Twenty-five years ago, John Schaefer was a young gay man who led the singing on a momentous night at Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood.
The relatively new Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, spoke to an audience of gay and lesbian Catholics about the scourge that was racing through their community. He spoke of treating victims of HIV/AIDS with "dignity" and "respect" and called for the creation of outreach ministries to care for them and to foster "a spirit of community and fellowship among gay Catholics."
Those were not words gay Catholics were used to hearing.
"It was bold," Schaefer recalled Saturday night after singing at a Mass celebrating the 25th anniversary of the gay and lesbian ministry that Mahony established on Feb. 2, 1986. "I'm very grateful to Cardinal Mahony for doing that."
Much has changed in the intervening quarter century — and some things not at all.
Mahony is retired as archbishop. HIV infection is no longer an automatic death sentence. Society is far more tolerant of homosexuality. Same-sex marriage is legal in some states, a development that was scarcely imaginable in the mid-'80s. Some Christian denominations ordain clergy who live openly in same-sex relationships.
And the Catholic Church? Its position on homosexuality was clarified in October 1986 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Homosexuality, he wrote in a letter to bishops, is an "objective disorder," and "a person engaging in homosexual behavior … acts immorally."
That is still official church policy. Unlike some evangelical churches, however, the Catholic Church acknowledges that some people are intrinsically gay, and its policy is to welcome them as members of the community — with the understanding that they should remain celibate.
That puts the gay and lesbian ministry, overseen by Father Chris Ponnet of the St. Camillus Pastoral Center, in a rather difficult position.
"The church officially has spoken," Ponnet said in an interview. "This is what they articulate as truth, and we need to listen to that, and the gay and lesbian ministry honors that."
At the same time, he said, there is little theological difference between gay sex and heterosexual sex outside marriage. He prefers to focus on another teaching: "We are required to give dignity to each person, gays and lesbians included."
In the last 25 years, Ponnet said, the church in Los Angeles has become more accepting of gays and lesbians and, in some parishes, his ministry has faded away as members have been absorbed into regular parish life. Still, those at Saturday's Mass said the ministry was still needed, in part to educate the church, in part to show gay Catholics who have fallen away that they have a place to return.
Talk at the Mass wasn't so much of living up to church doctrine as changing it.
"I feel that the church might actually be going through a process of 'coming out,' " declared Father Brian Doran, a retired priest who spoke of himself as having come out as a gay man. In his homily, he described it as a long and difficult process, moving through stages of depression, anger, bargaining, acceptance and, finally, joy.
He said the Catholic Church is now in the bargaining stage, reflected in statements such as: "You can come to the church, but I don't want you to talk about being gay."
"And the acceptance part … it is coming," he said. "And the joy part — well, you know what? We may not live to see the joy part on the part of the church." He observed, however, that hundreds of Catholics are baptized every Sunday, and many of them will grow up to be gay.
"Twenty-five years from now, they will be standing up here, those little gay Catholic people, they will be standing up here and they, God willing, will be talking about the joy that they are experiencing and that we have worked and brought their way."