Lui Akira Francesco Matsuo said he was standing in line for communion one Sunday at his Roman Catholic church in Detroit when a fellow parishioner pulled him aside: Didn’t he know that the archbishop had just urged supporters of same-sex marriage not to take communion?
Mr. Matsuo, who is transgender, left and never returned to his parish. Now, two years later, he is among a large group of gay and transgender Catholics who are seeking a meeting with the pope during his first visit to the United States, in September, pushing him to take a stand on the issues of sexuality and gender that are increasingly dividing Catholics and causing rancor in the church.
“I want him to extend his hand openly, especially to the transgender community,” said Mr. Matsuo, who is 28 and said he has identified as male ever since he was a toddler. “I am a practicing Catholic. I just don’t have a parish I can call home.”
The pressure from gay Catholics and their families poses a unique challenge for Pope Francis as he tries to connect with an American church in flux. The hallmark of his papacy has been his pastoral approach to those living in the margins — especially the poor, immigrants and prisoners. But it is unclear whether he includes sexual minorities in his lineup of people in need of justice, and Catholic groups of all kinds are demanding answers, and discussion.
In a formal letter sent to Pope Francis at the Vatican, groups representing gay and transgender people, Catholics, and Hispanics said the church in America was in the midst of a “pastoral crisis” over gay issues and asked to meet with him while he was in the United States. While some American conservatives are eager to see Pope Francis make use of his popularity on this trip to advance the fight against abortion and same-sex marriage, gay Catholics want him to acknowledge their rejection by the church, and to welcome them as full members with equal access to sacraments like baptism and marriage.
“We see so many people we love abandoning the church because of the kinds of indignities and pain that they’re subjected to,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, who signed the letter requesting a meeting with the pope, “whether it’s being denied a kid’s baptism or hearing a priest make horrible comments during a homily. Everybody’s got stories of pain and alienation, and those things do real harm to people. And it needs to end.”
Pope Francis and the church in the United States are both struggling to navigate a new era. Despite years of opposition from various religious groups, same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states. Polls show that six out of 10 American Catholics are in support. And while American bishops are pressing for what are billed as religious freedom laws that would protect the rights of those who object to serving gay people getting married, Catholic institutions, and parishoners, are far from unified.
While some parishes welcome same-sex couples and march in gay pride parades, some priests in other parishes refuse to baptize the children of same-sex couples or to give communion to openly gay mourners at their parents’ funeral Masses. Dozens of Catholic schools have fired openly gay teachers — most recently a priest working at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and a director of religious education in a private academy outside Philadelphia — only to face revolts from Catholic students and parents.
With gay Catholics clamoring to be heard, and the pope expected to address a crowd of more than one million in downtown Philadelphia to close a landmark Catholic event on family life called the “World Meeting of Families,” the stage for a reckoning is set.
Nicole Santamaría, an intersex woman, born with the physical characteristics of both genders, who is attending the World Meeting with her mother from El Salvador, called on the pope to broaden his welcome beyond traditional families.
“To families who are different, let him speak out and say that we are beloved human beings, that we are beloved of God,” she said. “I don’t want another teenaged boy or girl to take his or her life because they thought that not even God loves them.”
Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and chief executive of Glaad, who also signed the letter, said the pope “has the opportunity to change that narrative, and to bring people and the church along with him.”
“That is a really powerful platform, and would save actual lives,” she said.
But Pope Francis has been sending mixed messages about his position on homosexuality, gender and same-sex marriage in the more than two years since he was elected.
In his first year, he shocked the world with his comment, “Who am I to judge?” uttered in response to a question during an airborne news conference about his attitude toward a celibate gay priest serving in the Vatican. In doing so, he appeared to jettison the punishing tone used by his predecessors, including Benedict XVI, who called homosexuality an “objective disorder,” phrasing from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis made it clear almost from the start of his papacy that he does not share the appetite of his predecessors — and the American bishops — for making opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage the church’s top public policy priorities. “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all of the time,” he said in an early interview in a Jesuit magazine in 2013.
But he has shown no indication that he intends to lead the church toward changing its teaching that gay people are “called to chastity” and marriage is only for a man and a woman.
On a visit to the Philippines in January, Pope Francis said in a speech that “the family is threatened by growing efforts” to “redefine the very institution of marriage.” He also criticized wealthy Western countries for imposing their ideas about gender on developing countries, calling it “ideological colonization.”
A month later, he was quoted in a book saying that “gender theory,” which holds that gender is a social construct, is one of the great modern dangers to humanity, like nuclear weapons.
For Mr. Matsuo, the transgender Catholic, who is from Japan and grew up in the Nagasaki area, that remark by the pope was a step too far: “Knowing what nuclear weapons did, and him comparing it to gender theory, he lost my trust,” he said.
Some gay and transgender Catholics nonetheless say they feel grateful to Pope Francis for opening up discussion about what is taboo and even meeting with those considered pariahs.
In January, he met privately with a transgender man from Spain at the Vatican, who said afterward that the pope told him that “the church loves you and accepts you as you are.” When the pope traveled to Paraguay this month, some Catholics celebrated when the leader of a gay rights group was invited by the bishops there to join about 1,500 other civic leaders at an event with the pope.
“L.G.B.T. issues no longer disqualify you from Catholic activities,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, who has been an advocate for gay Catholics for four decades. “It used to be a litmus test: If you were in any way associated with pro-L.G.B.T. activities, you were immediately excluded.”
Mr. DeBernardo added that Pope Francis deserved praise for being “at least willing to have conversation and interaction.”
“I don’t think he’s going to be the pope that makes the changes we want,” he said. “But he’s already taken a number of important steps that will, I think, pave the way for future changes.”
About 14 families with gay or transgender members have registered to attend the four-day World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia just before the pope’s arrival. Deb Word, president of Fortunate Families, a support group for Catholic parents seeking full inclusion of their gay children in the church, said her group applied to have a table in the exhibit hall, but was rejected. She was also interviewed by a World Meeting organizer as a possible speaker for the only panel on homosexuality, but was ultimately not included.
“We wanted to go and share resources on how you can safeguard your child’s long-term health by using loving acceptance in your home. It doesn’t sound like a scary message, does it?” said Ms. Word, who lives in Memphis with her husband and has taken in 17 homeless young gay and transgender people over many years who were rejected by their families.
In Philadelphia, she will be wearing a small rainbow ribbon pin and carrying a bag of literature for Catholics she meets who express interest. If she could meet the pope, she said, she would tell him the story of her son, an altar server and a faithful Catholic who did not come out until he was 23.
She and her husband had known for years that he was probably gay, but he delayed telling them because he was so worried he was going to hell.
If she could say only one thing to the pope, Ms. Word said, it would be this: “We don’t need to put this kind of trauma on a child’s soul.”