By Jean Anthony
I am alone before mass, in the back of the church. I have to crane my neck far back to see the murals of the lives of the saints on the ceiling – lives I only half remember: Saint Martin here with his somber friar’s habit and broom, Saint Therese there with those lush roses falling out of her lap. So much space echoes between us, the vast air before the high ceiling, and the years stretching between when I last was at church on my own volition, not by the insistence of my family on a holiday. Back when I was a practicing Catholic, back when I knew all the prayers from creeds to contritions as well as my own name. All churches have this same smell, and the smell is like the feeling of a warm blanket, or a hot bath. As the organ sounds and signals the beginning of the priest’s procession I’d rise to my feet without thinking, as I’d have done countless times before. But this time I think about how I can stand here as a lesbian, when so often it seems like the Church would destroy people like me. And at the same time, I think about how I am Catholic and I am home.
Pope Francis will be in New York City in less than two weeks, and something within me told me to enter the city’s lottery for tickets to his procession through Central Park. One morning I opened my email and was stunned to find out I won. My people are big on pilgrimages and relics, and having the Pope come to your city is like something close to God showing up on your doorstep. When I was nine or ten, a previous Pope, John Paul II, had visited the city where my family lived. Somehow my Dad got two tickets and decided that I would go with him, as the eldest child – but I twisted my ankle a few days before the big appearance, and it was decided we shouldn’t risk being in such a big crowd while injured. I was so disappointed to miss seeing the Pope, to get just a glimpse of this man who was like our Father on earth. Getting another chance now seemed like amazing luck, or destiny. Or, sometimes I correct myself, like an act of God.
I don’t really go to church regularly anymore, I probably don’t even really believe in God anymore, so I’m not quite sure why I am going to see the Pope. Maybe I’m going to be there partially out of duty, but it also has something to do with it being Pope Francis in particular. In the mainstream he seems to have a reputation for being a relatively cool Pope on the subject of LGBTQ issues – in summer 2013 he famously said “if someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”, has made similar statements that people in the LGBT community have unique gifts, has met with gay and transgender activists. In the early years of his papacy I grudgingly noticed these news soundbites, but told myself they weren’t important. Technically, after all, the Church has always claimed to accept gay people – as long as you don’t actually act on your gayness that is, by way of having sex or a romantic relationship. This Pope still condemns same-sex marriage and sex outside of procreation. This Pope is not any different than all the rest, I thought. Then in spring of this year I read a story saying Pope Francis suggested that his time as Pope may be short, and he might retire after a number of years, like Benedict XVI before him. Immediately I felt panicked and upset.
Francis is different than Benedict XVI and other Popes, in a way that is hard to articulate. I think it’s his treatment of sexuality issues that feels different than, for example, Benedict XIV, who made family values the centerpiece of his papacy. Even though I don’t agree with his stance on sexuality, I appreciate that he treats those living their lives the way they see fit with mercy, and I like the way this concept of mercy has played out elsewhere in his papal agenda. Pope Francis’ concern for corruption and excess in the Church, his calls to world leaders to protect immigrants and to heal the climate remind me of the very important common ground in our values. And in prioritizing these things over shitting on LGBTQ people, it makes me feel like maybe some day the Church will come around. It’s certainly high time we are shown the compassion the Church says is deserved by the marginalized.
Pope Francis’ message reminds me that there’s a lot of things I liked about being Catholic. I loved being together with my friends and family every Sunday at church. Values such as helping people who are disadvantaged really resonate with me. Actually, at one point in middle school I wanted to become a nun, and sometimes I joke that I basically did – I’m a social worker and I’ve never had sex with a man. I lived all over the place as a kid – my dad, my mom, my brother and sister, and I would pick up and move and start again every few years. My mom is black and my dad is white: that’s important to know. I’ve never really had a great sense of where I am truly from or what my identity is in that sense, and that’s important to know too. But what I always had growing up, every Sunday, summer and winter, was God and the Church. No matter where I was, the hymns were the same, the collection baskets had the same weight to them, there were the same prayers and the same silences. I was never a foreigner in a church. I was baptized and faithful, I always knew I belonged. More than anything I loved being close to God. I loved that feeling of someone out there who encompassed everything and was everywhere, and cared about me unconditionally, on my good days and my bad, the beautiful parts of me and the horrible parts of me. A superhuman love. That’s what I missed most of all when I stopped believing and fell away from the church.
