Category Archives: Catholic Church

SS Galla (5 October) and Benedicta (6 May): Roman nuns – and lovers?

One of the curiosities of the Catholic tradition of honouring our saints and martyrs, is how hagiography seamlessly combines historical biography, myth with collective amnesia. The stories of Saints Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, for instance, are replete with well-known legends that have absolutely no verifiable foundation in historical fact, and the delightful story of St Wilgefortis (aka Uncumber), the crucified bearded woman, turns out to have a much more plausible basis in reality. For many other saints, the distortions of hagiography are not just the accretions that are added by popular imagination, but the important details that are so often omitted in the transmission down the ages. St Paulinus, for instance, is widely honoured for his missionary work and for the impressive quality of his Latin devotional poetry. The standard Catholic sources on the saints, however, discreetly omit any reference to his other poetic legacy – equally fine homoerotic verse addressed to his boyfriend, Ausonius.

The story of Saints Galla and Benedicta of Rome may be another example of this selective memory.  

 

Neither of these is particularly well-known, and Benedicta is even less-so than Galla, but I start with her. There are references to her scattered across the internet, but they all seem to come down to a few lines similar to these, from Catholic Online:

Mystic and nun. Benedicta lived in a convent founded by St. Galla in Rome. Pope St. Gregory the Great states that St. Peter appeared in a vision to warn her of her approaching death.

This seems innocuous enough, until it is set against the parallel warning of imminent death that St Gregory also gave to the better known St Galla.

From a large selection of on-line sources, Wikipedia sums up the key uncontested points of her story, those widely reported elsewhere:

Galla was the daughter of Roman patrician Symmachus the Younger, who was appointed consul in 485. Galla was also the sister-in-law of Boethius. Her father, Symmachus the Younger, was condemned to death, unjustly, by Theodoric in 525. Galla was then married but was soon widowed, just over a year after marriage. It was believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage. Being wealthy, she decided to retreat to theVatican Hill, and found a hospital and a convent, near St. Peter’s Basilica. Galla is reputed to have once healed a deaf and mute girl, by blessing some water, and giving it to the girl to drink. Galla remained there for the rest of her life, tending to the sick and poor, before dying in 550, of breast cancer. 

 Notice, please, that little sentence tucked away in the middle, and its cautious qualifier: “it was  believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage.” This strategy of a holy woman, to grow a beard to avoid marriage, is precisely that adopted by Wilgefortis. Her legend appears to have a much more mundane explanation. I have no knowledge of any firm evidence to either corroborate, or to contradict, Galla’s legendary beard. What interests me is the rest of Galla’s story, and its treatment in hagiography.

An article at Catholic Culture is a good example. It seizes on the beard, and uses it as a moral fable, encouraging us to “dare to be different”.  Catholic Culture, however, claims that the beard story was only a threat, and the beard never did grow.

A story about St. Galla of Rome, illustrating the importance to not follow the crowd, but to be oneself. Legend says that St. Galla, after becoming a widow, grew a beard to avoid any offers of remarriage.

Not only girls who want to be nuns, but girls who just want to be good have to ignore a marvelous lot of nonsense from those who “follow the pack.” Life will pass you by, they say, and you won’t have any fun if you don’t do as we do! About as fast as St. Galla grew her beard, it will!

 So, then dare to be different – the cause of following holiness. But there’s one little detail also included in the  same article, which they do not comment on – a detail that has been omitted from all the other accounts I have seen about Galla. These all tell how, as reported by St Gregory, St Peter appeared to Galla in her final illness to predict the date of her imminent death. The other reports omit the crucial detail that the deaths of Galla and Benedicta were directly linked – at Galla’s express request to Peter:

One night she saw St. Peter standing before her between two candlesticks and she asked him if her sins were forgiven her. St. Peter nodded and said, “Come, follow me.” But Galla asked if her dear friend Benedicta might come too. Yes, she might, said St. Peter, after thirty days — and that is precisely what happened. St. Galla and another holy woman departed this life for heaven three days later, and Benedicta thirty days after them.

 As Censor Librorum at  Nihil Obstat noted in her reflection on Galla last December, a woman who first grows or threatens to grow a beard to avoid marriage, and then implores Saint Peter to allow her female beloved to accompany her into heaven, is not displaying a conventional heterosexual orientation.

I have no hesitation in hesitation in adding Saints Galla and Benedicta to my collection of queer saints and lovers.

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.”

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St Patrick, Gay Role Model?

So why should we see St Paddy as a gay icon?

In a notable book on Irish gay history (“Terrible Queer Creatures”) Brian Lacey presents some evidence that Patrick may have had a long term intimate relationship with a man:
“St. Patrick himself may have had a relationship tinged with homoeroticism. Tirechan, a late seventh century cleric who wrote about St. Patrick, tells the story of a man Patrick visited and converted to Christianity, who had a son to whom Patrick took a strong liking. Tirechan wrote that “he gave him the name Benignus, because he took Patrick’s feet between his hands and would not sleep with his father and mother, but wept unless he would be allowed to sleep with Patrick.” Patrick baptized the boy and made him his close lifelong companion, so much so that Benignus succeeded Patrick as bishop of Armagh.”
saint-patrick
Among the few verifiable facts of Patrick’s life, are that when he was about 16, he was captured from his home and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping and returning to his family. After becoming a cleric, he returned to northern and western Ireland as an ordained bishop, but little is known about the places where he worked. By the seventh century, he had already come to be revered as the patron saint of Ireland.
It is his return to his place of hardship and slavery that should interest LGBT Catholics. Somewhere, I read a report* that after his escape from slavery and return to Ireland, he supported himself by working for a time as a prostitute  – yes, good old Patrick is said to have sold sexual favours.
Does this sound far fetched? Not if you consider the historical realities of the time.  Patrick’s home was in Roman Britain. throughout the Empire, prostitution was an entirely acceptable way for men or women in desperate circumstances to make a living. Consider also his likely experience as a slave.  In both Roman and Greek society, as well as elsewhere, it was assumed that one of the duties of a slave, particularly if young or attractive, was to provide sexual services on demand.  Ireland was not under Roman rule, but there is no reason to suppose that the conditions of slavery were notably different.  (Lacy shows in his book that in pre-christian Ireland same sex relationships were accepted and respected.)
There is another reason, though why we as queer Catholics should look to Patrick as a role model, regardless of his own sexual history, a reason which goes to the heart of his mission.
In “Faith Beyond Resentment”,  theologian James Alison observes that in the Gospel story of the healing of the man possessed by demons, Jesus instruction to the man after healing was to “Go home,” that is, back to the community which had tormented and rejected him, back to his persecutors.
This is what Patrick did.  Having escaped from slavery and returned to his original home, he responded to what he saw as a call to return to the country of his captivity, to go back to the land of his tormentors – and convert them.
So he did, and so, I think, must we.  Tormented and persecuted we have sometimes (but not always) been by the Catholic Church. Somehow, though, we must find a way to move beyond the anger that provokes, to set aside the resentment, and to “go home to” the church. Thereby we will contribute to its own conversion.

*  In a comment to an earlier posting of this piece, theologian JohnMcNeill has said that he thinks the book with this story was “How The Irish Saved Civilization”, by Thomas Cahill. “He claims that Patrick paid for his passage back to Ireland by servicing the sailors on the boat.”

Books:

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The Nun Who Became a Soldier, Fought in the Spanish Army

Catalina de Erauso, Spanish-Mexican soldier and Catholic nun; also known as ‘La Monja Alfrez’ (The Second Lieutenant Nun)

Catalina de Erauso (1592? – 1650), soldier and nun

Catalina de Erauso was daughter and sister of soldiers from the city of San Sebastián in Spain. Her father was Miguel de Erauso and her mother María Pérez de Gallárraga y Arce. She was expected to become a nun but abandoned the nunnery after a beating at the age of fifteen, just before she was to take her vows. She had not ever seen a street, having entered the convent at the age of four .

She dressed as a man, calling herself “Francisco de Loyola”, and left on a long journey from San Sebastian to Valladolid. From there she visited Bilbao, where she signed up on a ship with the assistance of other Basques. She reached Spanish America and enlisted as a soldier in Chile under the nameAlonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán. She served under several captains in the Arauco War, including her own brother, who never recognized her.

After one fight in which she killed a man and was wounded fatally, she revealed her sex in a deathbed confession. She however survived after four months of convalescence and left for Guamanga.

To escape yet another incident, she confessed her sex to the bishop, Fray Agustín de Carvajal. Induced by him she entered a convent and her story spread across the ocean. In 1620, the archbishop of Lima called her. In 1624, she arrived in Spain, having changed ship after another fight.

