A top cardinal’s words during an HIV/AIDS fundraiser reveals the power of personal encounter to break down barriers and grow in mutual understanding–a good lesson for many bishops when it comes to LGBT people.
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna appeared last week at the “Red Ribbon Celebration,” a Viennese charity concert which supports people living with HIV/AIDS. To the surprise of many, he appeared onstage alongside Gary Keszler, a gay man who founded “Life Ball,” Europe’s largest HIV/AIDS charity. Global Pulse reported that cardinal spoke about “our shared humanity”:
“[Schönborn] underlined how important it was to discard prejudices, avoid thinking in categories and dialogue with people as people. . .
” ‘I am not the Catholic Church and Gery Keszler is not the Life Ball. We are first and foremost human beings. . .I said on the stage that I was presumably the only person in the Burgtheater (that evening) who has prejudices. I do have prejudices but they have melted away.’ “
What melted Schönborn’s prejudices was his friendship with Keszler, who lives with HIV. The two met at an event hosted by mutual friends and found their personalities aligned well. Global Pulse continued:
“The cardinal described [Keszler] as someone who has an eye for people who are having a hard time and are in a bad way, something the Austrian church leader said he very much appreciated. . .Cardinal Schönborn later explained on Facebook that he had had several ‘very moving’ talks with Mr Keszler in recent months.”
These talks led Keszler to invite the cardinal to the Red Ribbon Celebration. According to GGG, the activist later said of their appearance together, “Today a great thing has happened. . .It will reach the Vatican and the world.”
Hopefully, their witness as friends transcending differences will reach the world. Too many church leaders have been unwilling to even meet with LGBT people and their families, never mind share a meal and keep conversations going over time. This posturing has led bishops to be deficient in even the most basic knowledge of LGBT people’s realities, as my colleague Francis DeBernardo noted in his commentary on the U.S. bishops’ failings after the massacre at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando last Sunday.
But the cardinal’s words on stage reveal the power that simple gestures and intentional encounters can have, melting away prejudice and building shared understandings. If only more church leaders would engage with the humility and the concern expressed by Schönborn, who knows where our church could move on LGBT acceptance?
This event is not the cardinal’s first supportive act towards the LGBT communities. Last September, in an interview, he called a close friend’s same-gender relationship “an improvement” as they share a life together, even if it is considered irregular by the church. Speaking at the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod on the Family in 2014, Schönborn spoke about a same-gender couple that “was saintly” because of their love and care for one another. He has previously expressed support for civil unions, and in 2012 reinstated a gay man to a parish council after the local pastor had rejected him.
As we conclude a particularly challenging week which saw 49 LGBT people murdered in Orlando and church leaders’ failing to respond pastorally to the tragedy, the friendship of Christoph Schönborn and Gary Keszler is a sign of hope. One way to begin moving forward is for LGBT Catholics, families, and allies to contact our bishops and ask for meetings so the grace of encounter can do its work.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry