Tag Archives: gay saints

St. George the Dragon Slayer

I’ve always been somewhat amused by the idea that St George, with no discernible link to this country, known primarily for an obviously mythical reputation as a dragon slayer, should have been adopted as patron saint of England. It’s also rather odd that of the four constituent “countries” in the UK, the English are oddly reserved about flying the flag of St George, at least outside of  sports events.  The Scots, the Welsh and (especially) the Irish will celebrate their national days with enthusiasm, but the English are very ambivalent about George, with claims that he has been hijacked by right wing nationalist racists. However, his feast day comes at a good time of year (springtime), and coincides happily with Shakespeare’s birthday, so I’ve always been happy to drink a quiet toast to George, and to Will Shakespeare, when April 24th comes around.

Now, though, I have found an excellent reason to take him rather more seriously.

I knew that Paul Halsall, in his calendar of LGBT Saints, lists George, but I had not previously investigated why.  Now that I have done, I find several features that appeal to me personally.
As stated above,  his irrational status as ptaron Saint of England, my adopted home, delights my sense of the absurd. That he should have a claim to a status as a gay icon increases the appeal. To cement the deal, the nature of his claim, to a mystical experience in which he is described as the “bridegroom of Christ” pretty closely resembles the central experience of the most intense retreat of my own life.

I think I should change my middle name to “George”.
Now, consider the dragon.  The value of plainly mythical beasts lies in their potential as symbols.  If we use the dragon image to represent ignorance, homophobia and the institutional hostility from heterosexual theology, can we all march under his banner?
I’d like to think so.

This is how “Pharsea’s World” explains his significance for gay men:

Nothing whatsoever can be established about St. George as a historical figure. Nethertheless, no one reading early texts about George can fail to notice their homoeroticism. George at one stage is about to marry, but is prevented by Christ:
“[George] did not know that Christ was keeping him as a pure virginal bridegroom for himself”.

[E.W. Budge: “The Martyrdom and Miracles of St. George of Cappodocia”: The Coptic Texts,

(London: D. Nutt, 1888) page 282]

…..

In these texts ….George is presented as the bridegroom of Christ. Bridal imagery is quite common in discourse about Christ, but usually male saints are made into “brides of Christ”, but with George homo-gender marital imagery is used.








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The Gay Centurion, Mar 15

In Catholic tradition, Longinus is the name given to the Roman centurion at the crucifixion who pierced Christ’s side with his spear.  Some writers, like Paul Halsall of the LGBT Catholic Handbook, also identify him with the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his “beloved boy”, who was ill. It is this second person that I am interested in here.  In this persona, he is one of my personal favourites, as his story shows clearly how the Lord himself is completely not hostile to a clearly gay relationship, and also because we hear a clear reminder of this every time we attend Mass – if only we have ears to hear.

