As we begin a new year today, the Catholic Church also celebrates the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God. As we remember the year gone by and contemplate the unknown ahead of us, let those of us who hope, pray, and work for LGBT equality and justice take a moment to consider Mary, God’s Mother.
She was a woman who responded freely and fully to God’s call, and she helped instill lessons and values in her Son, and then saw him rejected and maligned by civil and religious authorities.
Theologian José Pagola’s words about Mary, in his book, Following the Footsteps of Jesus: Meditations on the Gospel for Year B, are ones we can take to heart as we prepare for the challenges, joys, and potential heartbreaks of the year ahead:
“We begin this year by celebrating the feast of Mary, Mother of God. Her faithfulness and surrender to the word of God, her identification with the lowly, her adherence to the choices of her son, Jesus, her service to the newborn church, and, above all, as service to the Mother of the Savior, make of her the Mother of our faith and of our hope.”
As a new year’s resolution, let’s strive to follow Mary’s example as we work for justice and equality for LGBT people. Let us model her courage in saying “yes” to God’s will, even when it may bring us the shame and scorn of others. Let us remember to always care for the least among us, even those with whom we may disagree. Let us make choices that Jesus would make, in the spirit of forgiving love and mercy for all. Let us choose actions that will build up the church and the reign of God. And let us make sure we make time to build up our faith and to renew our hope.
Periodically in Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by two New Ways Ministry staff members: Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder. The liturgical readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent are: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130; 1-8; Romans 8:8-11,; John 11:1-45.
A theme throughout the Scripture readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is that God can bring life out of what seems lifeless. The first reading from Ezekiel clearly teaches this lesson when it says, “I will open your graves and have you rise from them.” Paul too, in his Epistle to the Romans, says that, if the Spirit dwells in us, the Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies. The Gospel is the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. All three readings tell us that God indeed can bring life out of what seems lifeless.
I want to consider the third reading in particular because I am drawn to the character of Martha. I like Martha. She’s practical and sensible. She’s a doer, an activist. And she speaks her mind.
Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus, yet when he heard that Lazarus was ill, it took him two days to get his act together and move on down to Bethany before he raised him from the dead. Why so slow?
When she heard Jesus was coming, Martha acted. She hurried from Bethany to meet him along the road. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” You can hear the gentle rebuke in Martha’s voice. She might as well have said, “Thanks, Lord, for coming, but aren’t you a little late?”
When Jesus asked the assembled folks to take away the stone from the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb, Martha matter-of-factly cried out, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.”
How often do we feel like Martha? “God, if you had given me a good home background when I was growing up, I wouldn’t be in this stinking mess I’m in now.” “If I had better teachers, I would have gotten better grades.” “If you hadn’t made me gay, my life would be so much easier.”
Yes, God, I feel your loving presence now that I sit comfortably in my easy chair with my cat on my lap and sipping my cup of tea, but where were you when I needed your help? Where were you when I was trying to figure out who I was and where I was meant to be? Where were you when I was in a grave of sorrow? Where were you when I felt angry or down in the dumps, or impatient or fearful?
To Martha and to us, Jesus says, “Even though you did not recognize me in the turmoil and the crises, I was there. I am with you all the time. Even when you feel down, I can pull you up to life.
“When you think I am late, I am already there, waiting for you to see me, to call me, to talk with me. I can lift you up to life, even when you have hit rock bottom with self-pity or fear. I can haul you up out of any sinfulness or cruelty or foolishness.
“Just talk with me. Come and waste some time with me. I can bring life out of what seems lifeless.”
There’s probably not a more Catholic feast day in the liturgical calendar than the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is usually celebrated on December 8th, but was moved this year to December 9th because the 8th fell on a Sunday. It combines so much of the elements that people think of as distinctly Catholic: devotion to Mary, emphasis on grace, connections between spirituality and sexuality, and religious concepts based on Tradition and not Scripture.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was not declared definitively until December 8, 1854, by Pope Pius IX. Briefly, the teaching states that Mary was free from Original Sin from the moment of her conception in her mother’s womb. (It does not refer to Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus.) One of the things that I find most interesting about this historical declaration is that it acknowledges the role that the sensus fidelium or “sense of the faithful” played in arriving at this teaching. Pope Pius IX, in Ineffabilis Deus, the papal document which defined the Immaculate Conception, acknowledged that the practice of honoring Mary through this devotion preceded any official teaching of the devotion. Pius states:
“All are aware with how much diligence this doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God has been handed down, proposed and defended by the most outstanding religious orders, by the more celebrated theological academies, and by very eminent doctors in the sciences of theology. All know, likewise, how eager the bishops have been to profess openly and publicly, even in ecclesiastical assemblies, that Mary, the most holy Mother of God, by virtue of the foreseen merits of Christ, our Lord and Redeemer, was never subject to original sin, but was completely preserved from the original taint, and hence she was redeemed in a manner more sublime. . . .
“This doctrine so filled the minds and souls of our ancestors in the faith that a singular and truly marvelous style of speech came into vogue among them. They have frequently addressed the Mother of God as immaculate, as immaculate in every respect; innocent, and verily most innocent; spotless, and entirely spotless; holy and removed from every stain of sin; all pure, all stainless, the very model of purity and innocence; more beautiful than beauty, more lovely than loveliness; more holy than holiness, singularly holy and most pure in soul and body; the one who surpassed all integrity and virginity; the only one who has become the dwelling place of all the graces of the most Holy Spirit. God alone excepted, Mary is more excellent than all, and by nature fair and beautiful, and more holy than the Cherubim and Seraphim. To praise her all the tongues of heaven and earth do not suffice. . . .
“No wonder, then, that the Pastors of the Church and the faithful gloried daily more and more in professing with so much piety, religion, and love this doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mother of God. . .”
An important lesson to be learned here is that the process of the development of church teaching begins with how people live out their faith. For Catholics concerned with LGBT equality, this realization might provide hope for the future. It helps us to remember that the way we live our lives of faith, the language that we use to express our beliefs, and the seriousness with which we hold our values can have a profound impact on how the institutional Church develops its teaching. Admittedly, this process can be slow, but it is still powerful and effective.
This message is especially important these days as we seem to have a pope who is willing to listen to the diverse opinions in the Church, particularly on questions of marriage, family, and sexuality. Pope Francis’ call to bishops to gather opinions on these topics in advance of the 2014 Synod on Marriage and Family provides a great opportunity for Catholics to share the sensus fidelium on these topics with our leaders. As we’ve noted before, it’s important for people to offer their opinions through one of the several online surveys available. One new addition to this list of surveys is one from Canada from the Grass-roots Catholics for the Synod on Marriage and Family.
As we pray and reflect today on the Immaculate Conception, let’s keep in mind that the way we live our faith lives, and our ability to articulate that lived faith to others, is vital and crucial for how our Church develops its official teaching in the future.
A state-run university in Ireland has banned a campus chapter of the Legion of Mary from the school after the group posted posters inviting students to become part of the Courage movement, a Catholic ministry to lesbian and gay people which promotes chastity and has been known in some instances to promote reparative therapy to attempt to “change” a person’s sexual orientation.
Officials from the National University in Galway said they made their decision because of the school’s “pluralist ethos” and its policy of “protecting the liberty and equality of all students and does not condone such behaviour” according to The Journal.ie.
RTE.iereported that the poster’s message invited students with ” ‘same sex attractions’ to ‘develop an interior life of chastity … to move beyond the confines of the homosexual label to a more complete identity in Christ.’ ”
“The university said it had reviewed the actions of the society in the context of the college’s code of conduct and policies governing harassment. It said this led to the immediate suspension of the Legion of Mary, which is understood to have only a few members in its college society.
