attended with her partner of 19 years. "I think we still have a ways to go. But I think it's great."
With a rousing opening hymn titled "All Are Welcome" and a psalm that celebrated a kind and merciful Lord, the mood of the Mass was clear.
Rozanski wove into his sermon mentions of those who live "on the margins, stifled or ignored." He spoke of breaking down walls, both in this lifetime and in preparation for a spiritual eternity free from all walls. And he said the church brings together people who "strive for that perfect humility" while realizing that "there's Pharisee in each one of us."
Joey Causin, 34, drove from Hagerstown with his partner of two years for the Mass.
"I came to feel validated, that we are acceptable," he said. "I mean, I know that. But it helps to see it objectively." Hearing from such a high-ranking church official of unconditional love - "that we are here to love and be loved, that it's not for us to judge" - was a welcome surprise, Causin said.
"Part of my soul needs that," he said. "It's the reason I go to church. It's food for the soul."
Joe and Kathleen Anders, both 70 and living in Lancaster, Pa., traveled about four hours, round-trip, to attend the Mass in support of their two gay sons.
"It's important that we can stand up within our church for inclusiveness, which should be part of any church," said Joe Anders, who serves as a deacon at his home parish. "The institution is intended to serve and not be served."
Asked whether he was surprised that the Mass was sponsored by the archdiocese, Joe Anders smiled. After a brief pause, he responded, "You can never get too surprised when you see the hand of God at work."