UPDATE: Indecent Funeral Service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Trans Activist Sparks Outcry

Several mainstream media outlets have framed the event as a breakthrough occasion and a sign of the Catholic Church shifting its teaching — or at least its tone — on sexuality and human anthropology.

St. Patrick's Cathedral at night in Manhattan, New York
St. Patrick's Cathedral at night in Manhattan, New York (photo: Jon Bilous / Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: This story was updated on Feb. 17, 2024, to include a statement from the Archdiocese of New York and Father James Martin's clarification that he gave his remarks to The New York Times before the service had taken place.

A raucous funeral liturgy for a high-profile trans activist and sex-worker advocate was held Thursday in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, sparking an outcry on social media that the iconic church was misused to advance an ideological agenda at odds with Catholic teaching.

The Manhattan cathedral hosted the Feb. 15 funeral service for Cecilia Gentili, an activist who helped to decriminalize sex work in New York, lobbied for “gender identity” to be added as a protected class to the state’s human rights laws, and was a major fundraiser for transgender causes.

Organizers reportedly did not disclose to the cathedral that Gentili, who died Feb. 6 at age 52, was a biological man who identified as a woman.

“I kept it under wraps,” Ceyeye Doroshow, the service’s organizer, told The New York Times.

Doroshow said that Gentili’s friends requested that the funeral service be held at St. Patrick’s because “it is an icon,” which is how they thought of Gentili.

Throughout the liturgy, the presider, Father Edward Dougherty, referred to Gentili with feminine pronouns and described the trans-identifying man as “our sister.” Additionally, during the prayers of the faithful, the reader prayed for so-called gender-affirming health care, while attendees frequently and approvingly referred to Gentili as the “mother of whores.”

It was not clear if cathedral staff were aware that Gentili was a man who identified as a woman. On Friday St. Patrick’s Cathedral referred all media requests to the Archdiocese of New York, which did not respond to requests for comment before publication.

The Archdiocese later released a statement on Saturday from Father Enrique Salvo, the pastor of St. Patrick's, who said that cathedral staff "had no idea our welcome and prayer would be degraded in such a sacrilegious and deceptive way."

Father Salvo said that Church officials shared in the "outrage over the scandalous behavior at a funeral here at St. Patrick’s Cathedral earlier this week." Salvo also revealed that a Mass of Reparation had been said at the cathedral at the direction of Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

In remarks previously made to The New York Times, archdiocesan spokesman Joseph Zwilling said that “a funeral is one of the corporal works of mercy,” which are “a model for how we should treat all others, as if they were Christ in disguise.” Other than its spokesman’s comments, the New York Archdiocese had issued no official statement on the funeral service at St. Patrick’s as of Friday night.

Several mainstream media outlets have framed the event as a breakthrough occasion and a sign of the Catholic Church shifting its teaching — or at least its tone — on sexuality and human anthropology.

Time magazine described the fact that a funeral service for a trans activist was held in a Catholic cathedral as “no small feat,” while The New York Times described the service as “an exuberant piece of political theater.”

Jesuit Father James Martin, an LGBTQ advocate whose approach to pastoral inclusion has courted controversy in the Church, initially offered his approval for the service.

“To celebrate the funeral Mass [sic] of a transgender woman at St. Patrick’s is a powerful reminder, during Lent, that LGBTQ people are as much a part of the church as anyone else,” he told The New York Times. “I wonder if it would have happened a generation ago.”

On Saturday, however, Father Martin clarified that he made the comment prior to service.

"Obviously, I believe that LGBTQ people should be as included as any other parishioner in their church. Just as obviously, I believe that churches are sacred spaces and certain actions are out of bounds," he said in a post on X (formerly Twitter), adding that he had been invited to preach at the service but was out of town.

"I've not seen the whole service as recorded, but some actions I've seen struck me as, while perhaps to the congregation joyful and celebratory, disrespectful of the sacred space that is St. Patrick's Cathedral," he wrote. "One can be both joyful and respectful, it seems to me."

Other Catholics, however, were more pointed in their assessment.

On X, CatholicVote described the service as a staged “mockery of the Christian faith INSIDE St. Patrick’s Cathedral” by trans activists.

Others called for Cardinal Dolan and the Archdiocese of New York to respond to what they considered to be sacrilege.

Many of the 1,000 in attendance wore drag and scanty outfits. At the foot of the altar stood an image of the Argentinian-born Gentili with a halo, surrounded by the Spanish words for “whore,” “transvestite,” “blessed,” and “mother.”

Trans activist Oscar Diaz told Time it “felt appropriate” to say farewell to Gentili with a funeral service at St. Patrick’s, describing the event as an act of bestowing “sainthood” on the transgender advocate.

The service for Gentili was marked by several moments that were out of the ordinary for a Catholic funeral and have raised questions of irreverence and sacrilege.

For instance, during the liturgy, attendees cheered, applauded, and chanted “Cecilia!” and “madre de putas” — Spanish for “mother of whores.”

A rendition of the “Ave Maria” by the cathedral cantor was interrupted when an attendee shouted “Ave Cecilia!” and danced down the center aisle.

A mid-liturgy lay reflection given from the sanctuary compared Gentili’s advocacy for normalizing sex work and lobbying for gender-related health care to Christ’s ministry to prostitutes and outcasts.

In another reflection, Diaz described the deceased as “this whore, this great whore, St. Cecilia, mother of all whores.” Those assembled stood and applauded as Father Dougherty remained seated in the presider’s chair, his chin in his hand.

After attending Baptist and Catholic churches, Gentili had identified as an atheist though suggested a recent interest in God in a November 2023 interview.

“Religion has been such a foundational aspect of my life that I’ll always have some kind of connection to it. I still crave a sense of community and belonging that I know a lot of people find in faith,” Gentili said.