The pews fill up quickly each Sunday at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, a Roman Catholic parish in Midtown Manhattan, with worshipers who travel from all corners of the city to attend what it markets as its gay-friendly 5 p.m. Mass.
A similar dynamic plays out each Sunday at a handful of other churches across New York City, including the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Midtown, the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on the Upper East Side and the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Chelsea, whose parishioners march in the Pride Parade each June.
“I had to set aside my sexuality when I was in Catholic communities, and it means a lot to not have to do that here,” said Kevin McCabe, 37, a theologian and teacher who travels each Sunday to St. Paul’s from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.
Gay-friendly parishes are something that many Catholics, and many L.G.B.T.Q. people, do not know exist. They are scattered in cities and large towns across the country, with roughly a dozen concentrated in New York City. Here, parishes have drawn worshipers from across the region by starting L.G.B.T.Q. ministries; organizing events like spiritual retreats, hikes and happy hours at local gay bars; celebrating Masses and other events during Pride Month; and by speaking up for the gay community.
When the Vatican issued a statement in March that said priests could not bless same-sex unions, which it derided as a form of sin, these parishes and a handful of others in Manhattan issued statements of dismay or used homilies during Mass as an opportunity to comfort L.G.B.T.Q. parishioners.
The weekend after the statement was released, a deacon at St. Francis Xavier asked the congregation to pray “for our L.G.B.T.Q. brothers and sisters, that the Holy Spirit will confirm them in the knowledge that their life partnerships are a blessing not only for them but for the community.”
The city’s most outwardly gay-friendly parishes are concentrated in Manhattan, a center of both gay culture and efforts to build a gay-friendly Catholicism. It is also the seat of the powerful Archdiocese of New York, which is led by the conservative Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan.
The archdiocese allows these parishes to operate in its jurisdiction, many under the day-to-day management of independent religious orders with a more liberal attitude. Differences between the archdiocese and the orders rarely emerge, but when they do — as with the Vatican statement and the parishes’ response — the two partners coexist without public controversy.
Father James Martin, a Jesuit writer and well-known proponent of outreach to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics, said liberal parishes like these had long played an important role as “safety valves” for the church by providing a space for Catholics who might chafe at its prevailing dogmas.
“They are places, as the saying goes, for people who are on their way into the church or who may be tempted to go on their way out of the church,” he said. “They can go to these parishes and feel at home.”
In his speeches, which have ballooned in number thanks to pandemic-era Zoom events, Father Martin often tells L.G.B.T.Q. audiences, “God loves you, and the church is learning.”
That is a message that L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics are eager to hear. Interviews with more than two dozen gay Catholics in New York revealed a powerful desire to reconcile their sexual identity with their faith in both God and an institution that has often approached them with hostility.
Christopher Browner, 26, sat with a group of gay men from Out at St. Paul, the L.G.B.T.Q. parish group in Columbus Circle, on a recent Sunday after 5 p.m. Mass.
Mr. Browner, who lives in Washington Heights and works at the Metropolitan Opera, said he discovered St. Paul’s because it was easy to attend Mass there during his lunch breaks on Holy Days of Obligation, religious feasts sprinkled throughout the year that tend to draw only the most devout.
One day he knelt in a confessional there and shared his inner struggle with a priest, who told him that “you have no sin in this, there is nothing to feel shame for,” he said. After that, he began taking communion for the first time in years.
“I think St. Paul’s probably accepts me right now more than I accept myself sometimes,” Mr. Browner said.
“Because the catechism of the church is so omnipresent, it is ingrained in us — or at least in me — that those are the rules,” he added. “I am still grappling with what the rule is versus what the message of St. Paul’s is. It is a process.”
Melinda Spataro, a member of the Catholic lesbian group at St. Francis Xavier, said the parish enabled her to live a full and authentic life. Her first date with the woman she married, also a parishioner, was a trip to a nearby cafe after Mass.
“If I had not found Xavier, I don’t think I would be Catholic,” Ms. Spataro said.
Stephanie Samoy, another member of the group, said the parish was “not just welcoming to gays and lesbians, they’re welcoming to women, they’re welcoming to minorities and people of color.”
Ms. Samoy said she had not been to Mass in 25 years before she found Xavier and was moved to tears during her first service there. “We really walk the walk of the Gospels,” she said.
Lesbian, gay and bisexual people are much less likely than heterosexuals to attend religious services, identify as a member of a religious group or believe that Scripture is the word of God, according to Pew Research Center survey data from 2014.
Almost 80 percent of people surveyed in that poll said they considered the Catholic Church to be “unfriendly” to the L.G.B.T.Q. community. Catholic teaching describes homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” and says that “under no circumstances can they be approved.”
In recent years, conservative Catholic hard-liners have blamed homosexuality for the clergy sex abuse scandal, falsely linking homosexuality and pedophilia, and further alienating L.G.B.T.Q. people and their supporters in the church.
It is against that backdrop that parishes like St. Paul’s and St. Francis Xavier endeavor to create a welcoming environment for L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics.
Father Kenneth Boller, the pastor at St. Francis Xavier, reassured parishioners in a homily this spring that the church was on a “journey” toward embracing “the dignity of all, regardless of gender, race or orientation.” He described the recent Vatican statement as “hurtful news.”
“Our church can be quite prophetic on some issues and complicitly silent on others,” he said from the pulpit. “We must stand against bias and hate crimes against any one of our sisters and brothers.”
These efforts to create a gay-friendly Catholicism highlight the careful path the Catholic Church and its clergy must walk in liberal places like New York, an important American religious center where churchgoers often look askance at the Vatican’s stances on sexuality.
Being administered day-to-day by more liberal, self-governing religious orders — including the Jesuits, the Paulist Fathers and the Franciscans — affords the parishes and their priests the freedom to do things like preach homilies that extol the dignity of gay people and the value of their relationships in a way that priests who work directly for the cardinal tend to avoid.
It also gives the archdiocese some distance from activities that traditionalists might oppose, like the Pride march participation of St. Francis Xavier, the gay happy hours organized by the Church of St. Paul the Apostle or the pre-Pride Mass held in June at St. Francis of Assisi in Midtown.
Indeed, while priests at those parishes were expressing dismay at the Vatican’s statement or reassuring L.G.B.T.Q. parishioners of God’s love for them, Cardinal Dolan was dismissive of the outcry. When asked about public criticism of the statement on his weekly podcast, the cardinal was curt.
“As if those folks pay a bit of attention to what the church is saying anyway,” he said.
“That goes back to the Book of Genesis,” he added. “That is pretty old, right? That is pretty traditional. It is hardly news that the Holy See would reaffirm the ancient revelation of God that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Neither Father Rick Walsh, of Church of St. Paul the Apostle, nor Father Boller consulted with Cardinal Dolan before they publicly pushed back on the Vatican statement. Father Walsh likened his parish and the archdiocese to two saints — Peter and Paul — who did not always see eye to eye.
“There will be times when church officials in New York will not like what I am doing,” said Father Walsh, a member of the Paulist Fathers. “But if they see the big picture they will see it has always been this way and there is a place for this. Paul and Peter argued.”
Carlos Rosada and Luis Suarez, a married couple from Queens, said that was a distinction they appreciated. They came to St. Paul’s because they wanted their son to see that his family had a place in the church his fathers had grown up in, Mr. Rosada said.
“We are here. We are not going anywhere,” Mr. Rosada said. “I am Catholic. This is where I belong.”