It may be that you do not recall any Gospel stories about a gay centurion and his male lover, but that is because cautious or prudish translators have softened the words of the text, and because the word “gay” is not really appropriate for the historical context. You are more likely to know as the story as the familiar one of the Roman centurion and his “servant” – But this is a poor translation. Matthew uses the word “doulos“, which means slave, not a mere servant.  Luke uses quite a different word, “pais“, which can mean servant boy – but more usually has the sense of a man’s younger male lover – or “boyfriend”.Whichever of the two words or their senses was intended by the authors, the conclusions we should draw are the same. If “pais”  was intended here to indicate a lover, the conclusion is obvious.  If the intended meaning was either “slave ” or “servant” – the conclusion does not significantly change. To see this, let us consider the cultural context. For three centuries before Christ, the Jews had been under foreign military occupation, first by the Greeks (which is why demotic Greek had become lingua franca across the region, and was the language of the New Testament), then by Romans. These military overlords were about as well liked as any other military invaders anywhere – which is not at all.  The Jews hated them – but will have been quite familiar with Greek and Roman cultural (and sexual) practices.
First, consider the sense as “slave“. It is important to know that as a soldier on foreign service,, the centurion will not have been married: Roman soldiers on active service were not permitted to marry.  It is also important to know that for Romans, the crucial distinctions in sexuality were not about male or female, or about homosexuality or heterosexuality, but between higher or lower status.   Roman men would have expected to make sexual use of their slaves, especially if as here they were unmarried.  Far from home, this is likely to have been a sexual relationship, which could easily have developed also as an emotional one. And if the sense was not “slave“, but the softer “servant“, much the same conclusion follows. Roman citizens expected to take their sexual satisfaction from anyone of lower status  under their control – including the “freedmen”, or former slaves who had been released. In the words of the well known Roman aphorism,
For a Roman citizen, to give sexual service is a disgrace; to a freedman, a duty; and to a slave, an obligation“.
So, if we are talking here about a male lover, a sexual relationship is obvious.  If it is a servant boy or a slave, it is entirely probable.  But even if this is purely an arrangement about domestic service,  the conclusion does not change:   All those present and hearing the Centurion’s request would have been familiar with Roman sexual practice. For the Jewish bystanders, as for Jesus himself, there will have been an assumption that a homoerotic sexual relationship was at least possible, even probable. But this did not in any way affect Jesus’s willingness to go tot he centurion’s house – even though this in itself would have horrified traditional Jews.
The lessons we draw from this story are two-fold:  one, that Christ was not one bit disturbed by this approach from a man for help in having his (probable) male lover healed, but instead was immediately ready to go to the couple’s home.  (This of course, is entirely consistent with the rest of the Gospels. It is totally characteristic of Christ that he should be happy to talk, eat or drink with anybody, including those that were shunned or resented by mainstream Jewish society.) All those who argue that we are not welcome in God’s house have completely misunderstood Scripture – as He would be completely comfortable in ours.
The second lesson is the standard one usually drawn from the story, of the importance of trust in God.   The Centurion after putting his request makes it clear that it is not necessary for Jesus to actually go to his home, for all he needs is God’s word, and his servant will be healed.  Faith in Jesus in God is enough to achieve healing. This is especially important to us as gay men, lesbians or other sexual minorities. Whatever the hostility we may experience at the hands of a hostile church, we know that God will not reject us.  Further, in turning to Him in our pain of rejection, we know we can find healing.

Where is the echo in the Mass?

Right at the key moment, immediately before the Communion:

“Lord, I am  not worthy to receive you.  Say but the word, and my soul shall be healed.”

This is an obvious echo of the words of the centurion, when Jesus was about to set off for his home:

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.  just say the word, and my boy will be healed.”

Also see:

Jack Clark Robinson:  Jesus, the Centurion, and his Lover

Bible Abuse : The Centurion

Would Jesus Discriminate?:  Jesus Affirmed a Gay Couple

LGBT Catholic Handbook: Calendar of LGBT Sainsts

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St. Sebastian, Martyr, 20/01

Writing about St Joan of Arc recently I observed that she carries a particular importance for us as gay men, lesbians and transsexuals in the church, as her martyrdom at the hands of church authorities can be seen as a powerful metaphor for the persecution we receive from parts of the church, just for being honest about ourselves, for refusing to renounce our God-given identity. I’ve been thinking further along these lines, and in fact all the Christian martyrs can similarly seen as role models – although the others were not typically executed by the church itself. One martyr in particular has been closely identified as a gay (male) icon – St Sebastian.
This is strictly speaking inappropriate, because there is not anything about Sebastian or his martyrdom that is particularly gay . The main reason quite frankly, that he has acquired this cult status is that painters for centuries have made striking images of his martyrdom, featuring half naked, desirable young men pierced with arrows: soft porn masquerading as inspirational religious art. ( The Independent newspaper has an excellent analysis, still available on-line, on just how this association developed through the art works.) Now, I have no problem with gay men enjoying pictures of St Sebastian, but have had some trouble seeing him as a specifically gay saint. However, I have come across one particular painting, quite different from the original, which immediately put me in mind of a concept I have written about before as a possible model for us in negotiating a proper relationship with the church. Here’s the picture:
Gustave Rodolphe Boulanger, 1877
This is how I wrote about his death earlier this year:

Ordered to be executed, he was tied naked to a column and shot with arrows. Widely represented in art, it was not this, however, that killed him. He was left for dead, but was nursed back to life. After recovering, he intercepted the Emperor and denounced him for his cruelty to Christians. Enraged, the Emperor once again ordered his execution. This time, he was beaten to death, on 20th January 288. How many others have achieved martyrdom twice in one lifetime?