“The societies chairperson at the university, Patrick O’Flaherty, said he had been contacted by a number  of students who were upset or felt threatened by the content of the poster.
“In a statement, the university said it would not condone the production and dissemination of any material by students that discriminated against other students.”
The Legion of Mary’s response to the university’s action is curious. On one hand, according to RTE.ie:
“Representatives of the Legion did not respond to an invitation to attend a meeting to consider the issue.”
Yet, on the other hand, the same news story reported:
“However, after the suspension was imposed, a committee member did write to the group apologising for any distress that had been caused.
“She said the content on the document had been taken directly from a website. It was not aimed at attacking any person or group of people and was not intended to hurt or offend.”
Yet, the group also had a bit of a rocky history in regard to its application to become a recognized society on campus, according to RTE.ie:
“The group had applied for status as a college society in September of this year and at one point had around 100 members.
“As part of the application to become a fully-fledged society, its committee was asked to provide information as to its aims and objectives.
“This did not happen. Concerns about the lack of clarification contributed to the decision to suspend the society.”
London’s Telegraph newspaper published an essay on this controversy by Padraig Reidy, a senior writer at the Index on Censorship. While Reidy is not sympathetic with the Legion of Mary’s views on homosexuality, he defends their right to express their views on a campus. He wrote:
“. . . [W]e are in a curious position where a non-violent, non-intimidatory message from an orthodox Catholic position has been banned from a university campus. Without a trace of irony, the university claims that it is ‘committed to protecting the liberty and equality of all students.’
“The university Legion of Mary has said it was not their intention ‘to offend or upset any person or group of people.’ It probably wasn’t. In their own weird little way they probably genuinely think they’re offering real ‘support’ for gay people.
“But it doesn’t matter whether I, or the university authorities, agree with their idea of support or not. The issue at stake here is that they have peacefully put forward their views, without threat or abuse, and have still been punished, with even evidence of the Legion’s student society status removed from NUI Galway’s website.
“Universities are meant to be places where people learn to argue and find their way as adults. How this can happen when students are “protected” from even the slightest controversy, I really don’t know. Believers in intellectual and religious liberty should start praying for the Towers of Ivory.”
There are a lot of issues in this story which can be seen as black and white. Was the university correct in banning the group or was this censorship, as Reidy claims? Did the punishment fit the offense? Was it LGBT students or Catholic students who were experiencing discrimination?
While I do not condone the message of the Legion of Mary’s posters, I wonder if perhaps there could have been a teachable moment here. The fact that the Legion of Mary apologized shows there might be some opportunity for discussion with them. Perhaps a meeting between the Legion of Mary students and LGBT students would have helped to develop toleration and respect. The recent example of Providence College, a Catholic school in Rhode Island, is instructive here. When that school’s administration cancelled a public lecture by a pro-marriage equality speaker, students on campus organized an evening of discussion and dialogue about the case, which resulted in a re-invitation to the speaker for the spring semester.
As the world mourns the death of Nelson Mandela, let us remember one of the greatest institutions he established was South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up for victims of apartheid to tell their stories, but also to foster healing for that wounded nation. I think the Catholic community, and all communities that struggle with LGBT issues, such as the National University in Galway, would do well to follow Mandela’s model.
Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which celebrates that Mary was free from Original Sin from the moment of her own conception, not that Jesus was conceived in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit and without the aid of sexual intercourse.
Can there be anything in this feast that speaks to those concerned with LGBT Catholic issues? I think the liturgical readings of the day offer some salient points for reflection.
Before we look at some of the readings, though, I want to introduce an idea about Marian feasts that I heard in a lecture many years ago by Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, the eminent theologian. She said that we should always think about Mary not as someone who is set apart from the rest of the humanity, but as a foreshadowing of what God has in store for all of humanity. So, while Mary was unique in being free from Original Sin from the moment of her conception and all through her life, we shouldn’t dwell on this uniqueness, but, instead, view it as God’s promise for his plans for all of humanity.
