January 19, 2019 — Six young Roman Catholics are preparing for a journey to Panama, to attend the Vatican-sponsored World Youth Day 2019, where they will bring a message that the church must treat lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) people with respect and advocate for their welfare.
The pilgrims, ages 23 through 33, are sponsored by Equally Blessed, a coalition of three Catholic organizations (Call To Action, DignityUSA, and New Ways Ministry) that have collectively spent more than 120 years working on behalf of LGBTQI people and their families.
“I really enjoy walking with people attempting to discern how one can be both LGBTQI and Catholic when Catholic doctrine doesn’t always affirm this identity,” said Breanna Mekuly, 28, a pilgrim from Erie, Penn., and a member of the 20/30 group at Call To Action. “I’m really hoping I can use this passion and my gifts to talk with folks before, during, and after World Youth Day in creative and effective ways.”
Sponsored by the Vatican, World Youth Day is held every two to three years, and draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, ages 16-35, to the host city. Although focused primarily on worship and spirituality, it typically also includes sessions sponsored by organizations that oppose any advancement of civil rights for LGBTQI people. This year’s event takes place in Panama City, Panama, from January 22-27, 2019.
“As someone whose life revolves heavily around LGBTQI issues and topics, I have found that it is often difficult to navigate my genderqueer identity with my Catholic faith,” said Cooper Kidd, a 23 year old pilgrim who researches adolescent HIV treatments in Philadelphia and is a member of the Dignity Young Adult Caucus. “It is also challenging to explain why I choose to remain Catholic even as the church continues to work against queer folx.”
Other pilgrims include Melissa Barber, 33, a former religious education teacher in Indianapolis who was forced to quit her job when she proposed to her wife; Catherine Buck, 27, a New Jersey adjunct professor and writer for Bondings 2.0, the daily online publication of New Ways Ministry; Keith Hall, 31, a federal employee in Washington, D.C. who also co-chairs the Dignity Young Adult Caucus; and Evan Vaughan, 26, a two-time World Youth Day attendee from San Francisco who works in a support role for low-income middle school graduates.
“I look forward to the opportunity to further my call to service by taking an advocacy role for the queer Catholic community as a pilgrim with Equally Blessed,” said Vaughan. “Every time I travel, I have experiences that make me better and bring me closer to God. At World Youth Day, I have the opportunity to do that with the rest of the Catholic Church, which is beautiful because of the role the church plays in my identity.”
An estimated 3 million pilgrims participated in the last World Youth Day, held in Kraków, Poland, in 2016. The gathering in Panama could be just as large, as it draws pilgrims from both North and South America, as well as Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. “After meeting with young Catholics from all over America at the Dignity Young Adult Retreat, I am excited to be around Catholics from across the world,” Hall said.
This year’s pilgrims expect to engage in one-one conversations about issues of importance to young LGBTQI Catholics on the streets of Panama City, while also being a visible presence at World Youth Day events and challenging harmful teachings and pastoral practices that come up during catechetical sessions. “It is critical for the Equally Blessed pilgrims to be present and recognized at World Youth Day, as part of highlighting the huge number of LGBTQI youth and allies in the church,” added Buck. “This trip feels like a first step of many in my hopes for the church, and the ways I hope to be part of its transformation.”
Though the Roman Catholic hierarchy opposes marriage equality and expanded civil rights protections for LGBTQI people, most Catholics in western countries differ with their leaders. According to recent studies by the Pew Research Center and the Public Religion Research Institute, two-thirds of U.S. Catholics support same-sex marriage, and a majority of U.S. Catholics are opposed to so-called “religious freedom” laws that allow businesses and other public service providers to discriminate against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“I’m often asked why I stay Catholic when it would be so easy to abandon ship for an affirming church,” Barber commented. “I love my Catholic faith and I love my church, even when she hurts me. I believe that some people are called to stay and to work for change. I am going on this pilgrimage because I want to be a changemaker. I want to witness to the holiness of my life and the lives of other LGBTQI Catholics.”
Equally Blessed also sponsored pilgrims who traveled to World Youth Day in 2011 and 2013 and to the World Meeting of Families in 2015 and 2018. The coalition is currently seeking donations at equallyblessed.org/wyd to help defray the remaining costs for the 2019 pilgrimage.