Cara Peterson attended Mass and sang in the choir growing up, but in high school, when she realized she was attracted to other girls, she drifted away from her faith. “I just thought you couldn’t be Catholic and gay,” she said.

But with the death of her devoutly Catholic grandmother last year, Peterson, 30, wanted to give her childhood faith another look. She tried out a couple of parishes near her home in Evanston, Ill., but felt “like I was being fake,” she said. So she was intrigued when she saw a flier for a new group, led by a Jesuit seminarian, catering to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and questioning Catholics in their 20s, 30s and 40s. “This group,” she said, which is part of Chicago’s 26-year-old Archdiocesan Gay and Lesbian Outreach, “has really helped me a lot with reconciling two major parts of who I am.”

This kind of pastoral response to gay and lesbian Catholics is one of several family-related topics bishops from around the world are expected to discuss next month at the Vatican.

Catholic teaching on homosexuality, which prohibits sex between two people of the same gender, is black and white. On the ground, though, how this teaching is applied is much murkier.

Individual bishops and pastors decide if children of same-sex couples have a right to baptism or to attend Catholic schools, leading to disparate policies. Some Catholic institutions offer health insurance to spouses of gay employees, while others fire openly gay teachers or organists. Catholic hospitals and, in some cases, Catholic bishops have supported laws criminalizing homosexuality, while others have condemned them. Could the Synod on the Family address some of this confusion?

Crux interviewed several gay and lesbian Catholics, and those who minister to them, to gain insight into their hopes for the synod. Nearly all said they don’t expect sweeping changes, but many expressed cautious optimism that the church, led by Pope Francis, might soften its tone toward gays and lesbians. Many cited examples at the parish level that the institutional church might emulate.

Mark Cerosaletti and Mark Morris met at a church picnic three decades ago and have been together since. Married in 2011, they feel comfortable giving each other a quick hug during the sign of peace at All Saints Church in Syracuse, N.Y., a marked change from when they started dating.

Back then, “you couldn’t come across as a gay couple in a regular Catholic parish because you’d get the evil eye,” Morris, 58, said.

When Tanya and Angie Blasingame wanted to baptize their daughter last year, they emailed several Catholic parishes to introduce their family. Only one priest replied. He said he would baptize their child, absolutely, but his church was 45 minutes away in Daytona Beach. Even though another Catholic church is just minutes from their home in Deland, Florida, they say the priest’s immediate welcome made the long drive for weekly Mass worth it, even when Angie is at work and is unable to join Tanya and their daughter.

“Whenever [my pastor] sees me and my daughter, he always asks, ‘How is your wife?’ Just the fact that a Catholic priest says that to me, just like he asks the next woman, ‘How is your husband?’ just blows me away,” Tanya, 39, said.

Ben Simpson, who converted to Catholicism when he was in college, said a lay minister at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Manhattan told him to “bring your man and have a good time” when he asked if he’d be welcome at the church, a spirit he says continues today.

He said priests and lay ministers “avoid condemning language or anything that would isolate individuals,” giving as an example articles in Catholic publications that place quotes around phrases like same-sex marriage to de-legitimize the concept.

So if parishes, where most Catholics live out their faith, seem to accept same-sex relationships, does the institutional church as well? Not necessarily.

“I feel that in the Catholic Church as a whole, unfortunately, most gay people do not feel welcome,” said the Rev. Frederick Daley, pastor of All Saints, where the two Marks worship.

Why? Those interviewed pointed to a number of reasons, especially official church teaching that calls homosexuality “objectively disordered,” as well as recent episodes of what they see as discrimination against gay Catholics. Those include the denial of sacraments to same-sex couples, high-profile firings of openly gay employees from Catholic schools and parishes, and continued vocal opposition to same-sex marriage from prominent church leaders. Earlier this summer, a retired Cardinal compared homosexuality to high blood pressure, a condition, he said, that could be cured.

But some gay and lesbian Catholics see in Pope Francis a softening of the church’s position, and they were further encouraged when gay and lesbian issues were included on the synod’s agenda.

Last summer, Pope Francis made headlines when he replied, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay priests. Then, in an interview with America last September, he said the church must not “interfere spiritually” in the lives of gay people and that pastors must “accompany them with mercy.” Some even interpreted remarks earlier this year as an openness to same-sex civil unions, a position he reportedly took as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Some bishops seem to be channeling the pope, too. Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a friend of Pope Francis, said in an interview with Zero Hora in July that “the fact that [Pope Francis] has opened those doors shows that the church is really trying to be more positive” on gay issues.

Bishop Nunzio Galantino, whom Pope Francis tapped to lead the Italian bishops, said in May that he hoped the church will “listen without any taboo to the arguments in favor of married priests, the Eucharist for the divorced, and homosexuality.”

Even Cardinal Timothy Dolan, often called a culture warrior because of his vocal opposition to contraception and same-sex marriage, agreed earlier this month to a decision by organizers to allow a pro-gay group march in the New York Saint Patrick’s Day parade when he is grand marshal next year.

While the church prohibits sex between two men or women, it teaches that gay people are to be treated with respect, and leaves the question open as to whether or not human beings are born gay or straight. The pope, some say, is simply shifting the emphasis.

The Rev. Mike Schmitz, a Catholic chaplain at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, has written articles for Courage, a group for gay Catholics who choose to abstain from sex. He said the synod will address how to transmit the church’s teaching on sexuality, “that in many ways is developing, but is unchanging, to a culture that’s changing. It’s more of a question of translation and context.” When approached by gay students who feel hurt by the church, Schmitz said he affirms them, and even their relationships, but reminds them, “if you’re engaging in genital sexual expression, we need to take another look at that.”

It’s not just gay Catholics with whom bishops find themselves at odds. Polls consistently show a majority of American Catholics are in favor of same-sex marriage, and some straight Catholics are pushing for greater acceptance, too.

“I like the Catholic Church a lot, and I generally defend it when others make assumptions about it, but it’s hard for me to get involved when I can’t explain some of its core teachings,” said Matthew Corbett, 22, who identifies as straight. In college, he left the Catholic Church to become an Episcopalian in part because of that denomination’s support for same-sex marriage.

“A lot of people I know and who I’m close with are LGBT, and I can’t say their behavior is disordered. It’s just not something that I can reconcile,” he said.

Whatever happens in Rome, it is clear that by asking bishops to consult the laity on issues of homosexuality, Pope Francis has raised expectations, and Cerosaletti, 56, from All Saints parish in New York, said he hopes for “more than just lip service.”

“In keeping with Pope Francis’ call to be a field hospital for the world, the church needs to do a much better job of reaching out to its LGBT sons and daughters,” he said. Otherwise, he worries, it “runs a real risk here of alienating a whole generation.”