Dozens of gay catholics hold an evening Mass at the St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Washington on Oct. 27. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Allen Rose was a high school seminarian in the 1970s when his confession to a priest of sex with a classmate led to the other boy’s expulsion. Rose felt crushed by feelings of guilt and abandonment, and within a few years he began to drift away from Catholicism.

It took two decades to find a path back.

He was working as a paralegal in Washington in the 1990s when he saw an ad for a gay Catholic community that met at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Dupont Circle. By then he’d concluded that being gay disqualified him from being Catholic, but he still felt Catholic, and yearned for Mass and the prayers, sounds and rituals that remained his shared language with God.

Every Sunday night at the gathering known as Dignity/Washington, Rose found a sanctuary full of hundreds of people struggling with negative comments about gay relationships they’d heard in church. Joining Rose were closeted Catholic schoolteachers, men dying of AIDS, former seminarians like himself. Under the vaulted dark wood ceilings, they would pray, take Communion from a once-ordained priest, and be both openly gay and Catholic. That church officials didn’t recognize the service was beside the point.

“It took a while for me to realize being gay didn’t prevent me from participating in my Catholicism,” Rose said.

And now, 41 years after the founding of Dignity/Washington, another turning point may be before gay Catholics: the Pope Francis era.

Francis has launched a global debate with his more welcoming language, including a response of “Who am I to judge?” to a reporter who’d asked about homosexuality. The Washington branch of Dignity, the country’s largest spiritual community of gay Catholics, may be in as good a position as any to gauge Francis’s impact, having watched the experience of being gay and being Catholic change dramatically over the years.

The tiny handful of Catholics who met in 1972 in the cafeteria of the Basilica of the National Shrine were afraid to share their real names. And Catholicism, like all of institutional religion, has seen its stature in society tumble.

A few weeks ago, members of Dignity/Washington had their first meeting in more than five years with local church officials. And members are considering continually how gay or Catholic to be: Should they add a rainbow flag to the altar, behind the cross? (Yes.) Should they focus on gay issues in sermons? (Split.) Should they shift from focusing within, on healing, or aim outward and take stands — such as allowing females to preside at Mass? (Very split.)

When the national Dignity organization was founded in 1969, the Catholic Church was far more open to gays and lesbians than was general society, with Catholic institutions among the first to ban employment discrimination. In the beginning, Dignity branches were allowed to meet in church buildings. The paradigm has since flipped, experts and Dignity members say. Americans have quickly opened to gay equality while the most recent church teachings call gay people “disordered.” And while harsh anti-gay rhetoric from clergy and teachers is rare, U.S. bishops are among the most active opponents of same-sex marriage. Some members still recall the 1987 march from Georgetown University to St. Margaret’s after U.S. bishops started banning gay-friendly services at Catholic institutions.

At 3,000 members, Dignity nationally is half the size it was in the 1980s, when AIDS and the post-Stonewall era gave rise to the gay pride movement. Dignity/Washington split into two services to accommodate its more than 400 members. One-third of the congregation died of AIDS. These days the branch has about 200 members. Nationally, Dignity is two-thirds male, and in Washington the proportion is even higher.

Members are divided on how Francis will affect their organization.

Mark Clark, a retired father of two and a member of the Washington branch, said the pope’s impact is “huge” not because of any imminent doctrine changes but because of his way of thinking.

“He has a sense he’s in charge of this foundational spiritual organization, and he can’t be making some sudden changes. It’s more like an aircraft carrier, turning slowly.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke, Dignity’s national executive director, said the group is “paying a lot of attention” to what the pope says and “how that impacts the actions of bishops and other Catholics.”

University of New Hampshire sociologist Michele Dillon, who has written about Catholics who disagree with church teachings on key issues but remain Catholic, called the Francis era “a very interesting time for gay Catholics.” How will Francis’s words be taken?

“Will it mean some local parishes will start new ministries to gays? Or will it mean Dignity loses relevance? That’s an open question,” she said.

Washington is considered among the country’s most conservative branches, with a large number of former seminarians, priests and theology students in the pews.

Its members want weekly worship that is as close as possible to a traditional Mass, and are quick to tell a newcomer that presiders were all once ordained priests — even if they later left the church or retired and let their credentials lapse. Its offices are purposely not registered as a “church” because members want to show church hierarchy that the group doesn’t see itself as a breakaway group but part of Catholicism “in exile.”

As the decades have passed, Dignity/Washington has continued to meet every Sunday evening, to watch the cross and liturgical books held aloft and carried to the altar, to hear scriptural readings and a sermon, to clasp hands and say the Lord’s Prayer and to receive Communion.

Jason Entsminger, 26, was active in his Reno, Nev., church and wanted to be a priest until he realized in his teens that he was gay. He recalls the sting of hearing a classmate use a gay slur during confirmation class and then listening to the teacher elaborate on why same-sex relationships were immoral. The University of Maryland agriculture department adviser never went back, instead exploring different churches through his early 20s.

When he learned about Dignity in May and then saw the rainbow flag displayed next to the crucifix on the altar, “it was awe-
inspiring, something I can’t even describe. To be in a place where I didn’t have the fear of being told from the pulpit that what I knew was true and I have accepted is my truth from God was wrong.”

Entsminger went with a Dignity group recently to a Mass celebrated by Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl for young adults. They introduced themselves as being from Dignity, Entsminger said, and to other young people.

“In the gay community, a lot of people say: ‘You go to church? Why would you do that?’ I say, ‘I go to gay Catholic church.’ [They say,] ‘What’s gay Catholic church?’ ”

Indeed, some traditional Catholics wouldn’t consider Dignity’s members Catholic, not so much because they’re gay but because they are purporting to hold Catholic services with unofficial clergy.

Archdiocese spokesman Chieko Noguchi said she had little to say about Dignity because “it’s not recognized by the Catholic Church.”

As more observant Christians, Dignity members have had to reconcile their view of themselves as fully Catholic with the hierarchy’s perspective that the group is not. Members do this by focusing on Catholic teachings that emphasize freedom of conscience.

After his first Dignity meeting, Clark, who was raised as an observant Catholic, said: “I was completely sold on this notion of a Catholic service for LGBT people. The church is not the hierarchy — not the bishops, not the pope — it’s the people, as well.”

Dignity/Washington members aren’t making much of their recent meeting with a member of the archdiocese. “There’s no fruit on that tree,” one group leader said. Right now they’re focused on figuring out their role in a rapidly shifting society. They’re also trying to accommodate both the confident young members and the older ones, two of whom recently committed suicide in situations Dignity leaders say were related to their sexuality.

“I’d love to see us go out of existence,” said Rose, 56. “But I’d hate it if we couldn’t figure out how to reach people who need us still. The biggest challenge we face is giving people a chance to heal and community in a changing environment.”