As a number of Catholic organizations across the country roll out guidelines that limit gender expression and health care, one staffer at a parish in Chestnut Hill has tried to make his church welcoming to trans and queer people.
Michael Sennett, 27, said his fascination with Catholicism started as a child growing up in Hyde Park, where he regularly attended the now-closed St. Adalbert Parish. He was intrigued by the stories of the Bible and the saints. But he also remembers thinking that "God was very judgmental."
That feeling grew stronger as he started to question his gender identity. He remembers his first communion as a turning point when he started to feel a deeper conflict between his identity and faith.
"Everyone was so excited for me to be wearing this dress," Sennett said. "And I fought it so hard. It's not what I wanted to do. And I didn't feel comfortable wearing it."
When he was 17, he confessed his thoughts to a priest.
“I came out to the priest, and I said, 'I'm transgender and I want forgiveness.' And he looked at me, and he took a minute," Sennett said. "He reassured me that being trans isn't a sin, and he made me promise that I would always advocate for a seat for myself at the table, even when it got difficult because he said there would be a lot of people who wouldn't want me in Catholic spaces. And he wasn't wrong."
"... [The priest] said there would be a lot of people who wouldn't want me in Catholic spaces. And he wasn't wrong."Michael Sennett
That conversation set him on a path to find a way to align his faith with his identity. After graduating from college, he took a job as communications director at The Jesuit Parish of St. Ignatius of Loyola, near Boston College’s campus. With the support of then-Pastor Joseph Constantino, he helped form a committee focused on LGBTQ+ Catholics and began an annual tradition: the Mass of Belonging.
"It felt very empowering that we could invite people, and to not have them feel excluded," Sennett said, adding he's encouraged by how these events help LGBTQ+ participants "use our voices."
"... The more that we say, ‘We're here, we're not going anywhere ... ’ " he said, "it's so important for the visibility."
Sennett said the overall response from community members and parishioners, especially trans people and the parents of trans kids, has been overwhelmingly positive.
But it’s not clear how much support that work has from regional church leaders, and if it has a future.
Last year, the Boston Archdiocese formed a committee to create guidelines for gender identity in its schools and parishes.
"My worry was that people would paint a picture of trans people as predators, as they so often do," Sennett said.
A member of the committee asked Sennett to come and talk to them. He later received a follow-up email, revoking that invitation. In February, the National Catholic Reporter did a story about the committee’s work, explaining that Sennett was disinvited. After that, Bishop Mark O'Connell, who chairs the committee, reached out to him.
“The bishop, when we spoke on the phone, told me that at the time, he and the committee just weren't ready to speak to trans people," Sennett said.
An Archdiocese of Boston spokesman said in an email that the work of the committee is incomplete, but its members are going through a “thoughtful” and “collaborative” process. He declined to comment further.
"Part of me still worries that a lot of the anti-trans voices will have a bigger seat at the table than that of trans people and that of our advocates and allies," Sennett said. "And that's just based on the history of these committees and these bills."
A handful of other archdioceses in the country have passed gender identity guidelines in the last couple years, according to the National Catholic Reporter. For the most part, the guidance insists people use their birth names and conform to the pronouns and dress codes associated with their gender assigned at birth.
One example of this is the Diocese of Des Moines in Iowa. Though its policy forbids people who identify as LGBTQ+ from using preferred pronouns or bathrooms, spokeswoman Anne Marie Cox said it was written to "welcome and minister to those coping with gender dysphoria while following Catholic Church teaching."
"[Bishop William Joensen] composed a task force for this purpose and after two years of study, prayer, listening and consultation, a policy was developed that begins with love," Cox wrote in an email. "As a diocesan community, we are committed to upholding Catholic Social Teaching that enjoins respect for the life and dignity of every person as created in the image of God."
But Sennett said trans kids need to feel protected and supported in religious schools.
"They need to know that they are wonderfully and purposefully made as they are ... because that teaching can do a lot of damage, to think that they're disobeying God or that they're sinning for being who they are.”
Sennett has decided to move on from St. Ignatius. He said he feels he could accomplish more in his inclusion work somewhere else. What happened with the archdiocese’s gender guidelines committee was a factor in his decision, he said, but not the main catalyst.
His last day is June 9. Until then, Sennett is helping the church plan next year's Mass of Belonging.
This segment aired on June 8, 2023.