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Henri Nouwen, on Andrew Sullivan and the “Blessing” of Homosexuality

Andrew Sullivan’s new book, Virtually Normal: An Argument about homosexuality, is on of the most intelligent and convincing pleas for complete social acceptability I have ever read.

Andrew Sullivan is a Catholic. He is just as open about being a Catholic as he is about being a homosexual. From his writing it becomes clear that he is not only a Catholic but also a deeply committed Catholic who takes his church’s teaching quite seriously. That makes his discussion of the church’s attitude toward homosexuality very compelling.

My own thoughts and emotions around this subject are very conflicted. Years of Catholic education and seminary training have caused me to internalize the Catholic Church’s position. Still, my emotional development and my friendships with many homosexual people, as well as the recent literature on the subject, have raised many questions for me. There is a huge gap between my internalized homophobia and my increasing conviction that homosexuality is not a curse but a blessing for our society. Andrew Sullivan is starting to help me to bridge this gap.

– Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, p27

(emphasis added)

 

Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest and celebrated writer on spirituality, who struggled throughout his life with the conflict between his priestly vow of celibacy, and his human desire for a “particular friendship”, and his deep attraction to one particular member of his spiritual community, which he described in his book,  “The Inner Voice of Love”. The writer and theologian Chris Glaser has described how Nouwen had wanted to come out in that book, and disclose that the person to whom he was so attracted was a man – but was persuaded that doing so would limit the readership and label him as a “gay” writer, and so he instead kept the gender of this person undisclosed.

His biographer, Michael Ford (“Wounded Prophet”), told me that Nouwen wanted to come out with that book but had been persuaded its message would reach a broader audience if the gender of the friend were not revealed. Nouwen had mentioned to me his concern that his reach would be narrowed if he were defined by this one aspect of his character.

Shortly after his death in 1996, I was shocked to receive an e-mail from someone quoting “the gay theologian” Henri Nouwen — a verification of Henri’s concern.

-Glaser, Huffington Post

Glaser himself had the opposite experience, when early in his career he achieved transitory fame (or notoriety) as an openly gay candidate for ministry in the Presbyterian church, at a time when openly LGBT candidates were barred by church rules from ordination. As a result, he became labelled ever after as a “gay” theologian. (James Alison, another theologian, is careful to describe himself as a Catholic theologian writing “from a gay perspective”, but not as a gay theologian).

There are then, reasons to be careful about labelling Nouwen as a “gay saint”. He has not been formally recognized by the Vatican for canonization, but there is a case that he could be recognized as a saint by popular acclamation, based on the popularity and high regard for his spiritual writing. A more serious concern lies with the epithet “gay”. He was certainly celibate, and so any implication of sexual activity must be firmly rejected. Unlike Chris Glaser and James Alison, he also does not write from any explicitly gay perspective, or even acknowledge his own sexuality. (In the extract from Sabbatical Year quoted above, he refers to his “friends” who are homosexual, but not to his own sexuality).

But if he never acknowledged it publicly, he did so privately, as is now well known, and it does in fact directly influence much of his writing and spiritual insights:

He was indeed The Wounded Healer that he wrote of early in his career: those able to bring healing to others while acknowledging personal wounds. Nouwen’s spiritual breakthrough came when he drew too close to a member of his spiritual community, prompting intense self-scrutiny that led to his published journal, “The Inner Voice of Love,” in which he comes to the realization that people will try to hook you in your wounds, and “dismiss what God, through you, is saying to them.”

-Glaser, Huffington Post

September 21st was the anniversary of Nouwens death – what in Catholic hagiography is described as his “dies natale“, or day of birth into new life. Let us remember him not as in any way a “gay saint”, but as a notable and inspirational writer on spirituality, a candidate for sainthood by popular recognition, who is loved for the healing power of his writing. Who was, nevertheless, clearly of a homoerotic orientation.

“We become neighbours when we are willing to cross the road for one another. There is so much separation and segregation: between black people and white people, between gay people and straight people, between young people and old people, between sick people and healthy people, between prisoners and free people, between Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Greek Catholics and Latin Catholics. There is a lot of road crossing to do. We are all very busy in our own circles. We have our own people to go to and our own affairs to take care of. But if we could cross the street once in a while and pay attention to what is happening on the other side, we might become neighbours.”

– Henri Nouwen

(quoted at   Prodigal Kiwi)

Video:

Sue Mosteller talks about Henri Nouwen on Salt and Light’s Witness Program

(With grateful thanks to Kittredge Cherry, who alerted me to his anniversary, and to the useful link to Chris Glaser’s reflection. Kittredge has her own post on Henri Nouwen at Jesus in Love blog).

