An important part of Catholic tradition is a strong interest in S & M – and that’s not Sadism and Masochism (although some would say that to be a Catholic, and especially a gay Catholic, it helps to be a masochist), but “Saints and Martyrs”. For today’s feast of All Saints, it is worth remembering that the multitude of saints and martyrs in Church history also includes many queer saints and martyrs. For this great feast, I republish here an address I gave originally for the Quest 40th anniversary conference, in July 2013.
I know that some people find the term “queer” offensive, but the primary meaning is just “strange”. Some of our queer saints and martyrs are very queer. or strange, indeed.
Many of you will know about Sergius and Bacchus, the best known of the gay saints: Roman soldiers, lovers and Christian martyrs. But are they saints? They are no longer listed in some major reference books on Catholic saints, and in others are listed, but with a note that their “cult” was suppressed in 1969. I’ve since come across claims that they were not in fact lovers, but just “good friends” – and even that modern scholars don’t believe they ever existed, in the first place.
This rather sums up any attempt to grapple fully with the story of gay saints in Christian history: I have no doubt at all that there really were and still are many gay, lesbian and trans saints, but it’s not always easy to classify saints by orientation, there are ambiguities in what constitutes sainthood, and some of the historical details are distinctly unreliable. (The best known “facts” about St Patrick are that he drove the snakes out of Ireland, and used the shamrock to illustrate the Trinity. At least one of those is definitely not true, the other is dubious).
In the same spirit, I can assure you that of the saints I’m about to discuss, at least some of the facts are true.
Let’s return to Sergius and Bacchus, and their removal from the saintly canon in 1969. There are some gay activists who see conspiracy in this, but its much simpler. In the early church, there was no formal canonization process – the saints were those who were popularly acclaimed as such. In 1969, the Vatican went through the records, and removed a large number that were doubtful. There’s a converse – “saints” are not only those who have been canonized. There’s still a place for saints by popular acclamation.
At about the same period as Sergius and Bacchus, and also in Rome, there were Galla and Benedicta, two nuns in a 5th century Roman convent, devoted to God, and to each other. When Galla fell seriously ill, St Peter appeared to her in a vision, and told her to prepare for her imminent death. Galla quite welcomed the idea of proceeding to heaven, but pleaded with Peter that she should not have to leave behind her beloved Benedicta. The saint duly promised that Benedicta too, would die soon after Galla, and that’s exactly what happened. I’m not sure how many of us would pray for the death of our loved ones – but then, we’re not saints.
In the Eastern Church, there were a number of women who disguised themselves as men to live and pray in male monasteries (the earliest trans saints). The oddest trans saint of all is Wilgefortis, whose feast day was last Saturday. Some statues of her show a crucified, bearded woman. She was a beautiful royal princess, who was commanded by her father to marry a prince he had selected for her. She, on the other hand, did not want to marry, but to devote her life to God as a virgin. So, she prayed to God to be freed from the evil of marriage. Miraculously, she woke up with a thick beard, whereupon the prince refused to marry her, and the wedding fell through. Her father was furious, and had her crucified for her disobedience. That’s the story. The probable truth is less dramatic, possibly based on a conventional crucifix showing Christ in a tunic, rather than the more usual loincloth. Mistaking the tunic for a dress, people invented the myth of the bearded woman, to explain what appeared to be a crucified bearded woman. Even so, some people treasure her as a patron of trans or intersex people. She is also known by a range of other names, including Uncumber, and in Spanish “Liberada” – liberated. Under that name, she is regarded as a patron for liberation from male domination. I like to think of her as a possible patron for liberation from all manner of sexual or gender stereotypes and enforced roles.
On the other side of the Roman Empire, we have a completely orthodox, historically reliable 4th century Spanish bishop and saint, Paulinus of Nola, highly regarded for his missionary work, and also for his excellent liturgical verse. What the standard Catholic histories don’t tell you, is he is also respected by Latin scholars for his erotic verse addressed to a male lover, Ausonius. What is truly extraordinary, is that he is only one of a number of canonized saints, bishops and abbots, mostly medieval, whose poetry is included in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse. But here it gets more tricky. Some of the frankly homoerotic language is no more than a literary device, not intended to represent any actual, real life male love interest.
