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I like a large painting of saints — 15, 20, 30 people surrounding Mary or Jesus and facing us, their heads framed by yellow halos like the sun. It’s like seeing members of the Justice League or the X-Men all together. There’s this game of trying to see if you can recognize them all, remember their stories and their superpowers. But for me, it’s also reassuring to see them all together. Especially if they include more than single white men, it feels like a glimpse into the kingdom of God, a home where there’s a place for all of us.
But a few years ago, I was at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles, showing friends the beautiful tapestries of saints that line the walls of the church. Created by artist John Nava, they are simply extraordinary, young and old, Europeans, Africans, Asians, Latin Americans and Indigenous, women and men who surround us and look with us towards God.
When LGBT people watch the Communion of Saints, we should be able to see someone who looks like us.
As I sat in the church with my guests, looking at all these beautiful pictures, I suddenly realized that none of these people had identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, although some of them did. between them undoubtedly were. In fact, the Catholic Church has yet to recognize a single LGBT saint.
Now, depending on how you were raised, just the fact that I raise this as an issue may seem outrageous. Honestly, I instinctively feel that way myself, and I’m gay. Regardless of the work that Pope Francis, various bishops, clergy and others have done to try to normalize the place of LGBT people in the church, the fact is that for many Catholics of a certain age, being always LGBT seems evil or disobedient. This is just the way the church has often tried to talk about LGBT people: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Those who use this phrase claim that it is clear that the problem with us is not our identity, but our actions and our desires. But the line only identifies LGBT people as sinners. He teaches people to love us In any event. And when you hear that enough as an LGBT person, you start believing the same thing.
So yes, by suggesting that it is a problem that there are no LGBT saints, I feel like I am saying something transgressive. But the fact is that as Catholics we believe that each of us is born in the image and likeness of God. Not just straight people, white people or men, everyone. There is no asterisk in the Catechism on this point. This is the teaching of the Church, even if some Catholics discuss or treat us in a way that suggests otherwise.
As Catholics, we believe that each of us is born in the image and likeness of God. Not just straight people, white people or men, everyone.
It is this truth of our faith, in fact, that enabled Francis to say, when asked a question about homosexual priests: “If a homosexual person is in ardent search of God, who am I? to judge him? This has allowed him to praise the work of organizations like Ministry of New Ways and people like Jeannine Gramick, SL, and my colleague James Martin, SJ, all of whom have served LGBT Catholics, in Sister Gramick’s case, for over 50 years; or to invite a group of transgender people to the Vatican to receive their Covid vaccine; or to restore the openly gay theologian, Father James Alison, to active ministry after two decades of what He described as a “Kafkaesque” nightmare in which he was not allowed to know what the charges were against him, was unable to make legal representation of his case, and was not allowed to appeal. If we are children of God like everyone else, then we should receive the same care and respect as they do. “Know that God made you, that God loves you and that God is on your side” Cardinal Joseph Tobin and 13 other U.S. archbishops and bishops have written in a statement last December, addressing young LGBT people.
But there is more than respect and love. To say that God created us or that we are created in the image of God is to say that we offer insight into who God is, that we are each a means by which other people can know that they too are an image of God, seen and loved by Him. It is an incredible statement, to think that any of us could be such a gift, a means by which others could know God and themselves better. And yet, we believe it is true for all human beings.
There are so many LGBT people who have dedicated their lives to being that kind of hope and solace for others. Like New York Fire Department Chaplain and Franciscan Priest Mychal Judge, who died on 9/11 while cheering on rescuers in the lobby of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. During his lifetime, Father Judge established one of the first ministries in New York to serve people living with HIV or AIDS. He advocated for the homeless and cared for alcoholics after coming through AA himself. And for the last 10 years of his life, he worked as a chaplain for the New York Fire Department. He was gay, he helped a lot of people and now they talk about how he inspired them. And there is a growing demand for his canonization.
Those of us who are LGBT and Catholic know all too well the difficulties that come with self-acceptance and the compassion it teaches.
Or take the Dutch theologian Father Henri Nouwen. His spiritual writings have helped millions connect with God. And after decades of teaching at Yale and Harvard theological schools, he dedicated the latter part of his life to living and working with adults with disabilities in L’Arche communities. His life was a profound testimony of service, simplicity and friendship.
Nouwen has never publicly identified as gay; from his journals, it is clear that his continued struggle to integrate his sexuality into his life was a difficult burden that he did not resolve until his later years. And yet, it was also clearly a driving force for his ministry, something that enabled him to speak to people in difficulty with insight and empathy.
Those of us who are LGBT and Catholic know all too well the difficulties that come with self-acceptance and the compassion it teaches. Who better to be a saint than someone who has walked this path?
I hope it’s clear that I don’t think naming saints should be limited to giving a community a saint “our own”. Nouwen and Judge have dedicated their lives to helping a wide range of people, and they have been recognized as saints by them. Their holiness is not a function of their sexuality but of the gift they have been for the whole Church.
At the same time, it is also worth saying that it is difficult to be an LGBT Catholic. I’m sure some Catholics are fed up with us throwing out “Who am I to judge?” by Pope Francis. But for many of us, Francis’ statement was the first time in our lives that we had received some sort of public permission to exist as ourselves in the church.
As we examine Church history, we might reconsider the stories of Saint Brigid and Sister Darlughdach, who resided together, worked together, and shared a bed; of St. John Henry Newman and Father Ambrose St. John, who lived together for 32 years and shared a grave, or of Venerable Juana Inés de la Cruz, who believed that God had changed her gender in the womb of her mother and imagined that Jesus could be mother or father, wife or husband, according to the needs of those who seek him. But our real existence in church history has never been acknowledged, nor the blessings we might have brought. Nowhere will we find statues of people like us. We are not included in any Catholic chart. At best, we are only guests in the history of salvation. More often we are like Abraham’s second wife, Hagar, exiled to another country.
While the ways they might describe themselves in earlier eras would be different, LGBT people have been part of the church since its inception. Some have contributed to his mission in inspiring and holy ways. And in many cases, like Nouwen, they did so silently carrying a terrible burden. It is time they had their place in the history of the church.
When LGBT people watch the Communion of Saints, we should be able to see someone who looks like us. And it’s not because of who we are, but because of who these individuals were and what they did.