Meet some of the NYC Catholics who want to change the Church

Kenneth Boller


On a recent, sunny afternoon, 18 people gathered at a center for older adults in the West Village for a unique Sunday Mass.

The Rev. Anne Tropeano, an ordained female priest known as Father Anne, led the Catholic service. The homily, which was delivered by a layperson instead of a deacon or priest, criticized Pope Francis’ statements last month on transgender identity.

The cantor referred to God with female pronouns when singing. Communion was given to all willing participants, not just baptized Catholics.

The group, the Metro New York chapter of the national organization Call to Action, was hosting its first in-person meeting since 2019.

Call to Action has about 20,000 members nationwide. Its Metro New York Chapter, which has around 1,600 email subscribers, advocates for progressive politics within the Church locally. In New York, the group lobbied to pass the Child Victims Act, citing abuse by priests.

Although their Sunday Mass wouldn’t pass muster with the Vatican, it represents the kind of Catholic Church that Call to Action hopes to see one day: one that advocates for all marginalized people, openly welcomes gay and transgender parishioners, and encourages female leadership.

For supporters, this argument isn’t just moral, it’s also practical. As Catholic parishes continue to merge and shutter amid low attendance, progressive activists emphasize that broader inclusivity would be a win-win.

The Archdiocese of New York declined to comment on Call to Action, waning parish membership, and progressive practices at some Catholic churches in New York City, but said it generally does not exclude any demographic.

“All are welcome,” the archdiocese’s Director of Communications Joseph Zwilling wrote in an email. “The Church here in New York and around the world has sought to reach those who feel alienated or cut off from the faith, and will continue to do so.”

‘I’m exactly like a male priest, except I’m female’

Tropeano, 49, is a bit of a celebrity among progressive-minded Catholics. Call to Action Metro New York invited her to lead its annual meeting, even though she’s based in New Mexico. She made the most of the trip, speaking at Queens’ Ridgewood Presbyterian Church the same weekend.

Before Mass at the Call to Action meeting, her talk drew on the Easter season, using Christ’s resurrection as a metaphor for personal and social reform.

A woman priest poses in a black and white profile photo.
Father Anne

In an interview before the event, Tropeano said “an encounter with God” she had when she was 29 moved her to explore faith matters from New Age spirituality to Evangelical Christianity.

She earned her master’s degree in divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, in 2017, and watched from the sidelines as her male peers prepared to be ordained.

In 2021, she was ordained by the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, a nonprofit movement focused on female ordination. Under Catholic canon law, any woman ordained as a priest is automatically excommunicated.

Tropeano pointed out that for a woman to become a priest, “it’s considered a crime as serious as the sexual abuse of a child by a male priest, but they’re not excommunicated.” (In those cases, canon law recommends “just penalties, not excluding” firing the offender from the clergy.)

“Being excommunicated means you can’t work for the Church, you can’t volunteer for the Church, you can’t receive any of the sacraments,” she said. “So I’m not allowed to receive the Eucharist. I won’t receive the Christian burial. I mean, I am so Catholic that I became a priest, and that’s how the institution treats me.”

Though she broke the Church’s laws by seeking ordination, Tropeano otherwise makes a point of respecting the institution. “So many people have terrible experiences in the institutional Church,” she said. “Mine was incredible. So I think that’s part of why I have a call within a call, which is Church reform. I see how good it can be when it’s operating with integrity.”

Unlike many other female priests within the women’s ordination movement, Tropeano wears the clerical collar, practices celibacy and leads her services by the book — with the exception that anyone can receive Communion.

“I’m exactly like a male priest, except I’m female,” she said. “That’s the only difference.”

Back at the center for older adults, the group silently reflected on Tropeano’s lecture before Mass. One woman sitting at the front wore a button in honor of the occasion. It read: “Ordain women or stop baptizing them.”

