On Sundays, Catholics seeking love and acceptance meet for Mass at the Franciscan Center in North Tampa.
First held more than 25 years ago, the Mass welcomes members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to worship free from discrimination.
Priests from throughout Tampa Bay take turns presiding over the meetup, which includes the music and readings of a traditional Mass.
On Saturday, members will host their spring picnic at Phillipe Park.
I spoke to longtime attendee Ronald Motyka, board of directors member, about the Mass and what it means to LGBT Catholics in Hillsborough County.
Can you tell me when, why and by whom the LGBT Mass was founded?
I've been attending the Mass at the Franciscan Center since the early '80s. The worship began in the late '70s as Dignity, a gay Catholic group. Back then, Dignity was working for acceptance in the church. We were welcomed at the center just as we were. We didn't have to pretend to be what we weren't. We could worship with our partners, too, without funny looks.
Why is the Mass important to the community?
This Mass is important because we can experience a traditional Mass like we grew up with and be with the people who value us. Our celebrants are volunteering to say Mass for us because they believe in us as well. Their homilies are meaningful and their messages validate us. At the Franciscan Center, we have a place to form a community of friends and family.
How many attend?
Our attendance varies week to week. It has been running around 30.
What is your personal connection to the Mass? How has it impacted your life?
When I first started attending Mass at the Franciscan Center, I had stopped going to church because I had been hurt by some remarks from my parish priest and was looking for a place to worship where I was valued. The priest at the Franciscan Center, Father Richard Allen, told me that I was wondrously made and he helped me to feel I could be part of the church again. Going to Mass was a joy again. Our priest told funny stories and the back story to the Scriptures. Father Allen brought his dog to the center. He made a connection between the words of our faith to today's world and our lives as gay people. When he passed on, the bishop said in his eulogy that Father Allen's greatest joy was saying Mass for our community.
Who leads the Mass today?
Our Mass is led by sanctioned priests from our local area. Right now we have five who rotate each Sunday night service.
What is unique to the Mass? How is it similar to a church Mass?
Our Mass is like a traditional church Mass. We have a wonderful choir who provide uplifting music. We follow the same readings you would find at your local parish church. The same prayers. Our priest offers Communion and blessings. We are different in that our congregation is primarily LGBT. Some straight people attend as friends and family are always welcome.
Why do you think it is important to see gay marriage accepted within the Catholic church?
Change is usually hard in the church. However, remember, we the people are the church. And society's views are evolving. Each new poll seems to show more and more people are accepting of gay marriage. I personally am hopeful.
Do any transgender people attend the Mass? Why do you think so many people in the community face discrimination?
From time to time they have attended. Why do they face discrimination? People fear what they don't understand. Right now in the media there is more exposure to this misunderstood group. Think Bruce Jenner, Orange Is the New Black and RuPaul.
Do you think the Catholic faith is making strides toward greater acceptance?
Yes, our new pope is gaining new understanding. As he has said, "It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God." I believe Pope Francis also said, "Who am I to judge?" Our biggest challenge has been getting young people involved. Today more people feel welcome in their parish church. It is different than it was for me some 30 years earlier.
What is your reason for remaining in the faith?
I remain in the faith because it is how I was raised and it is what I believe in. It is what gives me strength.
What would you say to someone surprised by the idea of LGBT Catholics?
Many in the LGBT community are surprised to find out that we are a real Roman Catholic Mass celebrated by real priests. We need to work on getting the message out there. I'm hoping that this article will help.
For more information, visit gaycatholicstampabay.com. The LGBT Mass is celebratedd at 7 p.m. Sundays at the Franciscan Center, 3010 N Perry Ave.
Contact Sarah Whitman at email@example.com.