The image shows Sebastian pierced by arrows but “not dead yet”, confronting the Emperor Maximilian after the first attempted execution.

So, what’s the connection? Recall Michael B Kelly’s concept of the walk back from Emmaus , the idea that as lesbigaytrans people in the Catholic church, we have a need, even an obligation, to walk away from the church – and hen to return , to confront the institutional leaders of the church with the reality of the risen Lord, and of his real message to the world. When I saw this image, I suddenly saw it as representing all queer people confronting the emperors of the church with the evidence of their attempted martyrdom. In spite of all the efforts of the ecclesiastical mechanism, through the misrepresentation of Scripture, the characterization of us as “gravely “disordered, the active opposition in the political sphere to equal civic rights, and the failure to oppose criminalization, and hence the tacit support given to active bullying, violence and murder – not to mention actual execution by burning at the stake, in earlier years- we too, are not dead yet.

Following the example of Sebastian, the challenge facing us to do more than simply mope about our pain, satisfied with mere survival. We too, must return to the church, showing them with the evidence of our pain-then negotiate with them a process of reconciliation.

For a look at some of the extraordinary range of representations os Sebastian in art, just look at the results of a Google Image search, or go to “Iconography of Saint Sebastian (painting)”, which has an immense collection of links to art images, usefully arranged chronologically and by artist. I particularly like some of the images by 20th century artists, which seemed to me to go beyond the soppy sentimentality to something real and relevant. This one is startling – Sebastian as a self-portrait by a female artist, Gael Erwin. And why not?

Books:

Bray, AlanThe Friend

Related articles at Queering the Church, and at Queer Saints and Martyrs:

St Venantius Fortunatus, Italian Bishop and Homoerotic Poet

c.530-c.603

Venantius Fortunatus was a poet, born c. 530 in Treviso, near Ravenna in Italy. He spent his time as court poet to the Merovingians. After visiting the tomb of St. Martin of Tours at St. Hilary at Poitiers, he decided to enter a monastery. He continued to write poetry, some of which have a permanent place in Catholic hymnody, for instance the Easter season hymns “Vexilla Regis” and the “Pange Lingua” (Sing, O my tongue, of the battle). Three or four years before he died he was made bishop of Poitiers. Although never canonized, he was venerated as a saint in the medieval church, and his feast day is still recognized on 14th December each year.


(Calendar of LGBT Saints)


Like Paulinus of Nola, St Veantius’s poetry also includes some decidedly secular verse of the romantic sort. That this celebrates male love is clear from its inclusion in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse.

“Written on an Island off the Breton Coast”

You at God’s altar stand, His minister
And Paris lies about you and the Seine:
Around this Breton isle the Ocean swells,
Deep water and one love between us twain.
Wild is the wind, but still thy name is spoken;
Rough is the sea: it sweeps not o’er they face.
Still runs my lover for shelter to its dwelling,
Hither, O heart, to thine abiding place.
Swift as the waves beneath an east wind breaking
Dark as beneath a winter sky the sea,
So to my heart crowd memories awaking,
So dark, O love, my spirit without thee.

[trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse]

Books:


Coote, Stephen, ed., The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse
Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality.

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Nov 1st : All (Gay) Saints

Are there gay saints? Some sources say clearly yes, listing numerous examples. Others dispute the idea, saying either that the examples quoted are not officially recognised, or denying that they were gay because we do not know that they were sexually active. Before discussing specifically LGBT or queer saints, consider a more general question. Who are the “Saints”, and why do we recognise them?