More than a ‘lavender mafia’

Among the crowd at the West Village event was Theo Swinford, a 26-year-old Borough Park resident who grew up devoutly Catholic near Phoenix, Arizona.

Swinford, who uses they/them pronouns, attended a Catholic university to study theology, where they read Catholic books and listened to Catholic music and podcasts in their free time. Swinford, who has been openly gay since 16, did their best at that time to make peace with the idea of lifelong celibacy and ignore their burgeoning nonbinary identity.

“I spent more and more time just kind of miserable, arguing with myself over whether or not it was realistic for me to live my life that way,” Swinford said in a phone interview. “The straw that broke the camel’s back was when the Pennsylvania grand jury report came out.”

A person poses by a fence
Theo Swinford, in Brooklyn.

That 2018 report, which detailed decades of abuse and coverups within the Catholic Church, found credible sex abuse allegations against 301 priests. Swinford expected their favorite scholars and pundits to pause and reflect on the Church’s wrongdoings. Instead, those people blamed homosexuality, and even referred to a “lavender mafia” at work within the Church.

Swinford took a break from Catholicism for nearly four years after that and explored other churches and religions. “But there was always something about Catholicism that really, like, tugged at me,” they said. “It’s just so much a part of who I am.”

Swinford is hardly alone. Groups including DignityUSA and Fortunate Families — as well as New York’s handful of gay-friendly parishes — demonstrate the persistent need for LGBTQ+ affirming Catholic spaces.

Although Swinford had not been to a Catholic Mass of any kind in years, they decided to attend the Call to Action event because of the group’s explicit pro-LGBTQ+ advocacy and their curiosity about Tropeano.

“The thing I’ve missed the most is not being able to receive the Eucharist,” Swinford said in an interview after the event. “And so getting to receive the Eucharist from a woman priest, who is an outcast in her own way, because she’s also not accepted by the Church, was a really powerful experience.”

Reforming Mass, just west of Union Square

Many members of Call to Action are also parishioners at the Church of St. Francis Xavier on West 15th Street, a Roman Catholic church known for its inclusivity.

Inside the Church of St. Francis Xavier, west of Union Square.

St. Francis Xavier, which the Rev. Kenneth Boller has led since 2019, has hosted robust groups for gay- and lesbian-identifying Catholics since the 1990s. A group called “The Women Who Stayed” has been working with clergy to adapt services and Scripture to include more gender-neutral language for God.

“Everybody has fundamental aspirations and rights, and you learn how to work together to achieve them,” said Boller, a Queens native who has been a priest for almost 49 years, in a phone interview.

A man poses inside a church
Kenneth Boller, at The Church of St. Francis Xavier, west of Union Square.

Although the Church of St. Francis Xavier is recognized by the archdiocese, it still has a reputation for unorthodoxy among many practicing Catholics. Swinford said peers once warned them to stay away from the parish, saying it was “not in line with Church teaching.”

Stephanie Samoy, 60, is a member of The Women Who Stayed and St. Francis Xavier’s lively Catholic Lesbians group. Samoy first attended the church in 2001, and she and her wife were married there. Samoy came out as a lesbian in Tucson, Arizona, during the 1980s, and said she never imagined she could feel so much love in a church.

“When I first got there, I just bawled,” she said in a phone interview. “It broke me and I was ready to be broken. My mom came to New York one day, and we went to Mass, and I was crying again that my mom was here and she could experience this.”

A banner that welcome immigrants and refugees hangs from a church wall.
The exterior of the Church of St. Francis Xavier, near Union Square.

But even at a church like St. Francis Xavier, progressive parishioners are always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Rosemarie Sauerzopf, 73, and her wife, Paula Acuti, 76, are also members of Catholic Lesbians, and Sauerzopf is vice president of Call to Action Metro New York. The two were married at St. Francis Xavier in 2004.

“All this can change tomorrow if we get a new pastor who’s not friendly,” Sauerzopf said. “My parish is an anomaly. It’s an oasis.”

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