Tag Archives: gay saints

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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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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St Paulinus of Nola: Bishop, Poet, Saint – and Gay.

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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The (Gay) Roman Centurion and his “Boy”

In Catholic tradition, March 15th is the feast day of “Longinus”,  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:

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