The following is the seventh installment of the “Out of the Closet and Into the Pews” series. The series features members of The Reformation Project’s Inaugural Conference -a leadership conference for 50 straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians who are committed to reform.
A Vision of Roman Catholic Affirmation
by Steven Kandow (BEA guest writer)
I had just finished listening to the reading of the Palm Sunday Gospel. As I sat down for the priest’s homily, I prepared myself for some sort of commentary on the impending SCOTUS cases regarding the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8. As the sermon concluded, however, I was pleasantly surprised to not hear anything associated with these cases or marriage equality. I breathed a deep sigh of relief as the priest returned to the presider’s chair…
…but my contentment was short-lived.
The first prayer of the general intercessions requested guidance for the justices of SCOTUS to uphold those two phrases I loathe hearing in my place of worship:
“the sanctity of marriage” and “traditional family values”
Commentary on the current movement for marriage equality detracts from what Christian worship should be about: learning how to fulfill the greatest of Christ’s commandments to love God and love my neighbor as myself.
Sunday mass is one of the places where I learn how to build my relationship with God. This component has been the primary reason for me to remain in the Roman Catholic Church. The sacraments, the format of worship, and the organization of the church year have turned into the vernacular I use to cultivate my friendship with Jesus Christ.
I also attend mass because it is my hope each week that the priest’s homily will lead me to become a better person and a more whole Christian. The purpose of his sermon is to connect messages in the readings for that week with recommendations for how to interact with others in a way that brings the presence of Jesus Christ to them through me.
I am comfortable enough with my personal beliefs and identity to not experience guilt or shame when hearing criticism of gay marriage during mass. However, this process took a great deal of time. It wasn’t until college when I began to even consider the possibility that homosexual behavior was not sinful. When I hear affronts to marriage equality, I cannot help but think about the young people in the congregation that may face questions regarding sexuality and gender. I worry that they, like me, will waste years fighting against a component of their very being because they don’t believe they can reconcile it with a healthy Christian faith.
For some reason, however, this particular incident on Palm Sunday got me to think: What would the Roman Catholic experience be like for a young LGBT person if the Church were affirming and accepting worldwide?
I then had a vision.
A young man was sitting in the same church I had attended for Palm Sunday mass. I had no idea how many years into the future this was, but somehow, I knew that this young man was gay and that his sexuality was not a cause for discrimination at all in his parish.
Prior to this mass, the boy had attended a catechism class related to the intersection of sexuality and spirituality. Instead of feeling ashamed of his attraction to men, the boy had been taught how a loving, committed, monogamous relationship with another person could foster a healthy relationship with Jesus Christ. As a result, the young man was spared the confusion and pain that used to accompany the journeys of LGBT teenagers throughout junior high, high school and beyond.
The young man was preparing for the sacrament of confirmation and had just finished writing his essay on the saint he had selected to take as his confirmation name. He had chosen the patron saint of homosexuals, so beatified not because the saint adhered to the Church’s old admonitions of celibacy, but because he and his husband exemplified the power of establishing covenant with God through living out their marital vows.
After completing his confirmation, the young man became a prominent leader in his parish. He was a lector, proclaiming the word of God at mass at least once a month; he offered his musical talents to accompany the church choir on his guitar; he became an important figure in his high school youth group, participating in a variety of community service activities; and he brought others from his high school to his parish to introduce them to God’s message of love, justice and forgiveness.
The young man graduated from high school and went to college. He met and fell in love with another man who shared his deep devotion to serving Christ and his fellow human beings. After the two graduated, the young man proposed to his significant other. The two then shared the good news with their families and immediately began planning the wedding and reception.
The two young men engaged in a nine-month marriage preparation class, in which they learned about how they could offer their marriage up to God and establish a loving, Christian household to raise a family. And at the end of the process, the two celebrated the sacrament of holy matrimony in the context of a beautiful Roman Catholic mass.
How many years into the future was this? Twenty? Fifty? One-hundred? Five-hundred? I had no idea.
Perhaps it will never happen. Perhaps I was only seeing what I thought my experience as young gay Catholic man could have been. Perhaps a vision such as this could only come to fruition in a parallel universe where sexuality and spirituality do not come into conflict so unnecessarily and easily.
The story of this young man could become a reality someday. I have already seen the beautiful intersection of Catholic and LGBT communities manifest itself through DignityUSA. This organization (though not sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church) has worked since 1969 to create environments for LGBT Catholics to worship safely without fear of condemnation for choosing to pursue committed, Christ-centered relationships with members of the same sex. I have made the trek from Lansing to Detroit to attend mass held by the Dignity chapter there. The regular attendees of Dignity Detroit’s chapter are some of the most devout Roman Catholics I have ever met -demonstrated through commitment to prayer, respect of the sacraments, willingness to apply God’s word and the welcoming atmosphere of their worship community.