Books:

Ford, Michael: Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen

Nouwen, Henri J. M: 

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Victim 0001: Fr Mychal Judge, gay saint of 9/11

 

As we reflect on the tragedy that was 9/11, and as we as LGBT Catholics face the fierce resistance  by Catholic bishops to marriage equality, let us  recall eleven years later, that the first victim carried out of the ruins of the World Trade Centre was – a gay Catholic priest, Mychal Judge. He was not one of the unfortunate victims trapped inside the building at the time of the attack with no time to escape, but the chaplain to the New York fire department, who had entered the building after the attack, together with the firefighters, to render what assistance he could. In his story, are many lessons relevant to those of us who struggle with the challenge of living authentically as both Catholic, and queer.

“First from the Flames”, statue of firefighters carrying out the body of Mychal Judge

In the immediate aftermath of the carnage, when it emerged that the popular Catholic chaplain had voluntarily entered the collapsing building to support the firefighters, there were many prominent Catholics calling for his bravery and highly regarded ministry to be marked by canonization – calls that rapidly subsided once it emerged that within his circle of friends and colleagues, it was well known that Mychal Judge was widely known to be gay.

The story of his death is well – known, and available from many on- line sources (for examples, see the links below). It is his life that I want to explore.

In the book, “Queer and Catholic“, Salvatore Sapienza (author of Mychal’s Prayer: Praying with Father Mychal Judge) shares some reflections on the man that he knew personally during the late 1980’s, an article called, appropriately, “Fully Human, Fully Alive”:

“Walking to the subway station after an AA meeting in Manhattan, Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest fully attired in his hooded brown monk’s habit , turned to a  young man he had met at the meeting and exclaimed “Isn’t God wonderful!”  When the young man asked the priest why, Father Mychal responded “Look at all the beautiful men out on a Friday night”.

What may sound like the introduction to another sordid story about the secret sexual lives of priests is anything but, for this is the tale of a man who took his vow of celibacy very seriously, yet still celebrated his sexuality openly. A man of God, but still just a man”.

– Sapienza, in “Queer and Catholic“.

 The late 1980’s was a time when AIDS was taking a toll on the lives of countless gay American men. Later in his article, Sapienza describes how it was this that brought him into contact with Fr Mychal, soon after he had himself decided to commit to life in a religious community:

At a time when the Church should have come roaring into action – for this is where Jesus would surely have been with the outcasts and the sick – church leaders, instead, chose judgement over love. This was especially true in New York City, one of the places hardest hit with the virus, where Cardinal John O’Connor became the face of hate to the gay community.

While most Catholic clergy members kept their distance, Father Mychal took it upon himself to address the needs of the gay community at this time of crisis. He formed Saint Francis AIDS Ministry, one of the first Catholic AIDS organizations in the country. He, along with myself and three other professed religious men, began to minister to people with AIDS in area hospitals…

But in addition to his total commitment to service, through his AIDS ministry, or working with Dignity New York for gay Catholics, or through his regular employment as chaplain to New York’s fire fighters, he was also able to simply enjoy life – appreciating the male beauty around him, or in socializing with people from a wide range of backgrounds.

Whether sitting on a cot talking to a destitute man in a homeless shelter, shooting the breeze with a bunch of macho firefighters at a New York City firehouse, or shmoozing with some rich society matrons at a swanky benefit, Mychal had the amazing ability to socialize and empathize with everyone he met.

Sounds to me an awful lot like one Jesus of Nazareth!

There is important symbolism here – as a Catholic priest, openly gay within a limited circle, he was very far from unique. It is now widely accepted that a substantial proportion of Catholic priests are gay: many estimates put the number between a third and one half. Many are deeply closeted, a tiny number are fully out and open, and some, like Fr Mychal, are open to friends and colleagues, and even to bishops. This number  is probably increasing, putting the bishops on “a steep learning curve”, as James Alison once put it to me, based on his discussions with them, in a range of localities. Publicly however, they seldom discuss the implications, or even acknowledge the phenomenon, just as there has been little serious attempt to engage fully and honestly with the idea that gay men, lesbians, or other queer people in loving and committed relationships can be good and faithful Catholics.

Just as the case for heterosexual priests, some of these gay priests are sexually active – but Mychal Judge, like others,  was not, honouring his vow of celibacy. In this, he reminds us that outside the matter of orientation, gay priests are much like any others – and many loving same – sex couples have much in common with conventionally married ones.