She went to Rome and toured Italy, where she eventually achieved such a level of fame that she was granted a special dispensation by Pope Urban VIIIto wear men’s clothing.

Her portrait by Francesco Crescenzio is lost. Back in Spain, Francisco Pacheco (Velázquez‘s father-in-law) painted her in 1630.

She again left Spain in 1645, this time for New Spain in the fleet of Pedro de Ursua, where she became a mule driver on the road from Veracruz. In New Spain she used the name Antonio de Erauso.

wikipedia

She died in Cuetlaxtla, New Spain in 1650.

http://www.glbtq.com/discussion/viewtopic.php?t=136

http://mith.umd.edu/eada/html/display.php?docs=erauso_autobiography.xml&action=show

Catalina de Erauso, the Lieutentant Nun

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Feb 25th: Saint Walburga, Abbess (710 – 779)

Today is the feast of the early English saint, Walburga, who entered the abbey of Wimbourne aged just eleven, then as a young sister was sent to accompany her uncle St Boniface to Germany, where they founded the “double monastery” of Heidenheim.
Read the full report , “Feb 25th, St Walburga, Missionary, Abbess,” at National Catholic Reporter. As you do so, pay close attention:  the text reminds us of so much that we have forgotten about the real history of women in the Church.

Continue reading Feb 25th: Saint Walburga, Abbess (710 – 779)

12th January: St Aelred of Rievaulx, Patron of Same Sex Intimacy

St Aelred,  whose feast we celebrate today, is recognised in all sources as an important English saint, who lived in the north of England in the 12 C. As a young man, he joined the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, later returning there as Abbott.  He is remembered especially for his writings on friendship, some of which have led gay writers such as John Boswell to claim him as ‘homosexual’. For instances, Integrity USA, an Anglican LGBT organisation, have designated him as their patron. From the website of Integrity, this Collect for the feast of Aelred:

Continue reading 12th January: St Aelred of Rievaulx, Patron of Same Sex Intimacy

John Boswell (1947 – 1994), Historian and gay Catholic activist

b. March 20, 1947
d. December 24, 1994

John Boswell was an esteemed historian who argued that homosexuality has always existed, that it has at times enjoyed wide social acceptance, and that the Church historically allowed same-sex unions.
“It is possible to change ecclesiastical attitudes toward gay people and their sexuality because the objections to homosexuality are not biblical, they are not consistent, they are not part of Jesus’ teaching; and they are not even fundamentally Christian.”
John Boswell was a gifted medieval philologist who read more than fifteen ancient and modern languages. After receiving his PhD from Harvard in 1975, he joined the history faculty at Yale University. Boswell was an authority on the history of Jews, Muslims, and Christians in medieval Spain. He helped to found the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale in 1987. In 1990 he was named the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History.
In 1980 Boswell published the book for which he is best known: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. In this groundbreaking study, Boswell argued against “the common idea that religious belief-Christian or other-has been the cause of intolerance in regard to gay people.” The book was named one of the New York Times ten best books of 1980 and received both the American Book Award and the Stonewall Book Award in 1981.
Boswell’s second book on homosexuality in history was The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, published in 1994. In it he argues that the Christian ritual of adelphopoiia (“brother-making”) is evidence that prior to the Middle Ages, the Church recognized same-sex relationships. Boswell’s thesis has been embraced by proponents of same-sex unions, although it remains controversial among scholars.
John Boswell converted to Roman Catholicism as an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary, and remained a devout Catholic for the rest of his life. He was an effective teacher and popular lecturer on several topics, including his life journey as an openly gay Christian man.
Boswell died of AIDS-related illness on Christmas Eve in 1994 at age 47.


Bibliography:

Selected works by John Boswell:

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Let Us Remember, for Dec 14th

St Venantius Fortunatus, Italian Bishop and Homoerotic Poet


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

St John of the Cross, Spanish mystic, Priest and Doctor 1542 -1591 

He is important for queer Catholics, especially gay men, for two reasons. First, because he is a great teacher of spirituality, and the cultivation of spiritual practice, by enabling a more direct experience of the divine, is an excellent way to immunize ourselves from toxic and misguided teaching on human sexuality. Second, and more interestingly, because his language at times uses imagery which is plainly homoerotic, and so easily usable by gay men in their own prayer.

