After R.I. bishop’s tweet outrages LGBTQ community, a priest pleads with faithful not to leave the church
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PROVIDENCE — A weekend tweet by Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin warning his congregants not to support or attend LGBTQ Pride Month events prompted a national outcry and protests on Sunday in this city with a deep, if divided, Catholic tradition.
The reverberations reached into the morning services at St. Raymond’s Roman Catholic Church, where attendees, including Governor Gina Raimondo, passed beneath a wooden sign that reads “All Are Welcome In This Place.’’
There, the Rev. Edward L. Pieroni openly expressed his worry that the latest controversy would push gays and lesbians away from a church already riven with divisions over abortion, clergy sex abuse, and same-sex relationships.
“My concern is that for people who are lesbian or gay — same-sex attraction — that they may leave the church. A lot of people have hung in there, but it’s like, ‘One more slap and we are done.’ I am here to beg you — and I will get on my hands and knees and beg you — not to leave,” Pieroni told the congregation.
The pastor’s impassioned plea underscored the extent of the reaction to Tobin’s tweet a day earlier, a backlash that reached beyond the borders of the smallest state.
The controversy started Saturday, when the bishop tweeted:
“A reminder that Catholics should not support or attend LGBTQ ‘Pride Month’ events held in June. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals. They are especially harmful for children.”
The tweet sparked an immediate response on Twitter. By 3 p.m. Sunday, it had elicited 69,000 replies and 16,000 “likes.”
By Sunday afternoon, after statements of support for the LGBTQ community from the governor and mayor and rebukes from entertainment figures, and with plans underway for a protest in Providence, Tobin issued a statement.
“I regret that my comments yesterday about Pride Month have turned out to be so controversial in our community, and offensive to some, especially the gay community. That certainly was not my intention, but I understand why a good number of individuals have taken offense. I also acknowledge and appreciate the widespread support I have received on this matter,” he said. “The Catholic Church has respect and love for members of the gay community, as do I. Individuals with same-sex attraction are beloved children of God and our brothers and sisters.”
He added, “As the gay community gathers for a rally this evening, I hope that the event will be a safe, positive and productive experience for all. As they gather I will be praying for a rebirth of mutual understanding and respect in our very diverse community.”
Providence, like many other cities across the country, is marking Pride Month in June.
Banners are up in the downtown, and a parade and festival is scheduled for later this month.
Sunday evening, protesters gathered outside the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. As the bells called the faithful to Mass, Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” played on a speaker amid waving rainbow flags at the rally.
While about 150 people attended Mass inside the cathedral, nearly double the crowd was outside, carrying signs, waving rainbow flags, and chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, hate has got to go.”
Michael and Billy Reis, who just celebrated their 26th anniversary, were joined outside by their “church family,” members of the Beneficent Congregational Church in Providence.
Michael Reis said Bishop Tobin’s tweet does not represent Rhode Island. “I know a lot of gay and lesbian people paved the way for me and my husband to walk down the street together and not be afraid,” he said. “And we’re proud Providence is a community.”
Rally participants held signs reading “Queens Outrank Bishops” and “Not Our Bishop, Resign!”
Deborah Valleta, 67, held a sign reading “Judge not that you not be judged.”
“As a lesbian, God made me the way I am, and I don’t think the church understands that,” said Valleta, of Cranston. “The church thinks it’s a choice.”
Earlier in the day, Raimondo offered support to the LGBTQ community.
“I stand with the community,’’ she said in a statement to the Globe, adding she was “committed to ensuring that Rhode Island remains a place where people from all walks of life are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.”
Asked about the Sunday sermon, Raimondo said, “It was encouraging to hear Rev. Pieroni focus on such an uplifting message of love, unity, and inclusion.”
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza also issued a statement of support.
Meanwhile, entertainment figures weighed in against Tobin’s earlier remarks.
Actress Mia Farrow tweeted: “This is pure ignorance & bigotry. Ignore this hate-filled hypocrite.’’
Actress Patricia Arquette, also on Twitter: “Shame on you. LGBT kids are thrown out on the streets and abandoned because of poisonous thinking like yours.”
And tennis star Martina Navratilova: “A reminder that Catholic clergy has been a lot more dangerous to kids than LGBT. Just so you don’t forget.”
The Rev. Richard Heilman, who has a website called RomanCatholicMan.com, by contrast, offered words of support, saying that Tobin has the “courageous heart’’ of the early followers of Christ.
A Twitter account called “This Catholic Thing” tweeted: “Thank you Bishop for this reminder.”
The leader of a Rhode Island gay rights group said Saturday night that the group was insulted by the bishop’s tweet.
“We woke up this morning and we saw the bishop’s tweet and were honestly flabbergasted,” said Joe Lazzerini, president of Rhode Island Pride.
Lazzerini said he particularly took offense at Tobin’s assertion that the LGBTQ community is harmful to children, “especially considering the Catholic Church’s history of covering up clergy sexual abuse of children.”
During his Sunday morning sermon, Pieroni cited divisions over a range of issues in politics, within the church and within families.
He called for unity, saying there is too much discord, jealousy, and anger.
“For a long time in the official church, we have had a tug of war going on between liberals and conservatives,” he said. “In a day and age when faith and religion matter less and less, when so many folks know absolutely nothing about God except as a swear word, maybe we ought to concentrate more on getting the message out there and less on backbiting. The ultimate goal is Jesus should be pulling us together.
“I truly believe in the Catholic Church,” Pieroni said. “I think we have the best to offer.”
And he said that Saint Raymond’s Church — on North Main Street, near the Smithfield Avenue exit off Interstate 95 — is a special place.
“Some refer to us as the Island of Misfit Toys,” he said. “We are the ones who don’t fit, but Jesus didn’t fit, either. So it’s good company.”
The congregation applauded his remarks, including Raimondo.
Pieroni paused a moment and deadpanned: “You’ll like the new pastor next week . . . ”