In late July 2021, I attended Mass at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Santa Clara, California, with my teenage family members. I literally and figuratively grew up at that church as my mom worked as a secretary there for twenty-three years before retiring in 2010. I spent a lot of time there and had a great relationship with many of the priests and parish employees. I was married by one of their priests at a chapel nearby, and all four of my children were baptized there. For decades the church has been an anomaly in the San Francisco Bay Area — offering multiple Masses throughout the day and confession with every Mass. On that July day, we waited in the 45-minute line for confession. What happened afterwards still impacts me today and has increased my concerns about the treatment of young LGBTQ+ people by the Catholic Church in the United States.
Covid restrictions were still in place at the church at the time, so confessions were heard outside in the parking lot, face-to-face with the priests. Loudspeakers projected the Mass throughout the church grounds, allowing people sitting outside or waiting in line for confession to follow along with it. I remember that the priest preached in his homily that frequenting the sacraments as often as possible and receiving the Eucharist are sometimes the only way people overcome persistent sin. I was very happy to hear that message because my teenage family member, who had become increasingly distant from his faith had decided to return to Mass and confession after being in a serious car accident the month before.
He looked upset, however, after his confession. He then told me the priest said he would not absolve him from his sins. I asked if he had expressed contrition for his sins. He said, yes, of course, but the priest told him that he was not sincere enough.
This upset me so much that when I got home I burst into tears. I am a life-long Catholic and I have never been denied absolution. To experience second-hand the hurt and shame it caused broke my heart. On Monday morning, I emailed the pastor. He responded a week later with no remorse and merely suggested my young family member see a different confessor. I also made a complaint to Bishop Oscar Cantu. He spoke with me about my concerns and said he would speak with both the confessor and the pastor at Our Lady of Peace to discuss the seriousness of refusing absolution, especially for young people, and that it should rarely — if ever — happen.
Almost two years later, my worst fears have come to pass. My young family member no longer goes to confession and, subsequently, does not receive the Eucharist when he attends Mass. I fear that the actions of that priest may have permanently turned a young soul away from the sacraments.
In March 2022, Pope Francis addressed participants in the 32nd Course on the Internal Forum, an event organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary, and stressed to confessors the importance of being welcoming and having pastoral charity towards penitents in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He told them that they must avoid curiosity and not probe penitents for unnecessary details, saying, “Please! You are not a torturer, you are a loving father. Curiosity is of the devil.” He even went as far as to say, “Forgiveness is a right.” He explained:
God, in the Paschal Mystery of Christ, has given it in a total and irreversible way to every person willing to accept it, with a humble and repentant heart… By generously dispensing God’s forgiveness, we confessors cooperate in healing people and the world; we cooperate in bringing about that love and peace for which every human heart yearns so intensely; we contribute, if I may say so, to a spiritual ‘ecology’ of the world.
The personal experience of a young family member being denied a sacrament has led me to broader concerns about policies that are being instituted in the US Church policies that will drive even more young people away from the faith — specifically young Catholics who identify as LGBTQ+.
For example, according to a January article from Catholic News Agency, “the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, has banned the use of puberty-blocking drugs, transgender pronouns, and the use of bathrooms opposite of one’s biological sex.” Last year, the Denver Archdiocese issued a 17-page document establishing guidelines on the handling of matters related to sexuality and gender identity. Among other policies, it states that transgender students should not be admitted to its Catholic schools:
A Catholic school cannot affirm a student’s identity as transgender, gender nonconforming, non-binary, gender-fluid, gender-queer, or any other term that rejects the reality of the student’s given male or female sexual identity; any asserted identity that rejects the reality of biological sex is incompatible with Christian anthropology.
One of the signature passages from the New Testament is Jesus’ command, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14). Regardless of the Catholic Church’s stance on gender identity, no child, teenager, or young adult should be barred from receiving a Catholic education or partaking in the sacraments and life of the Church.
Pope Francis has set an example of how to honor Catholic teaching on gender identity while welcoming and accepting people who identify as transgender. When he took questions from the press on his return flight from Azerbaijan to Rome in October 2016, Joshua McElwee asked how the pope would accompany people who feel that their physical makeup does not correspond to their sexual identity. Francis answered that he had accompanied many people with “homosexual tendencies and also homosexual activity,” and that his accompaniment had brought them closer to the Lord. He insisted that we should never abandon them. He also told a story, one that reminds me of the way Jesus often taught with parables, such as the story of the Good Samaritan:
Last year I received a letter from a Spanish man who told me his story from the time when he was a child. He was born a female, a girl, and he suffered greatly because he felt that he was a boy but physically was a girl. He told his mother, when he was in his twenties, at 22, that he wanted to have an operation and so forth. His mother asked him not to do so as long as she was alive. She was elderly, and died soon after. He had the operation. He is a municipal employee in a town in Spain. He went to the bishop. The bishop helped him a great deal, he is a good bishop and he “wasted” time to accompany this man. Then he got married. He changed his civil identity, he got married and he wrote me a letter saying that it would bring comfort to him to come see and me with his bride: he, who had been she, but is he. I received them. They were pleased. And in the neighborhood where he lived there was an elderly priest, over 80 years old, the former parish priest who assisted the nuns, there, in the parish… Then a new [parish priest] came. When the new priest would see him, he would yell at him from the sidewalk: “You’’ll go to hell!” When he went to the old priest, the old priest said to him: “How long has it been since you made your confession? Come now, I will hear your confession so you can receive Communion.”
Through that story, I can almost hear Jesus’ question after telling the parable of the Good Samaritan: Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? Which priest acted like the true shepherd?
Did the priest have the authority to deny absolution to my family member? Yes. Do Catholic dioceses have the authority to ban transgender students? Probably. But that doesn’t make it right in either situation. The real question is, who would Jesus deny absolution to? Which transgender student would Jesus turn away and say they could not be a part of his community and learn from his teachings?
The Catholic Church does not need protecting. Jesus promised the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. However, people at the margins of American society — those who are LGBTQ+, single parents, those who are divorced, Black Catholics, migrants, low-income Americans — apparently need to be protected from a US Church more concerned with waging culture wars than inviting and welcoming all people, from all walks of life, into the fold.
After all this time, I’m still furious at the priest who denied my family member absolution. Although it’s entirely possible that he has never given a second thought to what he did that day, his callous decision towards my family member may have effects that could last into eternity. Even still, I know I must offer the priest the one thing he denied my family member: forgiveness.
Image: Adobe Stock. By New Africa.
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Alessandra Harris is a writer, author, wife, and mother of four. She earned degrees in comparative religious studies and Middle East studies. Her fourth book, In the Shadow of Freedom: A Catholic Call for Justice, is forthcoming from Orbis Books in fall 2023.