All Saints Albrecht  Dürer

Richard McBrien gives one response, at NCR on-line:

There are many more saints in heaven than the relatively few who have been officially recognized by the church. “For every St. Francis of Assisi or St. Rose of Lima there are thousands of unknown and long forgotten mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, co-workers, nurses, teachers, manual laborers, and other individuals in various kinds of occupations who lived holy lives that were consistent with the values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Although each is in eternal glory, none of their names is attached to a liturgical feast, a parish church, a pious society, or any other ecclesiastical institution. The catch-all feast that we celebrate next week is all the recognition they’re ever going to receive from the church.” “The church makes saints in order to provide a steady, ever renewable stream of exemplars, or sacraments, of Christ, lest our following of Christ be reduced to some kind of abstract, intellectual exercise.

Two things are important here: the category of saints is far larger than just those who have been recognised by a formal process; and the reason for giving them honour is to provide role models. It is not inherent to the tradition of honouring the saints that they should be miracle workers, or that we should be praying to them for special favours – although three officially attested miracles will help the formal canonization process. This formal process did not even exist in the early church: it was only in the 11th or 12th centuries that saint making became the exclusive preserve of the Pope. It now becomes easier to make sense of the gay, lesbian and transvestite saints in Church history, and their importance.

For some, their official recognition is not important – all that counts is their value as role models. If they are widely seen as such, we are entitled to call them so, even without clear canonized status.

The LGBT Saints are also not limited to the distant past. The American Episcopal church recognizes two twentieth century lesbians as saints: Vida Dutton Scudder has a feast day in October, and just recently, Rev Pauli Murray was added to its book of “Holy Men, Holy Women”. In the Catholic Church, there is a strong popular move to initiate a cause for sainthood for Fr Mychal Judge, “The Saint of 9/11”. Earlier, there was a formal cause for another American, Dr Tom Dooley. That failed, apparently because of his sexuality – but when the church revises its thinking on sexuality, that cause could well be revised.

The formal canonization process, or Anglican equivalents however, are really not the point.   They are merely the public confirmation and recognition of sainthood, not its criterion. There are countless more men and women who qualify by the virtue of their lives – but whose qualities have not been publicly noted. Among LGBT Christians, there are still others who deserve attention for the opposition and persecution they have received from the institutional church – and the courage they have displayed in standing up to this modern martyrdom.

In fact, we are called to sainthood, and to witness – witness as Christians, and in honesty in our lives as lesbian, gay or trans. This is not a conflict. Numerous writers on spirituality have noted that embracing our sexuality can bring us closer to the divine, not drive us away. We can, indeed, take a rainbow bridge to God  (and sainthood) – but the the gay closet is a place of sin.

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St. Paulinus of Nola, bishop 22/06

Although some would dispute the description of Paulinus as 'gay', the description seems to me entirely appropriate to his sensibility. Although history records no evidence of physical expression of his same sex attraction, nor is there any evidence against it.  Given the historical context he was living in (4th/5th century Roman empire) , when sex with either gender was commonplace for men at at all levels of society, inside and outside the Christian church, the absence of written records of private activities after 15 centuries is completely unremarkable.  Nor is the fact that he was married particularly significant – for Romans, marriage and sex with men were entirely compatible.  

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St Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles

There is much that is paradoxical in the figure of Paul. In his dual persona as Saul / Paul, he is renowned as both a one-time feared persecutor of Christians, and as the greatest of all the early missionaries, who spread the word far beyond it s original geographic compounds, and author of by far the most influential Christian texts outside the Gospels themselves. In the same way, as the author of the most infamous New Testament clobber texts, he is widely regarded as strongly condemning homoerotic relationships – and yet  Paul Halsall lists him in his Calendar of LGBT Saints:

There is considerable debate over those anti-gay “proof -texts”, but whatever the conclusions, there is much, as Anglican Bishop of Newark John Spong has pointed out, which leads one to suspect Paul might have been “queer” in some way. The fact he was never married, unusual for a Jew of his time, his companionship with a series of younger men, especially St. Timothy, his mention of an unnamed “thorn in the flesh”. and, possibly, his disdain for some types of exploitative homosexual relationship in his period, all raise questions, questions which cannot be answered it must be admitted, about his sexuality.
What are we to make of this?