DignityUSA is one organization working to change the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on marriage equality, but no person or group has more power or sway on doctrine than the individuals working in the Vatican, and none more so than its current leader, Pope Francis.
Many are quick dismiss the possibility that Pope Francis (or any pope for that matter) would ever issue a statement to bless or even sanction same-sex unions. When Jorge Bergolio was elected pope in March earlier this year, his adamant opposition to a same-sex marriage law in Argentina was one of the first items referenced regarding his stance on social issues. His use of phrases such as “a real and dire anthropological throwback” and “a destructive proposal to God’s plan” did not bode well for those of us hoping that the Church would see progress from their leader on this issue.
A few weeks after his election, however, two news sources issued stories suggesting that Francis’s stance on same-sex marriage (or at least same-sex union) may be less concrete than was previously suggested. These articles cite conversations between Francis (then-bishop Jorge Bergolio), Catholic gay rights activists, and other Argentinian bishops that suggest that the current leader of the Vatican may have actually proposed that the church in Argentina support same-sex unions.
I, for one, am not putting all my hope for an affirming and accepting Roman Catholic Church on Pope Francis based on these two articles, but the optimist in me cannot help but acknowledge the possibility that a shift in policy (if ever so slight) could occur.
Rather, I choose to place my hope in the next generation of Roman Catholics to bring about a shift in paradigm in our church. For even if Francis or one of his successors were to issue a statement affirming marriage equality, it will take time for the one billion members of the Roman Catholic Church (most of whom have been taught to oppose same-sex unions their entire lives) to accept this truth.
I am convinced that, despite no such statement being issued from the Vatican, our Roman Catholic youth have begun to make this paradigm shift. The following story should explain why:
Mount Pleasant, MI is home to Sacred Heart Parish and Academy. In Fall 2011, Sacred Heart Academy invited Dominic Sheahan-Stahl, a 1998 graduate, to be the guest speaker at their 2012 commencement ceremony. Within weeks before the event, the Diocese of Saginaw rescinded the invitation upon learning that Dominic was openly gay.
In response, Dominic’s family worked through a variety of mediums to share his story and further explore the reasoning behind the Diocese of Saginaw’s actions. Dominic’s youngest brother Willi (who was to graduate at the ceremony his brother had been invited to speak at,) rallied his classmates together in protest of the school’s decision. As a result, the principal of the academy held an assembly stating his regret for his decision to rescind Dominic’s invitation.
Due to the unwavering stance of the Diocese of Saginaw, Dominic was not allowed to speak at Sacred Heart Academy’s commencement ceremony. However, his family arranged for Dominic to speak at an off-campus site open to the public. It was at this point that I learned of Dominic’s story and decided to drive to Mount Pleasant to hear what he had to say.
I wasn’t certain how many other people would be in attendance. I figured that most of those planning on going wanted to hear something about Dominic’s experience of discrimination or wanted to stand in solidarity with him as he gave his speech.
When I arrived, however, I was surprised to learn that most if not all of Willi’s graduating class had come to this separate ceremony. Here were students who had been raised in Roman Catholic households and had come to hear this man (who just happened to be in a romantic relationship with another man) offer them words of wisdom and encouragement.
Dominic’s speech contained no references to his homosexuality, his engagement, or his significant other. Rather, he reminded the students of Sacred Heart Academy’s graduating class to persevere through difficulty, find courage in opposition, and continue to set and supersede goals. Dominic concluded his speech with a fundamental truth:
No one is outside the love of God.
For a moment, silence filled the auditorium, followed immediately by cheering and thunderous applause. As I watched the members of the graduating class, my heart leapt with joy.
They had given Dominic a standing ovation.
At that moment, I realized a change was occurring before my very eyes. These students had received a Roman Catholic education. They were likely taught not to tolerate or condone same-sex relations of any kind, yet they were on their feet for someone who had become a symbol against discrimination and intolerance toward the LGBT community. They represent the generation on which I hang my hope for change.
I believe it is a change that will come.
This generation is capable of creating and cultivating a Roman Catholic Church of acceptance and understanding worldwide. Such a church could produce the leaders like the one I saw in my vision by cultivating an environment that brings young people closer to Jesus Christ, teaches them how to love their fellow human beings and illustrates the potential for covenant with God in ALL monogamous, committed married life regardless of sexual orientation or gender. In turn, this church would benefit from the spiritual gifts, talents, and perspectives of its entire community, growing ever closer to fulfilling the mission of reflecting the presence of Christ in our world.
After all, isn’t that how the ideal religious experience should work?
Steven Kandow is currently pursuing the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Trombone Performance and the Master of Music degree in Wind Conducting at Michigan State University. A native of Clio, Michigan, Steve completed the Master of Music degree in Trombone Performance and the Bachelor of Music Education degree at Central Michigan University. Steve currently serves as vice president for the executive board of Q-CROSS (Queer Christians Reclaiming Our Sexuality and Spirituality) on the campus of Michigan State University.