What we do know is that there were numerous examples of pairs of bishops and saints who had close relationships which were intimate emotionally, if not physically: St Aelred of Rievaulx wrote an important book on the spiritual value of these relationships. Just one example from this diocese, is that of the Saint Richard, bishop of Chichester, who had a close, emotionally intimate relationship with Archbishop Edmund of Canterbury. While these relationships were expected to be celibate, and many were, this was because as monks, they had taken vows of celibacy. (Before becoming a monk, Aelred himself had a relationship which probably was physical with the young son of the Scottish king). Those of us who have not chosen celibacy, could learn from Aelred about the spiritual value of our own relationships.
As I’m focusing on saints and martyrs, I won’t say too much about the many notable examples of other abbots, bishops and even popes who definitely had sex with men, but consider a special class of gay martyrs – those martyred by the church, on account of their sexuality, during many centuries of direct persecution that began with the Inquisition, and continued by civil governments on behalf of the Church.
What I find most fascinating about the Renaissance period, is that at just the time when the inquisition was actively hunting down and burning “sodomites”, there was a succession of popes and cardinals who were themselves having sex with men, or who were patrons of artists producing frankly homoerotic art – Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel being the best and well – known example. Less well known, is that one of these Popes also commissioned Michelangelo to paint a more explicitly erotic work for the papal bedroom.
In modern times, there would seem to be no gay or lesbian saints. That changes when we remember the important distinction between formally canonized saints, and popular saints. One candidate for sainthood by acclamation is Fr Mychal Judge, chaplain to the New York Fire Department, the saint of 9/11, who died in the twin towers and was carried out, formally identified as victim 0001. Immediately, the Cardinal Archbishop of New York and other prominent Catholics began calling for his canonization. Those calls ended abruptly when it became known that he was an active member of Dignity, and identified openly as gay. Another is the American layman Tom Dooley, who started as a Naval doctor, before devoting his life to missionary work in Africa. There is a formal cause open in favour of his canonization, and a website to promote it – but there’s a difficulty. The reason he left the Navy was that he was found to have engaged in a sexual relationship with a man, at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence.
If the Catholic Church has an inbuilt bias against celebrating lay people as saints , that does not apply to other denominations. Lutherans and Anglicans do not have the elaborate procedures for canonization that we do, but they do nevertheless have a comparable form of recognition for holy men and women. It is among these, that we can find some more easily identifiable gay, lesbian and trans saints. The Episcopal Church in the USA has allocated a feast day to Vida Scudder, a social reformer of the late nineteenth / early twentieth century, who is known to have lived in a lesbian relationship. Just last year, the Episcopal Church added to its “Book of holy men and women”, Rev Pauli Murray, the first African American female ordained a priest. Although physically female, Murray saw himself, and lived, as a man attracted to women. The Lutherans include in their own calendar of saints, the United Nations Secretary General, Dag Hammerskold, who is believed to have been gay. But the most interesting of these Anglican / Lutheran saints is –
Michelangelo. The Vatican freely acknowledges the spiritual value of his work, including the male nudes and near nudes in the Sistine Chapel, but ignores the man. Anglicans and Lutherans know that the work cannot exist without its creator – and so they honour the man as well as the work. (The next time you men spend hours poring over Michelangelo’s hunky nude men, you could try claiming piously that you were doing so for their spiritual value, while praying to the saint who created the images).
What lesson can we draw from these queer saints and martyrs? First, to use the old cliché, we are not alone. There have always been what we call gay men and lesbians, in the Church, and among the saints, as there are everywhere else.
Second, I suggest we can include ourselves among the saints and martyrs. Accepting that “saints” refers to all holy men and women, not just those formally canonized, it is perfectly orthodox to say that we should all aspire to sainthood. Collectively, we as gay men and lesbians have all suffered martyrdom by the church – if no longer by physical execution, then certainly by emotional and spiritual abuse. But the word “martyrdom” derives from the word for “witness”. The early martyrs for the church were so called, because in the face of persecution, they witnessed to the truth of their faith.
And so I call on all of you, in the same spirit, to witness to the truth of both your faith, and the nature of your personal sexual or gender identity. Live with integrity, even in the face of continuing persecution by the Church. I ask you then to drink a toast, to yourselves – to the assembled saints and martyrs of Quest.