Gay Catholics pray 2015 will be the year of the welcome

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The monthly All Are Welcome Mass in Dublin is a ‘very special place’ for the LGBT faithful, whose members await wider acceptance by the church

Judy Garland may have urged us to “make our yuletides gay” in the song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, but for those of us born that way it’s a year-long thing.

With the presents tucked under the tree and the turkey defrosting in the kitchen, the bells of the cathedral will soon draw lapsed Catholics to their once-a-year spiritual engagement, Midnight Mass, where they will be welcomed with open arms.

One small, silent minority will be praying that 2015 will be the year when their own presence will be as welcome.

Last week, the Dublin’s Gay Men’s Chorus and more than 100 members of the community gathered together in the Unitarian Church in Dublin for the 16th Annual LGBT Christmas Carol Service. The ecumenical event was one of the few places where gays could gather together with their loved ones and connect with the Christian spirit of the season without fear of being judged.

The Catholic Church played a coquettish game of footsie with the gay community this year, when, at the synod of bishops in Rome in October, it released a draft report featuring language that was warm and accepting. When the final report appeared, however, gays no longer had “gifts and qualities”, nor were they deemed to supply “precious support” to same-sex partners. Instead it contained the cooler statement that homosexuals were to be “welcomed with respect and sensitivity”.

Although disappointed, some in the gay community felt the church had made a sudden expression of feeling it didn’t quite know how to handle. Could the draft be a good omen for the birth of a new, more Christian, church?

“Had we not seen the draft we would have said the report was a step in the right direction,” says Ciarán Ó Mathúna, the chairman of Gay Catholic Voice Ireland, an organisation that wants to provide a more positive Catholic voice in the run-up to the marriage referendum.“It’s disappointing because expectations were raised. But it was only around six votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass. When the issue is revisited in a year’s time, the pope will get it through.”

But why would gay people want to be associated with a church that cannot even use Christian language to describe them?

Gay Catholic Voice Ireland recently launched a video in which four gay Christians spoke about their experiences of being openly gay and religious. “As a young man I gave all my power to the Catholic Church,” Frank McMullan, one of those interviewed, tells me, “to the point that I was not only in denial of who I was, I rejected who I was. That led me to make a decision to marry my best friend, a wonderful woman, whose life I destroyed, and because of all of that, we are no longer best friends.

“It took a long time to come back from that. Part of my process was to take my power back from the hierarchal church. I’m ashamed of them. But it doesn’t take away my Catholicism. If I was going to leave, it would have been a long time ago, but for some reason I have stayed on. And I think a big part of that is the strong need to be nourished by a group like this.”

‘Absolutely welcome’

We are sitting in the kitchen area of the Carmelite Centre off Morehampton Road in Dublin, after attending the All Are Welcome Mass, which takes place at 3.30pm on the third Sunday of every month. As the name suggests, all are welcome, but particularly welcome are members of the LGBT community, their friends and their families.

“I’m fed by a group like this in a way I’m not in ordinary church,” says McMullan. “[It’s] a very special place where I know I’m absolutely welcome, which isn’t necessarily the case elsewhere.”

It’s a notably different experience from any Sunday Mass I’ve been to, although little of that has anything to do with the rainbow flag stretched across the altar. Prayers aren’t sped through, readings aren’t mumbled and ignored. Instead the parishioners reflect silently on what has just been said before speaking their thoughts aloud, while the prayers of the intercession are opened to the floor, allowing you see what is on the mind of the parishioners.

A rotating group of 20 priests perform the Mass as a form of pastoral outreach. Most of these priests come from religious orders not answerable to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, although he himself acted as celebrant at the first All Are Welcome Mass to be held in a church.

“Not all priests are against us,” says Michael, one of the organisers. “To be able to say we do this is a concrete expression that some priests are welcoming to gay people.”

For Bernadette O’Reilly, that’s an important distinction to make between the institution and the community of the baptised. “Most of us don’t go along with what the institution says. Its balderdash and ordinary people know its balderdash.”

By attending All Are Welcome, the congregation is enacting the change it wants to see brought about. It’s a haven for those in second marriages, who have gay children or for straight allies who can’t equate the Christ in their hearts with the hatred spewed on the pews elsewhere.

 

Disowned by their families 

Paula* is actively involved in her own parish but has to be careful who she tells that her son is gay. “I brought him to my church to be baptised, for his First Holy Communion and his Confirmation. But I’ve seen some of my son’s friends disowned by their families because of what is said by the church. I come to this Mass in acknowledgment of that. I think it’s what Jesus wants. The basis of any religion is love. If God welcomes you no matter what, who are we to cause hurt by words spoken in disrespect?”

Paula has good cause for concern. Many gays have been forbidden from taking Communion after an open-minded priest is moved on and replaced with a dogmatic one. Choir singers, readers and ministers of the Eucharist have been removed from their positions for the same reasons, while more liberal priests are afraid to speak out for fear more conservative members of their flock report them to their superiors.

“The message of Christ trumps all,” says Christopher Fitzpatrick, who was taken to a psychiatrist to help change his persuasion when he was younger. “The blessings we receive outshine the negativity that come from the human failings of the church, the misinterpretations of philosophies.”

“There’s the authority of the hierarchy, but also the authority of your conscience,” says Soline Humbert, who is straight and married. “A lot of us feel that we cannot accept those toxic teachings. We have to take responsibility for them. I’ve stayed within the church to help remove this poison, which is a counter-witness to the message of the gospel.”

“To call somebody intrinsically disordered is just about the worst thing you can say,” concludes Louise, a 48-year-old lesbian who’s just come out. “It’s totally contrary to my experience of the God that created love, conciliation and me. I’ve struggled with all that language and I rebelled long enough, but I’ve finally accepted myself. I liked the draft, but I hope it’s not just a change of words, but a change of attitude. If you’re truly welcome it should be without any clauses attached.”

* Not her real name

The next All Are Welcome Mass will take place on Dec 21 at 3.30pm at the Carmelite Centre off Morehampton Road, Dublin 4. Gay Catholic Voice Ireland is available for comment on any issues relating to homosexuality inside or outside of the Catholic Church, info@gcvi.ie

Caomhan Keane; Irish Times; 19 December 2014