* Catholic conference hears first major speech on gay issues
* Pope Francis due to address conference at weekend
* Jesuit priest calls for more inclusive Church approach
* Gay groups sceptical of any real change in Church
By Conor Humphries
DUBLIN, Aug 23 (Reuters) - A Catholic conference on family issues that Pope Francis is due to address this weekend heard a plea from a U.S. priest on Thursday for the Church to welcome gay members, who he said had been made to feel like lepers.
At the first major speech on the issue at the World Meeting of Families, which is organised by the Vatican every three years and is being held in Dublin this year, U.S. Jesuit priest James Martin told delegates that excluding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics violated the teachings of Jesus Christ.
"Let your LGBT brothers and sisters know that you stand with them... Be courageous," Martin told about 1,000 delegates, before listing concrete steps for priests to take to welcome gay parishioners.
"By excluding LGBT Catholics, you are breaking up God's family," he added.
The Church teaches that homosexual tendencies are not sinful but homosexual acts are, and that homosexuals should try to be chaste.
"WHO AM I TO JUDGE?"
In 2013 Pope Francis, who arrives in Dublin on Saturday for a two-day visit, said the Church should seek forgiveness from homosexuals for the way they had treated them. "If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge," he said.
Martin was criticised by Vatican clerics for his 2017 book "Building a Bridge", in which he argued for the Church to better engage with the LGBT community.
Organisers of the Dublin conference have been accused of excluding LGBT groups after the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics and We are Church Ireland said they had failed to receive responses to requests to have stands at the event.
A conference spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment but was quoted by The Times Ireland as saying that space was limited and preference had been given to groups that met certain criteria.
Members of gay-rights groups protesting outside the conference said Martin's speech was a hollow gesture.
"There are a lot of nice words being spoken, but in reality nothing really changes on the ground," said Jim O'Crowly, a 77-year-old gay man who said he attends Catholic Mass every week.
"If they want to do something, they should start by changing the very offensive language that is in Church teaching about homosexuality, regarding it as being disordered and intrinsically evil."
Martin in his speech gave a list of steps that priests could take to help LGBT Catholics in their parishes feel more welcome, including referring to them in sermons as full members of the community, asking them about their experiences and organising LGBT events.
Martin told Reuters it was the first time the phrase LGBT had been used officially at the Catholic Conference. He also said there has been "great progress" on the issue in recent years, firstly because of Pope Francis' attitude and secondly due to a growing number of Catholics coming out as gay.
(Reporting by Conor Humphries Editing by Gareth Jones)
Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.