But the most important symbol in his story, and the reason for his celebration as a saint of 9/11, is in the powerful example of authentic Catholicism that he displayed, in his life, and in his death – an example of unswerving commitment to service to others, in the name of the Lord, as reflected in his prayer:

Mychal’s Prayer:
Lord, take me where You want me to go,
let me meet who You want me to meet,
tell me what You want me to say,
and keep me out of Your way.

It is this, not slavish adherence to a sexual book or rules, that makes one a true Catholic.

Resources:

Books & Film

Books

DVD

 

Lazarus, The Man Jesus Loved.

“Some believe that Lazarus of Bethany was the “beloved disciple” of Jesus — and maybe even his gay lover. His feast day is today (Dec. 17).

Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus in a dramatic miracle told in John: 11. The Bible identifies him as a man living in the village of Bethany with his sisters Mary and Martha. Lazarus falls ill, and the sisters send a message to Jesus that “the one you love is sick.” By the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead in his tomb for four days. Jesus weeps at the tomb, then calls, “Lazarus, come out!” To the amazement of all, Lazarus is restored to life.
Some scholars believe Lazarus was also the unnamed “one whom Jesus loved,” also known as “the beloved disciple,” referenced at least five times in the Gospel of John. The term implies that Jesus was in love with him, and perhaps they shared the kind of intimacy that today would be called “gay.” “

Read more (at Jesus in Love)

‘via Blog this’

Victim 0001, the Saint of 9/11: Father Mychal Judge

The body of Mychal Judge was tagged with the designation “Victim 0001” — the first official casualty of 9/11. In the famous Shannon Stapleton/Reuters photo, he is being carried out of the lobby of the North Tower, where he had been killed by debris from the collapsing South Tower. He was a Catholic priest of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, assigned to the monastery at the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street in Manhattan. He was also a chaplain with the New York Fire Department (NYFD) and one of the first responders to the attack on the twin towers. He was a recovered alcoholic… and he was gay.”

Father Mychal Judge

b. May 11, 1933
d. September 11, 2001

Father Mychal Judge was a Franciscan priest and Fire Department of New York chaplain who died heroically on September 11, 2001. He has been called a “Saint of 9/11.”

“The first thing I do each day is get down on my knees and pray, ‘Lord, take me where you want me to go, let me meet who you want me to meet, tell me what to say, and keep me out of your way.’ “

Shortly before entering the World Trade Center on 9/11, Father Judge rejected an offer to join Mayor Giuliani, choosing instead to step into harm’s way to be with the FDNY and victims of the terrorist attack. A Reuters photograph of Father Judge’s body being carried from Ground Zero by rescue workers made him an international icon of heroism.

Father Judge was a hero to many long before his death. He was beloved by Fire Department of New York personnel and their families and a champion of New York’s homeless, AIDS patients, gay and lesbian Catholics, alcoholics, immigrants, and disaster victims.
Born in Brooklyn to Irish immigrant parents, he was only six when his father died after a long illness. As a boy, Judge was inspired to enter the priesthood by the Franciscan friars at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi near Penn Station in Manhattan.
In the early years of his ministry, Father Judge served two parishes in New Jersey, where he gained a reputation as “the listening priest.” During his service as Assistant to the President of Siena College, Father Judge confronted his alcoholism and achieved sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous.
In the 1980’s, Father Judge was among the first clergy to minister to AIDS patients, who at that time were considered untouchable. Through the organization Dignity, he ministered to gay and lesbian Catholics even after the Church excluded the organization from holding masses in New York churches.
In 1996 Father Judge led a memorial service on the beach at Smith Point, Long Island for the families of the victims who lost their lives in the nation’s second worst air disaster, the explosion of TWA Flight 800. More than 2,000 people attended.
Father Judge received numerous posthumous honors, including France’s highest recognition, the Legion of Honor. His FDNY fire helmet was blessed by Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.

Bibliography:

Gay Catholic Icon Rev. Mychal Judge

“When All Saints Church sought to signal its hospitality to gays and lesbians, the Catholic parish in Syracuse, N.Y., turned to a well-known image from the 9/11 attacks: five firefighters carrying a body from the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

The body belonged to the Rev. Mychal Judge, a Franciscan fire chaplain who rushed to the burning buildings and was killed by falling debris. Later, a half-hidden secret emerged about the gallant priest: he was gay.”

Harvey Milk

b. May 22, 1930
d. November 27, 1978

Harvey Milk became the first openly gay person to be elected to a significant public office when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. He served eleven months before he was assassinated.

"The important thing is not that we can live on hope alone, but that life is not worth living without it."

Harvey Milk was a New Yorker who migrated to San Francisco in the 1970’s, when an influx of gay immigrants from across the country was changing the Castro neighborhood into the city’s gay village. Milk opened a camera store and founded the Castro Valley Association of local merchants. His willingness to represent the interests of local merchants with city government earned him the unofficial title of "the Mayor of Castro Street." Milk discovered that he had a natural flair for politics.

