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.
What is known is that he was married, but also passionately in love with a man, Ausonius, to whom he addressed exquisitely tender love poetry. This is of sufficient quality and gay sensibility to be included in the Penguin book of homosexual verse:
I, through all chances that are given to mortals, And through all fates that be, So long as this close prison shall contain me, Yea, though a world shall sunder me and thee,
Thee shall I hold, in every fibre woven, Not with dumb lips, nor with averted face Shall I behold thee, in my mind embrace thee,Instant and present, thou, in every place.
Yea, when the prison of this flesh is broken, And from the earth I shall have gone my way, Wheresoe’er in the wide universe I stay me, There shall I bear thee, as I do today.
Think not the end, that from my body frees me, Breaks and unshackles from my love to thee; Triumphs the soul above its house in ruin, Deathless, begot of immortality.
Still must she keep her senses and affections, Hold them as dear as life itself to be, Could she choose death, then might she choose forgetting:
Living, remembering, to eternity.
[trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse]
It is surely entirely clear from the above that whatever his physical erotic activities, his sensibility was entirely what we would today call “Gay”. Paulinus’ feast day was on Monday of this week (June 22nd). It is fitting that we remember him, and the multitude of other LGBT saints in the long history of the church.
For more online, see Paul Hansall’s invaluable LGBT Catholic handbook, or the Catholic Encyclopedia. (Note though that the latter’s entry on Paulinus is an excellent case study on how official Church history scrupulously edits out our LGBT history. In a reasonably lengthy entry, Ausonius and the verses addressed to him are noted – but the essential facts that the relationship was passionate, or that the verses were clearly love poetry, are carefully filtered out.)
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.
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.
“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”.
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:
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.
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.
“Since Jesus had table fellowship with social outcasts and sinners, those rejected by the religious establishment of his time, I consider myself to have been most fully a Jesuit, a ‘companion of Jesus,’ when I came out publicly as a gay man, one of the social rejects of my time. It was only by our coming out that society’s negative stereotypes would be overcome and we would gain social acceptance.”
-Fr Robert Carter
There is no contradiction between being Catholic and gay or lesbian. Indeed, just as Robert Carter says he was most fully a Jesuit when he cane out publicly, so for many of us, we are most fully Catholic when we too come out in Church. (I say deliberately “for many of us”, as coming out is always a deeply personal decision, which may not always be appropriate for all.)
Robert Carter, Priest and Gay Activist, Dies at 82
The Rev. Robert Carter, who in the early 1970s was one of the first Roman Catholic priests in the country to declare publicly that he was gay and who helped found the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, died on Feb. 22 in the Bronx. He was 82.
I have serious reservations about any plan to out all gay Catholic priests, as described on the website of Church Outing I firmly support the principle of outing those who actively campaign against us, but particularly bishops, senior clergy, and individual priests who clearly ally themselves with the church’s public stance. However, for the rest, we should remember that we do not what individual priests are saying to people where it matters, in private. Silence need not mean consent: it can also indicated passive resistance. Recognising also the immense personal cost that can be involved for individual priests to come out, I prefer take the opposite route. Rather than naming and embarrassing those who would prefer to remain private, I would like to pay tribute to the great courage and honesty of those few who have indeed come out.
I would like to begin by introducing you to the London priest for Bernard Lynch, who was one of the founders of the Soho Masses 10 years ago, and who rather conveniently for me, unintentionally outed himself on national television on Saturday night.(Conveniently for me, because I can now write about this with full confidecne that I am not giving anything away. As he said to me after Mass last night, it can’t get him into any more trouble with the diocese than he is already in.) Now when I say he outed himself, I do not mean outed as a gay man, or even as a gay priest. No, he did that many years ago. Nor by “unintentionally” do I imply that he would prefer to remain private. No, he regularly introduces himself and his status fully and frankly. However, it was totally unintentional, as he had no idea the cameras and mic were running. This is how I chanced to see it.
My partner Raymond and I were at home on Saturday evening watching a BBC documentary on the English playwright Allan Bennett. (Raymond is a huge Bennett fan). One sequence showed Bennett as a guest of honour at the opening of new premises for a north London health centre. After the speechifying, there were background shots of the assembled crowds – and suddenly I saw Bernard in the centre of my screen. Briefly, he found himself introducing himself to the playwright, with the words, “I’m a gay man… and married”. Then, just before the camera moved on, he added, “and a Catholic priest.” Fr Bernard Lynch, introduced to the viewers as not just gay, not just a gay priest, but gay and legally married to his husband Billy.
Bernard’s honesty though has come at great personal cost. Years ago, while working in New York, he came under intense pressure as an openly gay priest, doing extensive pastoral work among people with AIDS, even facing prosecution for alleged improper behaviour with boys in the school where he was chaplain – allegations which were clearly shown to have been without foundation, and may well have been fabricated with malicious intent. (how ironic is that, when so many genuine abusers identified by the bishops have never faced criminal charges, and have simply been transferred or placed on “administrative leave”?)
Now based in London, Fr Bernard has a fraught and tense relationship with the local diocesan authorities, who refuse to grant him faculties to say Mass in a Catholic church. He does however, have the support of his order, and so is able to pursue a priestly ministry in private, especially as a spiritual director and psychotherapist.
Although I was living on the wrong side of London for it to be really viable, I did see Fr Bernard myself for a while for some direction, which I always found enriching and deeply thought-provoking. He had one key question which he asked on every occasion: “Where have you found joy? For joy is the unfailing sign of the Holy Spirit”. This observation I always found useful and enlightening then – and still do now.
Thank you, Fr Bernard Lynch.
LGBT / Queer people in Church history – saints and martyrs, popes and bishops