Last week, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City opened its magnificent bronze doors for the funeral of Cecilia Gentili, a transgender activist known for her advocacy for sex workers. 

The sanctuary was so full and the mourners so flashily dressed that the presiding priest, the Rev. Edward Dougherty, quipped, “Except on Easter Sunday, we don’t (usually) have a crowd that is this well turned out.”

What wasn’t said was that the cathedral also doesn’t usually hold funeral services for professed atheists. The Catholic Church has strict protocols on who qualifies to be eulogized within a church, and with few exceptions (such as an infant who dies before baptism), nonbelievers are turned away. The rules tend to be even stricter for a cathedral, which is the mother church of a diocese. 

So it was an extraordinary bending of rules that led to a funeral service with extraordinary lapses of dignity on Feb. 15. It was, as The New York Times said, “an event that most likely had no precedent in Catholic history.”

“The pews were packed with mourners, many of them transgender, who wore daring high-fashion outfits and cheered as eulogists led them in praying for transgender rights and access to (gender-related) health care. One eulogy, a video clip of which was widely shared online Friday, remembered Ms. Gentili as ‘Saint Cecilia, the mother of all whores,’ to the thunderous cheers of a nearly full cathedral,” the newspaper account said.

At one point, a mourner sang “Ave Maria,” substituting the name “Cecilia” for “Maria,” and danced down the aisle of the cathedral.

While some people on social media applauded the church for holding Gentili’s funeral, the most common reaction was outrage — and rightly so.

It is true that the entire service was not a mockery of the Catholic faith, although the most viral video clips made it seem so. Tony Award-winning actor Billy Porter, who starred in the FX series “Pose,” gave a soulful rendition of the gospel song “This Day.” As is the custom at any Catholic funeral, the casket was sprinkled with holy water, hymns were sung and scripture was read.

Related
A Catholic priest was punished over a pop star’s music video. Here’s what happened

But there is a bright line between the holy and the profane, and some of those celebrating the life of Gentili stampeded across it like unruly bulls. In doing so, they made the service seem like a publicity stunt, similar to those staged by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the LGBTQ group that made headlines last year for performances many Catholics saw as blasphemous. And the reaction of Gentili’s family after church leaders expressed outrage was hard to justify.

In a post on social media, they accused the “sanctimonious” church of hypocrisy and hatred, and said “The only deception present at St. Patrick’s Cathedral is that it claims to be a welcoming place for all.”

You can be supportive of the LGBTQ community and still find this response an unwarranted slap in the face to a cathedral that welcomed Gentili’s family and friends in good faith. The response is also repugnant given Pope Francis’s recent actions that are more welcoming of the LGBTQ community. While there is still hatred and prejudice directed at gay and trans people across the world, none was seen in the video filmed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But many people of faith felt that their beliefs had been mocked in that service, and they are justified in feeling anger about this.

It appears that the church had not deeply researched the person who would be eulogized that day. In a YouTube video of the service, a voice can be heard after the funeral was under way telling the priest to only conduct a funeral service, not a full Mass. Later, as outrage simmered on the internet, the pastor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral issued a statement calling what happened a scandal made worse by its occurrence at the start of Lent, a somber season of penitence leading up to Easter. The church then offered a Mass of Reparation to atone, at the request of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York.

No apology has been offered by the family or friends of Gentili for what Dolan today called the “irreverence and disrespect” exhibited at the cathedral.

As America becomes increasingly secular and churches in some denominations shutter at a disturbing rate, the number of sacred spaces will likewise decline. This is a slow-moving tragedy for those who rely on churches and other places of worship for comfort when a loved one dies — and those who have yet to learn that most people can’t just walk into a church they don’t attend and schedule a wedding or funeral there. Attempting to do so may get even harder after the events of last week.

Princeton professor Robert P. George said on X, “The shrewdly planned and executed desecration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral by fraud and sacrilege looks like a new tactic for the prosecution of culture war objectives. I hope that other churches as well as synagogues and mosques will be vigilant to protect themselves against it.”

There’s a reason that people want to hold the most important ceremonies in a house of worship. Even if they don’t believe that God dwells there, from the humblest church to the grandest cathedral, there’s a sense of the sacred within those walls. The sacred asks something of us: a certain decorum and respect. The lack shown by some at St. Patrick’s last week does not help their cause.