During Lent in England’s Diocese of Brentwood, the Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Helen scheduled a Mass for the LGBT community, in honor of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. While the Dean of the Cathedral, Fr. Martin Boland, presided at the liturgy, the homily, based on the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) which was the Gospel of the day, was delivered by Fr. Dominic Howarth, from Our Lady and All Saints parish, Basildon. His homily, excerpted below, offers a great vision of how the messages of the Jubilee Year of Mercy can be applied to LGBT situations. I do have one bone to pick with him, which I will mention at the end of this post. You can read the entire homily by clicking here.
In fleshing out the story, Howarth spoke about how Jesus’ act of mercy in this story brought life to this woman, but also to the people who were intent on stoning her:
“The particular brilliance of Jesus’ intervention, the extraordinary force and grace of this story, is that Jesus, through mercy, turns death to life. He does not contradict the Jewish law, but he encourages everyone to look with eyes of mercy. And it is not just the adulterous woman that lived that day, but the men who came to stone her. Because if they had stoned her, and she had died, then something inside them – some feeling, understanding, compassion would have died too. Without Jesus’ merciful intervention, the next stoning would have been that bit easier. With Jesus’ intervention, who knows if they didn’t pause for thought the next time there was a question of justice. Mercy, dear friends, is life giving, and life changing.”
Those who advocate for equality and justice for LGBT people can learn a lesson from this point. We are called to help bring new life not just to LGBT people, but to people who oppose them. The opponents, too, need to experience mercy, and they, too, need to be liberated from the fears, anger, and misinformation which prevents them from fully loving LGBT people as their brothers and sisters in Christ. Many times, I see LGBT advocates picking up stones to throw at their opponents, eager to prove them wrong and to prove themselves right. I confess I’ve been in such situations more than I care to acknowledge. Such anger can be understandable, but it is not acceptable. When we say that God’s mercy is for ALL, I think we need to remember that ALL includes those who oppose the vision that we might have for the church and the world.
Given the occasion, Howarth was explicit in his welcome to the LGBT community, noting two Scripture quotes as touchstones for his message:
“This evening I am mindful that there are people here whose sexuality is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and people from families with LGBT sons and daughters, grandchildren, friends. You are very welcome here, always, and I hope that in this Mass we all encounter a merciful, life-affirming Jesus Christ; Jesus who names all of us as brothers and sisters, very regularly throughout the Gospels. . . .
“From the first letter of St John, ‘Perfect love drives out fear.’ And from the moment of Jesus’ Baptism, adapted because these words are spoken to each of us at the moment of our creation and throughout our lives, ‘you are my son, my daughter, the beloved. My favour rests on you.’
“Let me just reaffirm that. To everyone here, every day of your life, with every breath that you take, God names you as beloved. To those who are here from the LGBT community, I pray that you hear those words afresh tonight, and maybe you hear them for the very first time because perhaps no-one has ever quite told you that you are beloved ever since you realised your sexuality.”
But Howarth also had a message to the wider Church, particularly in the Year of Mercy:
“Here in this Cathedral there is a door of mercy. It is open to everyone, freely and all the time. It is life giving, and life affirming, and we all need it. But I fear that so many who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender will not get near the door of mercy because of a wall of prejudice. Dear friends, we have to search our hearts and face a difficult truth: that by some words and actions of our Church, over many decades, we have built walls and closed doors to those who are LGBT. So today let us be very clear, and let me use the words of Pope Francis. ‘There is no place for homophobia in the Catholic Church,’ he wrote, when he was Cardinal in Buenos Aires. He should not have had to say it, of course, but it matters very deeply that he did.”
And, in particular, he called on families who have been divided because of LGBT issues to be reconciled:
“Dear parents and grandparents of LGBT children, you already know that your child is beloved, but if something in their sexuality has caused a rift in the family, has caused a wall to be built or a door to be closed, let this Year of Mercy be a time to open doors. And for those whose sexuality is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, let this Year of Mercy be a time of new beginnings, with family, with friends – and with the Catholic Church. Come through the door of mercy to be welcomed home, with love.”
He also offered a particular reminder that in some parts of the world, and perhaps in our own backyards, there exists a real threat to LGBT people’s lives and safety:
“I will never, ever compare adultery to a person’s sexuality. Of course not. But I have tonight’s Gospel to preach from, and it does strike me that very sadly there is a terrible parallel as there are countries in the world where it could be someone who is gay or lesbian who is in the place of the adulterous woman, being stoned, or beheaded, or beaten, or imprisoned, because of their sexuality. In Britain tonight some teenagers will self harm or contemplate suicide rather than admit homosexuality to family or friends. By any measure that is a tragedy, and our first response must surely be love.”
It is good to see a church leader naming some specific ways that LGBT people are harmed by discrimination and ignorance. Too often, messages from church leaders about respecting the human dignity of LGBT people ring hollow because they don’t mention real instances of how LGBT people are harmed. Their silence on specifics makes it seem like they either don’t know about the reality people face or are afraid to mention it because it might require a commitment from them.
My one problem with Howarth’s homily is a reference that he makes about LGBT people which is totally out of place in a homily such as this. Near the conclusion of his sermon, Howarth said:
“. . . the tree of mercy has the power to grow through the wall of hatred, or judgement – whether that is a wall put up by some in the Church, or indeed a wall built by those whose sexuality is LGBT and who have come to hate the Church.”
No doubt there are LGBT people who strongly despise the Church. Yet, referring to such people in this way does not acknowledge that such hatred is not arbitrary or capricious, but a reaction to centuries of exclusion and oppression unleashed by religious leaders and institutions. I am not saying that such hatred is justifiable, but it is understandable. Like all hatred, it needs to be redeemed, but blaming the victims is not a a good way to help them heal the hatred that oppression has sown in them.
More importantly, though, is the fact that any LGBT person who was in attendance at that Mass most likely is not in the category of those “who have come to hate the Church.” What Howarth doesn’t seem to realize, or at least doesn’t mention, is that many, many, many LGBT people LOVE the Church! They love it so much that they have been willing to put up with years of institutional oppression. They have struggled with their consciences to leave the Church community, but stay there even though many other LGBT people and many other Catholic people do not understand why they would remain so faithful. Moreover, many of them love the Church so much that they dedicate large portions of their time, talent, and treasure to it, and keep searching for ways, sometimes against great odds, to raise their children in the faith.
But still, there is much good in this homily, and I imagine that Fr. Howarth, much like myself, is not perfect. Given the other positive messages in the homily, I don’t think that he intended to be offensive, but might have been simply unaware how some would receive his words. I hope that his outreach, which sounds very sincere, touched many hearts and minds that day. I hope that many experienced the mercy, reconciliation, and mercy which the Mass intended to offer.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
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