Catholics in Ireland walked out of Mass recently after a priest made prejudiced and personal attacks during a homily against marriage equality, about which the Irish are set to vote in a referendum later this spring.
Fr. John Britto, a Carmelite from India, encouraged parishioners at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Annagry, County Donegal, to deny same-gender couples the right to marry by voting ‘No.’ He also attacked local Gaelic footballer Eamon McGee, who has publicly supported the ‘Yes’ campaign, recently telling the Irish Examiner:
” ‘I don’t know would I be more ashamed that I didn’t vote or the fact I voted against it. It comes down to equality and one less difference in society…It’s not that I have any friends who are gay or any close family members but it’s a social issue.’ “
In response to Fr. Britto’s homily, more than a dozen attendees stood up and walked out, including family members of the woman for whom Mass was being offered on the first anniversary of her death. One parishioner who left told The Independent:
” ‘He (the priest) is entitled to his view but it didn’t go down well. After the Mass some members of the congregation approached the family of the woman being remembered to say they only stayed because of them, otherwise they would have walked out too.’ “
Former altar boy and longtime parishioner Noel Sharkey, who assists the ‘Yes’ campaign there also commented:
” ‘As a Catholic and a gay man from the area, I think it’s essential that we engage on this issue in a respectful and tolerant way, and I ask people to avoid using hurtful or upsetting language. Yes Equality Donegal asks people to focus their attention on the key principles of love and equality as they make their mind up on this important issue.’ “
Fr. Britto, however, denies these claims and refuses to clarify what happened, saying only:
“I didn’t see anybody leaving. I didn’t see that…I won’t talk to the media because the media will only twist what I have to say; I speak to the people in church and I only the speak the truth and the Word of God.”
It was reported that the priest issued an apology to McGee, but Fr. Britto denies apologizing for any of his homily, reports The Independent.
On a slightly more positive note, an Augustinian priest from County Limerick announced he would vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum. Fr. Iggy O’Donovan wrote an op-ed for the Irish Times in which he stated:
” ‘It is possible to have deep and passionately-held convictions without seeking to have those convictions imposed by the State on fellow citizens who do not share them…respect for the freedom of others who differ from us is part and parcel of the faith we profess. For these and for other reasons I will be voting Yes.’ “
In a later radio interview, Fr. O’Donovan clarified that he does not endorse marriage equality and would never preside at a same-gender wedding, but he could not judge others and how they choose to live their lives. He ventured that other priests would likely vote ‘Yes,’ too.
With about ten weeks until Irish polls open, the ‘Yes’ campaign is launched and the debate over marriage equality is intensifying.
The damage by negative statements from church leaders such as Fr. John Britto or Bishop Kevin Doran, who said gay couples were not parents and compared homosexuality to Down syndrome, is enormous. Catholic clergy would do well to temper their anti-LGBT viewpoints, which are increasingly not accepted by an Irish Church already devastated due to the sexual abuse crisis and other problems, and keep these thoughts out of Mass. If they wish to make their opinions known on the issue, like Fr. Iggy O’Donovan, doing so in another venue, and in a way that is respectful of and sensitive to LGBT people, should be the foremost considerations.
Marriage equality coming to Ireland could be a moment of renewed belief in marriage, love, and family in this traditionally very Catholic nation. Church leaders should choose to prevent divisive pastoral harm in the lead up to the referendum.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry