Awaiting Pope Francis' visit, LGBT Catholics and supporters in U.S. are hopeful

It was supposed to be a double celebration — regular Mass at St. Agatha Catholic Church in West Adams and Rosa Manriquez's 63rd birthday. Her oldest daughter was coming, and she couldn't have been happier.

Manriquez, a cradle Catholic, is a lector at the nearly century-old parish west of downtown Los Angeles, which means she stands up on Sunday and reads the Scripture. She also reads prayer requests from congregation members, petitions on behalf of, say, a sick friend or the soul of a dead loved one.

As Manriquez sifted through the requests that day, one stopped her cold — that the congregation pray in support of religious liberty just as the issue was coming to a head in Kentucky, where Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis will not issue marriage licenses because she believes same-sex unions are against God's will, a matter of "heaven or hell."

"I called the celebrating priest over, and I told him, 'I have a problem,'" Manriquez recounted. "He said, 'Let's change the wording.'"

They did, crafting a request to pray for everyone's religious liberty. "As we were doing it," Manriquez said, "my daughter, her wife and the baby came into the church. And I saw them."

It was Aug. 30, three weeks before Manriquez would head to Philadelphia to see Pope Francis, and suddenly her mission seemed all the more critical: to show the pontiff and the million people expected there that families like hers are just as blessed as anyone else's.

Both of Manriquez's daughters are lesbians; both are married; both have children who were baptized in the church; both, she said, "were loved before they were even imagined."

But this is a church whose official teaching says being gay is "intrinsically disordered." A church that threw its time and money into the fight against same-sex marriage. That in some parishes denies Communion — the faith's central sacrament — to non-celibate gays, lesbians and transgender people.

It also is a church that many hope could be nearing a transition point, tipping toward welcome. Francis has condemned same-sex marriage, but he told reporters after his first foreign trip that, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?"

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The Roman Catholic Church, like other mainstream denominations, has softened some of its most conservative stances in recent years, and Francis has accelerated that process, enough so that many American Catholics believe that he is more socially liberal than reality. Among Catholics who favor same-sex marriage, 49% believe that the pope agrees with them, according to a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute.

He doesn't.

In recent weeks, Francis has given all priests the authority to forgive women "the sin of abortion" when the Vatican's "Year of Mercy" begins in December. On Tuesday, he announced a new process to make it cheaper, easier and faster for Catholics to obtain marriage annulments.

But don't expect to see same-sex weddings on Catholic Church property, said Father Thomas Reese, senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. "That's simply not going to happen. But he's calling for a very different attitude for gays and lesbians, LGBT people. He sees them as our brothers and sisters, as part of our family.... He wants the church to be more open and welcoming."

In many ways, Francis is simply catching up to the women and men who fill the pews in U.S. Catholic churches. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, fewer than half of all Catholics in this country believe that "homosexual behavior" is a sin, and they are evenly split — 46% to 46% — on whether their church should recognize the marriages of lesbian and gay couples.

Still, when Manriquez saw her family walk into St. Agatha that recent Sunday, she said, "every one of those mean-hearted pronouncements that my brother popes and bishops said out of ignorance and sometimes fear came back to me."

"It was really hard to read from the pulpit," she said. "I started crying. It's not just the pain, it's the anger.... The fact that my brothers and sisters in the church would rather join hands with Kim Davis than my children — that hurts."

A coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics and their supporters wrote to the pope in June, asking him to meet with the LGBT faithful and their families while he is in the U.S. from Sept. 22 to 27.

The umbrella group is called Equally Blessed, and it is sending a dozen families on a "pilgrimage" to Philadelphia for Francis' World Meeting of Families. Manriquez is among the pilgrims — so is a couple from Boston, Marianne and Becky Duddy-Burke and their daughters, Emily, 13, and Fini, 12.

Marianne Duddy-Burke is executive director of DignityUSA, which advocates for LGBT Catholics. She will be in Philadelphia in her official capacity but also as a "married, lesbian, Catholic mom." Her story, she said, is one that Francis needs to hear.

When she and her spouse tried to adopt a child from Latin America in late 2001, they found out that "at the time there was no country in the world where we could have adopted without one of us pretending we were a single parent," Duddy-Burke said. "The sense is that gay and lesbian people aren't morally fit to be parents."

So they turned to the U.S. foster care system. The largest adoption agency in their home state of Massachusetts at the time was Catholic Charities. When she called to start the adoption process, Duddy-Burke said, she was told children could not be placed with same-sex couples.

With more than 100,000 children nationwide waiting to be adopted, that posture "says to me that the church officials would rather hold on to outdated, prejudiced images of LGBT people rather than considering what's good for kids," she said. "That's tragic."

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Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis on March 13, 2013. Since that time, he has worked to turn the church's focus away from hot-button issues such as abortion and homosexuality and toward matters such as poverty and climate change.

His focus on the poor and marginalized makes Duddy-Burke "somewhat hopeful" that the church she loves and was raised in might someday be more openhearted. But she also knows that change in the ancient institution will be slow, if it happens at all.

If she could sit down with Pope No. 266, this is what she would tell him:

"What I would say is that church teaching and pastoral practice are hurting a lot of people in the church, and it's causing a real crisis. Catholic families have LGBT members. It's really hard to have to think that their faith rejects them or that it requires them to reject someone they love who is LGBT."

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray also has seen both warmth and chill emanating from the church that shaped him. Murray was invited to the Vatican in July along with dozens of mayors and California Gov. Jerry Brown for a conference on climate change and human trafficking.

Before accepting the invitation, Murray said, his office called Rome because "we wanted to be sure the Vatican knew who they were inviting." The first married gay man to be elected mayor of a major American city.

During the conference, "I did speak about LGBT issues. One person in the Vatican turned to me and said, 'That term hasn't been used here before,'" Murray recounted. "I admire Pope Francis tremendously. I was struck by his warmth and authenticity. His challenge to the church to be a church that lives with those on the margins is very radical."

The 60-year-old Irish Catholic became an altar boy in 1962, the last year Mass was celebrated in Latin. Murray calls himself "a practicing Catholic who believes in my faith." He is a regular at several parishes in his leafy, liberal city and calls priests here lifelong friends.

But when it came time to marry Michael Shiosaki, his partner of 22 years, Murray turned to St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral for a church ceremony in 2013. Priests he knew his whole life were not allowed to attend his wedding or the nuptials of any other same-sex couple.

One priest friend who has since died sent him a text before the ceremony: "I want to go to your wedding, but I want to die a priest. I hope you understand."

maria.laganga@latimes.com

Twitter: @marialaganga

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