First, let us dismiss the idea that Paul’s writing is anti-gay: it isn’t, and further, much of his message is precisely the opposite, arguing for full inclusion of all. For a counter to the standard view of Paul as anti-gay, anti-sex, see Reidulf Molvaer, Sex & St. Paul the Realist

St. Paul was, in many ways, an ascetic and happy to be so, but he refused to make asceticism a general model or ideal for Christians – most people cannot live by such principles, especially in the area of sex. In the seventh chapter of his first letter to Corinth, he rejects any appeal for his support of sexual abstinence as ethically superior to active sexual relations. He sets limits, but does not limit legitimate sexual relations to marriage. In his day, it was commonly believed that homosexual practice, more easily than heterosexual relations, could bring people into harmony with the unchangeable nature of God. This Paul strongly rejects in the first chapter of his letter to Rome. Otherwise he does not write about “natural” homosexuality. In fact, it is a logical inference from the principles he sets forth in his letter to Corinth that loving, lasting homosexual relations are ethically as valid as heterosexual relations. Dr. Molvaer maintains that insight into contemporary ideologies can be a help to understanding what the New Testament says about these matters. Today, as in the early Church, extraneous influences in these areas can easily distort genuine Christian moral concerns as they are stated by Christ and St. Paul.

Then, consider his person. Astonishingly little is known for certain of Paul the man, but Bishop Spong is not the only one to have suggested that Paul may have had some close same-sex relationships  of his own. Gay Catholic blogger Jeremiah Bartram (Gospel for Gays), who recently spent time on a pilgrimage “in the footsteps of St Paul” has reflected deeply on the life and writign of Paul, and concluded that on balance, the suggestion is sound (“Gay Paul“).

In the absence of hard evidence, personally I am happy to leave this discussion to others with greater scholarship and expertise behind them. My interest in the queer saints is in the lessons they hold for us today, and here I think there is one clear message, which lies in the best known story of al about Paul, his conversion on the road to Damascus. This has entered language as a “Damascene Conversion”, and therein lies hope. For if Saul, the renowned persecutor of Christians, could undergo such a complete change of heart and become instead active as the most famous proselytizer,  so too is there hope for the religion -based persecutors of sexual minorities today. Not only is there hope, but there is already abundant evidence from the very many Christians in the modern world who have experienced just such Damascene conversions, going from direct, outright condemnation of same sex relationships, to actively advocating full inclusion in church.   These changes of heart, usually coming after intensive study of Scripture and extensive discussions with gay and lesbian church members, have already been responsible for changes of policy in several denominations, and a more welcoming atmosphere in many local congregations. This process will continue.

For those Catholics who like to pray to the saints, you can freely include St Paul in you prayers. This is not because he was queer (although he may have been), but because his own conversion experience provides a useful model for all those modern day conversions that we need among the bigots who use religion as a cloak for prejudice and discrimination.

Nov 1st: All (Gay) Saints

Today is the feast of All Saints.  For us as gay men, lesbians in the church, this begs the obvious questions: are there gay saints?  Does it matter?
Some sources say clearly yes, listing numerous examples. Others dispute the idea, saying either that the examples quoted are not officially recognised, or denying that they wer gay because we do not know that they were sexually active.  Before discussing specifically LGBT or queer saints, consider a more general question.
Who are the “Saints”, and why do we recognise them?
All Saints Albrecht  Dürer
All Saints : Albrecht Dürer

Richard McBrien gives one response, at NCR on-line:

There are many more saints in heaven than the relatively few who have been officially recognized by the church.
“For every St. Francis of Assisi or St. Rose of Lima there are thousands of unknown and long forgotten mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, co-workers, nurses, teachers, manual laborers, and other individuals in various kinds of occupations who lived holy lives that were consistent with the values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Although each is in eternal glory, none of their names is attached to a liturgical feast, a parish church, a pious society, or any other ecclesiastical institution. The catch-all feast that we celebrate next week is all the recognition they're ever going to receive from the church.”
“The church makes saints in order to provide a steady, ever renewable stream of exemplars, or sacraments, of Christ, lest our following of Christ be reduced to some kind of abstract, intellectual exercise.
Two things are important here, especially at this feast of "all" saints: the category of saints is far larger than just those who have been recognised by a formal process; and the reason for giving them honour is to provide role models. It is not inherent to the tradition of honouring the saints that they should be miracle workers, or that we should be praying to them for special favours – although officially attested miracles are part of the canonization process. This formal process did not even exist in the early church:  it was only in the 11th or 12 the century that saint making became the exclusive preserve of the Pope.
It now becomes easier to make sense of the gay, lesbian and transvestite saints in Church history, and their importance for the feast of All Saints.

Read more »

The Story of Our Queer Saints & Martyrs (and others)

Ever since I started here at QTC, I have tried to share with you some information about our gay, lesbian and trans saints and martyrs, which I think is one of the great unknown stories of Church a and LGBT history. Ever since Stonewall, there has been a recognition that so much of the queer past has been hidden from history, with a great deal of work done to uncover this history and bring it into the light of day. In exactly the same way, and more dangerously, our history in the church has also been hidden. The pioneering work of scholars like John Boswell (and before him, Vern Bullough) has done a great deal to open this history up for exposure, but too often it remains buried in academic treatises which are valuable, but possibly inaccessible or intimidating to a general reader.

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Combatting Bigotry, a Cause For Sainthood: Brooklyn Dioncese

At a special church service on Thursday night, Bishop Nicholas A. Di Marzio of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn opened what is known as a “canonical inquiry” into the cause of sainthood for a Brooklyn priest, Msgr. Bernard J. Quinn.

New York Times

The basis of the cause is Msgr Quinn’s proud record of fighting against bigotry,  inside the church as well as outside.

Monsignor Quinn, who died in 1940 at age 52, championed racial equality at a time when discrimination against blacks was ubiquitous in America, even inside the Catholic Church. In the Depression-era heyday of the anti-Semitic, pro-Fascist radio broadcasts of the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, Monsignor Quinn encountered sharp resistance from some fellow priests when he proposed ministering to Brooklyn’s growing population of blacks, many of them fleeing the Jim Crow South or migrating from the poor Caribbean countries.

When Msgr. John L. Belford, an outspokenly antiblack priest in New York, wrote in 1929 in his church newsletter that “negroes should be excluded from this Roman Catholic church if they become numerous,” Monsignor Quinn took pains during the public controversy that followed to state his strong disagreement.

The bigotry that Msgr Quinn fought against was racial, not sexual – but the principle is the same. Racial discrimination was once commonplace, and was widely “justified” by spurious references from Scripture. Today, overt displays of racial prejudice are taboo, and many Churches like to cast themselves as models of racial justice.   Why can the church not see that the injustice of discrimination in Church is every bit as distasteful when applied to sexual minorities, as to racial groups?

This will change, is already changing. In years to come, we could easily see a repeat of something very like the above announcement, requiring changes to only the name and a very few words:

At a special church service on Thursday night, Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn opened what is known as a “canonical inquiry” into the cause of sainthood for a … priest/sister, Fr John McNeill / Jeannine Gramick/………….(insert your nominee).

Fr John McNeill / Jeannine Gramick/………….(insert your nominee)n championed sexual equality at a time when discrimination against sexual minorities was ubiquitous in America, even inside the Catholic Church. In the  heyday of the heteronormative, homophobic campaigns against marriage equality waged by so many bishops and prominent lay Catholics, Fr John McNeill / Jeannine Gramick/………….(insert your nominee) encountered sharp resistance from some fellow priests when he proposed ministering to the growing population of openly gay and lesbian Catholics, many of them fleeing homophobic violence  or migrating from countries same sex relationships could meet prosecution, or even the death penalty.

Will it happen? not necessarily in those exact words, but in principle, I am sure it will. When will it happen? only time will tell.

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