Prominent Roman Catholic Church officials have recently made high-profile declarations that the church is open to all. One of the most talked about appearances was Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, who appeared on television’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos in late March stating that the church is not “anti-anybody.”
For some people in the pews, such as Nicholas Coppola, the message can feel mixed. Coppola was born and raised Catholic and served as an altar boy while attending Catholic elementary and high schools during his youth. The 47-year-old was recently banned from actively participating in his own parish, St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church in Oceanside, New York – a large congregation serving 8-9 Sunday masses. Coppola is a longtime, openly gay church member who attended with his partner, David Crespo. However, their 2012 marriage was deemed too public of a statement against Catholic teachings and resulted in banning their church participation beyond attending service.
Coppola has received support from both fellow parishioners and individuals across the nation. A petition, in collaboration with GLAAD and Faithful America, was launched Friday, April 15, and collected over 18,000 signatures in less than one week supporting Coppola resuming full participation at St. Anthony’s. It was presented to the Diocese of Rockville Centre on April 11. It stated:
“Bishop Murphy, please let Nicholas Coppola resume volunteering at his parish — and make it clear that faithful gay and lesbian Catholics are welcome to participate fully in parish life in your diocese.”
Coppola took time to discuss with The Seattle Lesbian his situation and its implications – both personal and for others of the Catholic faith and general public.
You not only attended St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church, but were a very active member and volunteered in many capacities, is that correct?
Several years ago, four or five, I broke my back and was unable to work. At that point, I was able to attend daily mass. Eventually, the parish priest asked if I was interested in being an altar server. I accepted willing and happily. Then I became a lector, Eucharistic minister, I worked with the consolation ministry at St. Vincent de Paul’s and as a catechist.
The work filled a void and gave me a sense of purpose. I was very active and everyone was welcoming. They also knew [my husband] David and there was never any problem from the parishioners or clergy. It’s a welcoming parish. And continues to be.
You and David have known each other for decades and were married on October 27, 2012. Will you share a bit about your path to marriage?
We couldn’t believe it when it was announced in June  that it was legalized [same-sex marriage in New York.] We were so happy! One of David’s co-worker’s husbands was a carpenter and David had him craft the words, “Will you marry me?” into a piece of wood. I still get choked up when I tell the story. It speaks volumes about who he is. He’s very sweet, loving and special. I love him deeply.
Are you both parishioners at St. Anthony’s?
We are. In fact, the envelopes and any mailings from St. Anthony’s are always addressed to both of us – even things that come from the Diocese. David and I have given many years [donating] to the Diocese. We actually continue to get mail [addressed to both of us].
Due to Hurricane Sandy, you delayed your honeymoon until January 2013. Upon returning, you learned that a letter was written advocating your removal from church activities based on being gay and recently married.
That is where it became confusing because the typical protocol for the Catholic Church is that anything unsigned is considered unsent. It immediately goes into trash. With this, I can’t understand how the letter was acknowledged since it was anonymous. In any other situation in the past, anything unsigned is unsent – that’s the term they use.
How did you learn about the letter and its consequences? Did you have any foreshadowing?
The first mass I attended [after returning from the honeymoon] was on Martin Luther King Day. I spent so much time in the parish office normally that it wasn’t that odd when he [St. Anthony’s pastor, Fr. Nicholas Lombardi] asked to see me. In hindsight, maybe I thought something was happening, but it wasn’t a significant thought.
When we sat down, I knew it wasn’t going to be good news. You could see the stress in his face. I know that one of the staff members said to him to wait to show it to me until we got back from our honeymoon, so it wouldn’t ruin it [the trip.] He showed me the letter. It was heartbreaking. I questioned the letter and that it didn’t actually say I had to be removed. He said there had been a phone conversation clearly stating that I needed to be removed from all public ministries. It went down the line, everything from catechist to altar server. They don’t want me on the altar at all because I made such a public statement by getting married.
Did Pastor Lombardi apologize for being party to this?
Yes, definitely. I know Nick Lombardi and he’s a very, very gentle man. I enjoy his masses. His homilies are incredible. He apologized and said, “Nick, I’m sorry, but I have no choice. My hands are tied.” I have no doubt that he was sincere in what he said about not wanting to do it.
What was your initial reaction?
I was kind of numb and in shock. I didn’t know how to respond. It was so definite when we ended the conversation. I knew there was no sense in having more dialogue with him. He’d stated his hands were tied, but he hoped he’d still see us at liturgy. We’ve continued to go. The bishop may have the power and authority to remove me from public ministry, but he cannot remove me from this community I care so much about – and they care about us.
What has been the reaction of your fellow parishioners?
The community is incredibly supportive. They’ve come up to me, called and expressed support. One woman who’s 81 years old, a parishioner of 50 years, expressed disappointment and frustration by what happened. She said that she hopes to keep seeing me at church. Those are the words of support I’ve been getting.
It’s our church. If we weren’t welcome by the community at any time, we would not be having this conversation now. We wouldn’t have been there. The fact is that the community, from the beginning, has been loving and supportive and continues to be.
What’s the personal impact of knowing this letter may have been written by a fellow parishioner?
I’ve been asked repeatedly, “Do you think you know who it is?” I cannot think of any parishioner who would write that letter. In my heart of hearts, I believe it was from outside the Diocese.
Will individual parishes have to break ranks and take a stand or will it have to come from the top down?
I recognize that we are in the midst of a change. I really do sincerely believe that we’re seeing change. Pope Benedict left and the new pope is Jesuit. Everything he’s done so far is completely contrary to what’s typically done by a pope. He’s showing his human side.
Numerous Catholic officials, such as Cardinal Timothy Dolan, have recently made high-profile declarations about the Catholic Church being tolerant and welcoming. Do you believe those statements or feel it’s just a public relations campaign?
I believe the words that Cardinal Dolan spoke when he was on George Stephanopoulos and the words of the new pope. This is an opportunity to actively show that [the words are true] and to engage in dialogue and get to know us [the LGBT community.] This is the invite, come sit with us and they can put a face on the issue. They can have a better understanding that we’re good people like anyone else. I believe Cardinal Dolan’s words were sincere. Now we’ll see how he acts on it.
What is your level of hope for change occurring and how can the average parishioner make their support heard?
The statistics say that 62 percent of Catholics are in favor of marriage equality. The voices in the pews are what the Catholic hierarchy needs to listen to. There is a disconnect between the people and the hierarchy. That’s what we need to work on. If anybody wants to do something, send a letter to your local bishop or Cardinal Dolan. Those are the people we need to reach, soften their hearts and get a dialogue going. We need people talking. There is no progress when there’s no talking.
What is your personal goal?
I hope to be treated the same way I was before this happened. I feel the same for LGBT people of all faith. Also, from responses I’ve gotten, women express this, too. It’s not only about the gay and lesbian community, but all people of all faiths in general. This specific incident resonates in so many ways and places.
I’m 47 years old and coming out was a difficult process. I’m thankful it’s getting better [for others.] Still, I’m concerned for the 15-year-olds who are maybe struggling to understand how God created them. What would their reaction be to this situation? As a 47-year-old gay man, I feel responsible to make it better for the next generation in the way the previous generation made it better for me. I’m hopeful. I remain hopeful.