SALTILLO, Mexico (CNS) Noe Ruiz, 27, teaches elementary school in Saltillo, Coahuila's state capital, about 200 miles south of the Texas border at Laredo. Like many in northern Mexico, Ruiz is Catholic and actively practices his faith.
Unlike many in his hometown, he is openly gay and coordinates a gay Catholic youth group, which operates with the blessing of the local diocese and serves 40 young people. But it has not always been easy, he said.
"The environment here in Saltillo is very traditional," Ruiz said, although he added that attitudes were softening.
Ruiz said Comunidad San Elredo is the only gay Catholic youth group in Mexico. While accepted within the diocese, Ruiz acknowledged some unease among Catholics in other parts of the country.
"The church in Mexico is very conservative," he said. "At the moment we're being supported (locally), but there are many people that disagree with us."
Last January, Ruiz's home state of Coahuila passed Mexico's first civil union law, extending legal benefits to same-sex couples. The issue divided Catholic leaders across Mexico and in Coahuila, which is served by three dioceses.
Saltillo Bishop Raul Vera Lopez supported the measure, while his counterparts in the Coahuila cities of Torreon and Piedras Negras expressed discomfort with the proposed civil unions.
Bishop Vera told Catholic News Service that gays "need legal protection," adding that he does not endorse the idea of marriage between two individuals of the same sex, but that he wanted to see rights extended and discrimination ended.
"They need to be defended because they have been victims of discrimination, victims of provocations ... they're among the most marginalized groups," he explained.
To better serve the gay community in Saltillo, Comunidad San Elredo -- named for St. Aelred, a 12th-century English abbot -- was founded five years ago by two gay, 18-year-old, Catholic-youth-group leaders working with Father Robert Coogan, an American originally from New York who normally serves the prison populations in the diocese.
Father Coogan said he sensed a need for a gay outreach program after a growing number of young gay men started coming to him for confession.
"There were enough gays coming to me that it warranted pastoral attention," he recalled. "They had the assumption that someone from the U.S. would be more open."
San Elredo now serves about 40 young people, who meet on a weekly basis and celebrate Mass once a month. During individual discussions with Father Coogan, many gays often speak about feeling confused along with the pain of being rejected by family members and ridiculed by classmates. Father Coogan said the low-key approach works well when dealing with contentious issues like homosexuality.
The Catholic Church teaches that homosexual acts are sinful, but calls for respect, compassion and sensitivity toward those with homosexual inclinations.
"In issues that are complicated, there's nothing like one-on-one direction," Father Coogan said. "We shouldn't be making blanket statements on issues that are so personal."
Father Coogan said San Elredo's objectives the most important of which is "fomenting a deep love of God" fit with the inclusive pastoral approach of Bishop Vera.
The priest said the bishop "has said from the very beginning of when he arrived that the church was for everybody."
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops