Father Brian Kelly (c.) listens to a group breakout session during the LGBTQ+ Synod Listening Session at St. Ambrose Church in Latham on June 2. (Emily Benson photo)
Father Brian Kelly (c.) listens to a group breakout session during the LGBTQ+ Synod Listening Session at St. Ambrose Church in Latham on June 2. (Emily Benson photo)

A projector inside the parish of St. Ambrose Church in Latham shined a poster on the back walls of the altar. The poster — depicting a gorgeous sunset shot of the Latham parish with hazy pinks, blues and yellows — also advertised a historic first for the Albany Diocese: a Synod Listening Session to discuss questions and hear stories about the LGBTQ+ community and the Catholic Church. 

The gathering drew over 30 attendees on Thursday, June 2, to the St. Ambrose parish hall. Attendance drew support from across the board, from allied Catholics there to hear others’ stories, to Catholics who are a part of the LGBTQ community, to concerned friends and family who have seen loved ones leave the Church due to its stance on LGBTQ marriages and partnerships.

“I attended the session as an ally of people in the LGBTQ community,” said Tim Wiles, a parishioner at Christ the King in Westmere. “I do have friends and extended family members who are in that community.”

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, who spoke at the listening session, expressed gratitude to everyone who attended to either share their story or hear others speak.

“We have to walk the walk, not talk the talk,” the Bishop said, “and I’m very grateful to Pope Francis for opening up the floor to doing Church in this way.”

After an opening service, the room was divided into small groups for discussion. Just like in previous diocesan synod sessions, one representative from each table took notes to be collected and compiled by the Diocesan Synod Committee for a report that will be sent to the Vatican. This time, individuals shared stories surrounding their struggles, hopes and dreams for the LGBTQ community within the Church.

A few members in attendance came from Kieran’s Light Ministry, a LGBTQ+ Catholic outreach group at St. Ambrose. Members could be seen sporting the group’s white T-shirts with a rainbow heart and a black candle across the middle.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined an event like this would happen,” said Robyn Spateholts, co-founder of Kieran’s Light and Father Brian Kelly’s assistant at St. Ambrose. “In my work through Kieran’s Light, I have heard so many stories of faithful Catholics that are just struggling to reconcile their faith and their LGBTQ+ identity. It can be a lonely road. Events like this send the message that we’re cared for, that we’re seen, and that our presence in the Church matters.”

Father Kelly, pastor of St. Ambrose, hopped to various tables during small group discussions to hear everyone’s stories. In an email to The Evangelist, he said he was “in awe” of the turnout.

“Each table conversation report was one that gave me hope for a larger Church looking and eagerly longing to reach out to this community that is our family members and friends,” he said. “I pray that from this, we will continue to strive to truly love our neighbor as Christ taught us by inviting, walking with and welcoming all who feel left out.”

Many friends and family of loved ones shared their stories: One grandmother attended after having a falling out with her grandchild, who identifies as non-binary, and wanted to understand how to repair that relationship while keeping her faith. Another family member shared walking out of a Mass after hearing a homily that spoke negatively of transgender and gay people.

“I think the entire synod is an extraordinary moment in Church history,” Wiles said. “I started by noting that such sessions might be the first events in the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church designed to get feedback from LGBTQ Catholics. I also noted that our table included supporters like myself, gay people, transgender people, and parents of LGBTQ children.”

LGBTQ Catholics shared stories of churches and priests that made them feel welcome and included, and others that made them feel alone. A spectrum of stories, from ones of uncertainty to ones of support and hope, circled the room.

Like in previous synod discussions, attendees expressed concern that young people don’t feel connected to the Church, partially due to the Church’s stance on LGBTQ matters. Still, there is hope that these discussions will help to bridge the divide and give space for Catholics to journey together and find a way toward a more welcoming and fruitful Church.

Added Spateholts: “I hope that in the future more events like this can happen. We just want to feel welcomed and at home in our church communities.”