How do we know that God has this desire for us? It says so in today’s Epistle reading (Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12):
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing in the heavens,
as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world,
to be holy and without blemish before him.
In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ,
in accord with the favor of his will,
for the praise of the glory of his grace
that he granted us in the beloved.
“In him we were also chosen,
destined in accord with the purpose of the One
who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will,
so that we might exist for the praise of his glory,
we who first hoped in Christ.”
That’s what God has in store for our future. In today’s first reading from Genesis (3: 9-15, 20), however, we get a glimpse of what humans have made of our humanity. After the fall from Grace, God searches for Adam in the Garden, and Adam says:
“I heard you in the garden;
but I was afraid, because I was naked,
so I hid myself.”
These poignant lines are ones that I believe all humans have experienced. They echo the common experience of shame about one’s self which everyone has felt at some time or other, especially in childhood.
For those involved in the LGBT community, the line about Adam hiding himself probably echoes even more loudly. Unfortunately, that experience of hiding one’s self out of shame is what many LGBT people experience before they have come to understand, accept, affirm, and announce their true identities. That experience of shame and secrecy is sometimes referred to as “the closet,” and when people shed their shame, they “come out of the closet.”
Contrast the experience of Adam’s shame with Mary’s self-confident “Yes” in today’s gospel story of the Annunciation (Luke 1: 26-38). What has struck many about Mary’s attitude in this scene is that she is not overawed by the angel’s visit and message. Indeed, she boldly asks the angel questions. And she agrees to God’s invitation in a confident and trusting manner, ready to take on the risk of this amazing task.
What God has planned for us is to become more like Mary and less like Adam. God wants us to be “full of grace” as Mary is and not full of shame as Adam is. What I find most interesting is that the people who can help teach that lesson to others in the church are LGBT people who have come through the experience of coming out of the closet of shame and secrecy to live in confident trust and courageous risk.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: A wonderful by-product of the often contentious debates surrounding marriage equality has been that it has motivated people to go deeper into their faith for spiritual nourishment.
The latest example of such depths is a letter to the editor by Maren Ortmeier to InForum, a news organization for the metropolitan area of Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota. As you may know, Minnesota voters will be going to the polls to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality.
Ms. Ortmeier’s letter reveals a deep spirituality, rooted in traditional Catholic practices and images but open to new understandings of the modern world:
“Christ in the Eucharist has the ability to transform us, often motivated by love or suffering. Since Jesus’ agenda was solidarity with suffering itself, our hearts are invited into the pain of the ‘other.’ Many homosexuals have suffered deeply and have been denied their life potential as society and religion tried to shame them. But not only was Jesus present in their suffering, he also never played the ‘shame game.’ Ironically, it was the act of accusing that made Jesus mad, not the so-called sinner. . . .
“In times of motherly despair, I picture Mary standing at the foot of the cross. She knows a mother’s pain. I know many Catholic mothers who have gay children and who feel betrayed and isolated by the church. Mother Mary knows their pain. We all desire to feel loved and respected. . . .
“Centuries of Catholic monastic life taught us celibacy is best lived in community voluntarily, not in mandated isolation by shame. Mothers know God doesn’t make children who are ‘less than.’ Loving mothers should be a guiding light in this issue, as it is Mary’s love for Jesus that most closely reflects God’s love for us.”
Ms. Ortmeier’s concluding paragraph cites two traditionalist bishops whose message can easily and fruitfully be applied to the marriage equality debate:
“How can we honestly sing songs like ‘All Are Welcome’? How can we remain immune to another’s pain when our traditions call us to act on their behalf? This pre-emptive strike (the amendment) prevents needed and deserved discussion of civil same sex partnership. Cardinal Dolan and Bishop DiMarzio said in a statement: ‘There is too much finger pointing and not enough joining hands. Solidarity is critical to ensure the dignity of all.’ Well said.”
I think Ms. Ortmeier’s argument is “VERY well said.”