Milk was a political outsider and a populist who made his own rules. From his shop in the Castro, he ran grassroots campaigns based on relentless meetings, door-to-door canvassing, and media interviews. His supporters formed "human billboards" by standing along major thoroughfares holding placards. Milk’s first three tries for office were unsuccessful, but they gave him increasing credibility with the electorate.

When Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, a lesbian wrote, "I thank God I have lived long enough to see my kind emerge from the shadows and join the human race."

Milk was shot to death in his City Hall office on Nov. 27, 1978, by Dan White, a conservative anti-gay former supervisor who also murdered Mayor George Moscone. White was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years imprisonment. City-wide violence erupted in San Francisco when White’s sentence was announced.

Harvey Milk had forebodings of his assassination. He left a tape-recorded "political will" naming his preferred successor on the Board of Supervisors. On that tape he said: "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."

Bibliography:

DVD

“Out of the Shadows, Into the Light”:Blessed John Henry Newman, Soho "Gay" Masses

Last Sunday I went up to London for one of the regular LGBT – oriented “Soho Masses”. Earlier in the day, Pope Benedict had conducted the beatification service for Cardinal John Henry Newman. Cardinal Newman is now officially Blessed John Henry – and so the liturgy used for our Mass was, quite appropriately, the newly minted liturgy for his festal day.

Read more »

Chin, Mayan God.

From Matt & Andrej Koymasky

Chin, a small child or dwarf god, introduced homoerotic relationships to the Mayan nobles. The nobles obtained youths of the lower classes to be the lovers of the noble’s sons. Such unions were considered legal marriages under Mayan law, and any attempt on the honour of the younger partner was punishable as adultery.

Chin was also known as the “death god”, and one of four lesser deities closely associated with the four Mayan creator gods, the Becabs

Celibacy, Homosexuality, Jeffrey John and Cardinal Newman

The Pope’s visit to the UK later this year is turning the spotlight on Cardinal John Henry Newman – Newman’s scheduled beatification is the ostensible primary reason for the visit. There are many aspects of Newman’s life and work that will be worth considering: his story as a leading Anglican convert to Rome will focus attention on the relations between the two churches, on the privileged position of the Anglicans as the “established” church here, and on the legal disadvantages of the Catholic church. There will also be interest in his work as a theologian, which has led some to see him as a “progressive” for his insistence on the primacy of conscience, while paradoxically others hail him as an arch traditionalist. I hope to discuss both of these later. For now though, I want to consider another aspect of his life, his well-known intensely passionate love for a younger priest, Ambrose St John.
This love has led me, like others, to include Newman in my collection of “queer” saints and martyrs. At the Guardian, Jack Valero clearly disagrees. In his discussion of Newman, he complains, “It is symptomatic of modern values that we conclude Cardinal Newman’s intense love for a man meant he was a homosexual.” My response to this, is that it is even more symptomatic of the modern Church that we conclude that anybody identifying as “homosexual”, or as gay, is not celibate. This is an important issue for the place of gay men and lesbians in the Catholic church, and of the treatment we receive.