I should have a dramatic story about losing my faith, but I don’t. It should be directly related to coming out as a lesbian – we all know the story of an outraged youth concluding that a God that would reject her for who she is can’t be real – but it just didn’t happen that way. The truth is, my faith just sort of fell away, piece by piece. When I was fourteen my family moved to a city where it was hard to find a church community that resonated with us. I stopped getting a lot of guidance and meaning out of mass. I don’t really know what happened next – maybe I was less willing to believe in what my parents had taught me, as teens often are. Maybe it was because I couldn’t put a lot of stock in life after death. Maybe it was because the humanity of LGBTQ people isn’t the only issue on which the Church has an awkward or gross stance. Perhaps the last straw was feeling sick to my stomach at the thought of a Church forbidding people from using contraception and then condemning women further for having abortions. Perhaps it was that horrible realization I had one day, like finally realizing something in the corner of your eye, that whenever I looked around a church building all but a small handful of the saints were white. One way or another, I stopped going to church, I stopped talking to Jesus. It didn’t feel liberating. It ached. Imagine if someone who was by your side every day, supported you and loved you through everything you went through was just gone. The loss, the echo.
Probably most Catholics out there are lapsed Catholics, but I’m so lapsed and so, well, gay, I don’t even know if I can call myself Catholic anymore. I live in sin with a woman and last time I went to mass I didn’t even realize that now after the priest says “peace be with you” now you’re supposed to say “and with your spirit.” When did that happen? My family members who are accepting of me and my sexuality don’t really see a conflict between me being gay and Catholic. Frankly, they’d probably be less alarmed with me if I was still a lesbian but hadn’t totally eschewed God. I find being the concept of being gay and Catholic, even the extremely qualified kind of Catholic I maybe am, more uncomfortable when I’m among my secular liberal friends if I’m honest with myself. To mention the Catholic Church is to conjure up a knee jerk image of ignorant Bible thumpers and pedophile priests. There are real criticisms to be made of the Church, serious changes that urgently need to be made and horrific injustices that have occurred that can never be erased. Oh God, the Church and its collaboration with the colonial project! Missionaries! Magdalene laundries! I remember being at mass in Dublin, Ireland in 2010 when Pope Benedict XVI released the pastoral letter of apology for the crimes against children committed by Catholic clergy. I remember the priest voicing his disgust at the abuse, and I can still hear him saying plainly on behalf of the Church “I am so, so, sorry.” I felt it was the most honest and candid statement I had ever heard during mass. I also felt it wasn’t nearly enough.
I can never discount or forget about those things about the Church, but at the same time they are not the beginning and the end of what Catholicism is to me. It’s a bummer to feel like there isn’t space to be Catholic in my current community because, in this world where I am supposed to finally be able to be myself, I’m still hiding parts of who I am. At the same time, I can’t blame people for the confusion or repulsion they feel at the thought that someone who is LGBTQ might still be Catholic. There’s a feeling of shame sometimes in having this lingering longing for an institution that can be so hateful.
I decided not to let my family know that I am going to see the Pope. I didn’t want to give them the wrong idea, especially considering I don’t even know myself what it means to me. Is this some sort of return to faith, a return to being Catholic albeit in a piecemeal, ambivalent way? When I think of the pain in my aunt’s eyes when we discuss my lack of faith, the certainty other relatives had that their prayers would one day lead me to turn back to God and away from my “lifestyle”, the thought of sharing this development in my life with them seems overwhelming. I don’t want to give a false hope that I’m embracing faith again if that’s not what is happening. And I definitely don’t want anyone to get the idea that if their prayers for me and my faith are answered, their prayers about my sexuality might one day be answered too – because that’s never, never going to happen.
What will it be like to see the Pope? I know that when I see Pope Francis I’ll see him from a distance. I’ll see the top of his head maybe, or his hand. I won’t hear his voice, only the cheers of the crowd. But I want badly to meet him: I dream of it. In my dream, he walks on foot during the procession, greeting the people who have gathered up by the barricade. I am there in the crowd, and as he passes by waving at spectators, he sees me and takes my hand, and he smiles at me gently. We are exactly the same height, which means we look at one another directly in the eye. Father, I say, please welcome your children into the Church – your lesbian and gay children, your queer and trans children – living our lives in accordance to the way God made us. Please don’t allow us to be silenced or shamed anymore. In my dream, Pope Francis is moved by my words and his eyes are full of love. Compassion, pain, and the force of change emanate from each of us and all around us. He embraces me, and in that moment I am home again, it is sixteen years ago, I am a little girl standing in the church choir in my Sunday best, lifting my voice and heart up to God, unaware of everything that is to come.
Jean Anthony is a social worker in New York City.