(Read more)

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St John of the Cross: 14th December

John of the Cross is important for queer Catholics, especially gay men, for two reasons. First, because he is a great teacher of spirituality, and the cultivation of spiritual practice, by enabling a more direct experience of the divine, is an excellent way to immunize ourselves from toxic and misguided teaching on human sexuality. Second, and more interestingly, because his language at times uses imagery which is plainly homoerotic, and so easily usable by gay men in their own prayer.

From the Calendar of LGBT Saints:

1542-1591

St. John of the Cross was one of the great Spanish mystics, whose outstanding Dark Night of the Soul is still read by all interested in Catholic mysticism. He also wrote a series of intense religious canticles. St. John, like other mystics such as St. Theresa of Avila, used the language of courtly love to describe his relationship with Christ. He also discussed, with rare candor, the sexual stimulation of prayer, the fact that mystics experience sexual arousal during prayer. With the male Christ of course, this amounts to a homoeroticism of prayer. It must be said that St. John was not entirely happy with this aspect of prayer. He was beatified by Clement X in 1675, canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726, and declared a Doctor of Church Universal by Pius XI in 1926

 

Quoted at The Wild Reed:

(from ) On a Dark Night

……..

……..
“Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He caressed my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.”



See also:

Homoerotic Spirituality

The Intimate Dance of Sexuality and Spirituality

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Bishop Walter Sullivan: “A New Saint in Heaven”

With a heavy heart, we report the passing of Bishop Walter Sullivan, retired Ordinary of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia.   As a past president of Pax Christi USA, Bishop Sullivan is best known for his work on peace issues.  However, no less significant is Bishop Sullivan’s contributions to LGBT equality.

Here are  a few of his accomplishments:

  • Establishing the Sexual Minorities Commission, the first diocesan outreach to LGBT people, back in 1976
  • Writing the introduction to A Challenge to Love:  Gay and Lesbian Catholics in the Church (edited by New Ways Ministry co-founder, Father Robert Nugent, SDS).
  • Hosting the second national convention of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian/Gay Ministries in 1996.  (The organization is now called the Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry.)

Also in 1976, Bishop Sullivan spoke out in support of lesbian/gay civil rights, stating in the Richmond News Leader:

“The issue before our community and the [human rights] commission, however, is not the morality of a person’s sexual orientation, but rather a person’s rights and protection under the law.  We believe that a person’s sexual orientation, whether it is one we approve or disapprove, is not a proper ground for depriving  that person of the basic rights and protections that belong to all human beings. “

From a statement such as this, we can see that Bishop Sullivan was one of the first Catholic bishops to apply the church’s social justice and human rights traditions to the LGBT community.

Bishop Sullivan was not averse to applying that tradition to church structures, too.  In his introduction to A Challenge to Love, he stated:

“. . . we cannot remain satisfied that, once we have clearly articulated the official Church position on homosexuality, nothing else remains to be done in the area of pastoral care for homosexual people and education on this topic for the larger human community, including the families and friends of homosexual people.  This is especially true in those cases where the teaching of the Church itself has been presented in such a way that it has been the source or occasion of some of the pain and alienation that many homosexual Catholics experience.  We cannot overlook those injustices, including rejection, hostility, or indifference on the part of Christians, that have resulted in a denial of respect or of full participation in the community for homosexual people.  We must examine our own hearts and consciences and know that each of us stands in need of real conversion in this area. “

Bishop Sullivan was a good friend of New Ways Ministry over the years.  When he first established the Sexual Minorities Commission, he invited our co-founders, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Nugent, to lead the first retreat for the commission members.

I had the good fortune to meet Bishop Sullivan on several occasions, both in the context of peace activities and LGBT ministry.  He always had a warm smile and a joke or two to share.  His good humor and expansive spirit was remembered by others in a National Catholic Reporter article about his life and his death:

Sullivan will be remembered as ‘a happy and tireless warrior for justice and peace,’ said retired Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza of Houston, a former president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

‘He truly believed in the priesthood of the laity and their essential role in the life and mission of the church,’ Fiorenza told NCR.

Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, a longtime observer of the Catholic scene in the country, concurred.

 ‘It would be hard to find anyone like Sullivan in the American hierarchy today,’ Reese said. ‘He was a liberal bishop passionately committed to social justice and peace.’

Though, as Fr. Reese notes, there are no other current bishops who share Bishop Sullivan’s passion and spirit, those of us who mourn his passing can take comfort in the fact that we now have a new saint in heaven to intercede for us in areas of peace, church reform, and LGBT equality and justice.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 Bondings 2.0.

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