First, let us consider the bare facts of Newman and his love, which are generally agreed. His love for St John is beyond dispute. "He loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable," Newman wrote after St John’s death. This love was reciprocated, to the extent that it was his explicit wish that he wanted to be buried alongside his lover in a shared grave. This wish was understood and respected by his colleagues of the Birmingham Oratory, and so it was done. However, there is no serious suggestion that the intense love between the two was given sexual expression. They were, after all, both priests. Yet from the same set of agreed facts, one side acclaims him as a “gay” saint, another as obviously not “homosexual”. To make sense of this contradiction, I now want to explore some of the nuances behind the bare facts.
A priest’s desire today to be buried in the same grave as another priest would certainly be extraordinary, possibly even scandalous but in earlier times it was uncommon, but less remarkable. Alan Bray in “The Friend” describes many English churches which have tombs holding male couples, some of them priests. What is significant here, is that this practice of burying couples in shared tombs was far more commonly practiced for married couples – and many of the male couples buried together that Bray described are known to have been “sworn brothers”, made so in a liturgical rite exactly comparable to the rite of “adelphopoesis” that John Boswell describes in “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe”. Boswell and Bray disagree on the significance: Boswell presents evidence that these rites included many elements exactly comparable to the rites for opposite-sex marriage of the day. Bray argues that they should not be seen as a form of marriage, but merely as a sign of deep friendship – some of the men undergoing sworn brotherhood were also married to wives. Most of these predated Newman and St John by many centuries – by the nineteenth century the practice had all but died out, and there is no evidence that the men had ever formalized the relationship in any form of written contract or liturgical rite, Still, the symbolism of the shared grave remains powerful, given its historical context.
Now, consider Newman’s celibacy. Recall that he started life as an Anglican, for whom clerical celibacy was not a requirement. He quite specifically approved of marriage as a general rule, and believed that “country parsons” too should marry. Yet, even at the tender age of 16, he knew that he personally would not, believing that a single life was the “will of God” for him. If this deliberate celibacy in a priest should mean that he cannot be considered “homosexual”, does this mean that he is necessarily to be thought of as “heterosexual”? Surely not. Celibacy in itself is no indicator of sexual orientation. The common words simply are not of any help. Personally, I no longer think in terms of any category of “gay” saints: the modern word does not work outside of the modern period, and so I use the term “queer” instead, to denote anybody whose behaviour or choices stand clearly outside the standard, gendered role models for “heterosexual” men and women. On this basis, I have no hesitation in describing as “queer” a man who early on praised marriage in principle, but eschewed it for himself without any religious obligation to do so, and whose major emotional investment was a passionate (if sexless) relationship with a man, with whom he desired to share eternity.
Now, I return to the implications behind the opening statement in the Guardian: “It is symptomatic of modern values that we conclude Cardinal Newman’s intense love for a man meant he was a homosexual.” The argument here, that celibacy denies “homosexuality”, can be turned on its head: there is an assumption behind it that “homosexual” implies sexual activity. This is a dangerous assumption, which leads to some of the more shameful aspects of pastoral practice in the institutional church. Vatican theory is quite different: the significant modern documents draw a clear distinction between the homosexual person, the “inclination” (or orientation), and actions. It is made clear that the “inclination” is not sinful, and that homosexual persons are to be treated with compassion, dignity and respect. Only homosexual “actions” are considered to be sinful. Yet Vatican teaching argues against protecting the persons from discrimination in housing or employment, even though such discrimination is clearly targeted at people for who they are, not for what they may have done. In defending this position, they claim that the “person” can remain free of discrimination by the simple expedient of keeping his “inclination” secret. “DADT”, in other words, in the Church.
This week, the English courts ruled on the validity of this argument as it applies to gay asylum seekers, looking for refuge here from serious homophobic persecution, even the risk of death, in their home countries. The British Border Agency, fearing that a sympathetic ruling would open the flood-gates to unwanted hordes of opportunistic refugees, had argued that gay Iranians, Sudanese and the like could escape persecution by the simple expedient of remaining closeted. The court sensible disagreed, stating that this was an entirely unreasonable and unjust expectation. It is even more unreasonable and unjust on the part of a Church which reminds us (in “Homosexualitatis Problema”, para 18) of the Scripture injunction to “Speak the truth in love”, and “the truth shall set you free”.
The problem is that the Vatican promise of “dignity, compassion and respect” does not apply to persons who are “homosexual”, but only to those who hide their sexuality. Why? Because if their “condition” is known, they are assumed to be not celibate – even when they give assurances to the contrary, as was the case of the Canadian altar server. This is not just a problem for the Vatican – it applies equally to the Anglican Church, and was the unstated problem that derailed the proposed selection of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Southwark. John declares that he is celibate. However, he is known to be in a Civil Partnership. British law on these partnerships is clear that they are in many respects virtually identical to conventional marriage, but there are a handful of key differences. One of these is that unlike traditional marriage, there is no requirement of sexual consummation for the partnership to be legally valid. In terms of law, it is entirely possible for two men to be in a legal Civil Partnership, and celibate, just as John says he is. His opponents, however, simply refuse to believe this. To them, the simple fact that two homosexually identified men are living together is taken as “proof” that they are not celibate. In the commentary around John’s nomination, it was asked whether there was any “proof” (such as video footage) that their relationship was “chaste”. Why?

Now, let us return once more to Cardinal Newman. He never disclosed physical sexual activity, or its absence with St John, but in the absence of evidence, it is assumed that his close emotional relationship was suitable celibate. In the case of both the (Catholic) Canadian altar server, and the (Anglican) Jeffrey John, we have clear statements of both that their relationships with their partners are celibate, and so (presumably) exactly comparable to that of Newman and St John. Yet the popular assumption around these men is precisely the reverse of that applied to Newman. Whereas he is assumed to be celibate, they are assumed not to be. If modern standards had been applied to Newman, he should have been barred from the priesthood altogether, let alone raised to high office and a path to sainthood.

Books:

Boswell, John : Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Alan Bray, The Friend