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      Most of us remember where we were when the Twin Towers were attacked on 9-11. For folks my age or older, we remember the Kennedy assassination. Fifty years ago, Apollo 11 roared into history as I arrived in Vietnam. I wrote about those days in my embellished autobiographical novella entitled “Gonna Stick My Sword in […] [[ This is a content summary only. Vis […]
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      1/ It has long been a tactic of homophobes to claim that one cannot identify people in the past as gay when they did not identify themselves that way, even when they spoke or wrote about same-sex relationships in their own lives. This tactic wants to invisibilize gay people.— 𝕎𝕚𝕝𝕝𝕚𝕒𝕞 𝔻. 𝕃𝕚𝕟𝕕𝕤𝕖𝕪 🌈 (@wdlindsy) October 14, 2019As Cardinal Newman is canonized, a […]
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A Renewed Opportunity of Hope and Reconciliation

File photo of Pope Benedict XVI leaving at the end of his weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the VaticanIn times of disappointment or frustration, my mother has always supplied a poignant saying that has helped me to make sense of challenging situations, “If you continue using the same method, expect the same outcome. If you want to see a different result, try something new.” Keeping this in mind, I can begin taking the necessary steps to move forward from whatever the given quandary may be.

The news of Pope Benedict XVI’s (now referred to as the “Pope Emeritus”) resignation has left the church, as well as unaffiliated observers around the world, reeling in shock and confusion. For the first time in 600 years, a pope has renounced the Petrine ministry. The prospects of an uncertain ecclesiastical future have now given cause for many to hold their breath, in anticipation of what could be expected from the next Bishop of Rome.

Undeniably, anyone, regardless of their beliefs, or lack thereof, can acknowledge that today the Catholic Church is enduring a systemic crisis of epic proportions. In the West, particularly throughout Europe, the volume of individuals who identify themselves as practicing Catholics decreases year after year. Any sense of credibility or spiritual integrity that the prelates of the church possessed in the past has been eroded in the wake of the worldwide sexual-abuse scandal. The lack of a definitive response to this moral pandemic has convinced many that the members of the hierarchy are not serious about solving this pervasive affliction. The fact that numerous men in positions of ecclesial prestige have merely offered empty apologies, and the window-dressing of vague guidelines aimed at preventing abuse, cements this sentiment among the general public. How can a dilemma of this magnitude ever truly be repaired if justice and accountability have not been the guiding catalysts in confronting this crisis?

Conventional wisdom has sought to designate the southern hemisphere as being the future of global Catholicism. There, an intense, vibrant expression of the faith is said to be a guaranteed key in winning further adherents to the church. Yet, a mistake is made when rigidly applying this analysis. It is commonly assumed that the scourge of pedophilic abuse is not an issue in countries of the global south. A prominent cardinal of the Roman Curia, hailing from Ghana, recently declared as much to the media, stating that this phenomenon is so rampant in the Western world because of cultural variations between the northern and southern hemispheres. He further implied that this sociological barrier existed as a result of the tolerance of homosexuality throughout most of the northern hemisphere, compared to its condemnation in countries of the southern hemisphere. Although it is not as pronounced or notable, cases of minors being sexually abused by clerics have, indeed, been documented in this region of the world.

In fact, in many countries, there is a sexual crisis of another sort. In this occasion the problem is not necessarily one of abuse. Throughout the African continent, where the numbers of entrees to seminaries constantly abounds, the vow of celibacy taken by those entering the priesthood is not always observed to the letter of the law. The custom of consciously disregarding this oath has been established by countless priests. It is not unusual for mistresses, and in numerous cases, even entire families (including multiple female partners and children) to clandestinely live with the pastor of a parish. Failing to give open acknowledgement to such arrangements does not erase their existence from the minds of most parishioners, many of whom privately condone the practice.  In the context of the African church, the notion of priestly celibacy is regarded as an irritating European aberration. In the prevailing culture, a man is expected to fall in love with a woman, to marry, and to have children — not doing so is viewed as abnormal. These conditions have become the norm throughout large portions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Thus, on all geographical frontiers, questions of sexuality threaten to deteriorate the binding tapestry of faith and tradition that has composed the Catholic Church for centuries.

It seems that the former pontiff may have realized the implications all of these realities held for the church in the twenty-first century. Noticing subliminal hints of this line of reasoning in Benedict’s statement of resignation could prove helpful in establishing the criteria by which the future pope will be elected. Upon renouncing the papacy, the pope stated, “My strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry…in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

This was seen as an expression on the part of the Pope Emeritus that not only were the effects of his age physically impacting his daily routine, but also, that his escalating frailty prevented him from responding comprehensively, and genuinely, to the pressing questions of the times we now live in. Longtime observers of Joseph Ratzinger’s theological temperament could very well have predicted this outcome from the first day of his election as pope. Although in his youth he did attend the Second Vatican Council, and was fairly progressive-minded in its wake, Ratzinger would eventually succumb to a crippling attitude of fear. As innovations following the historic assembly were implemented on a fairly rapid scale, Ratzinger began to view these changes as being rash and excessive. Criticizing new trends of liturgical practice and theological nuance, he began to complain that the Council’s message had been interpreted far too liberally. Soon, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would become the institutional church’s chief proponent for nostalgically looking to a bygone era of the past. In this world, the notions of hierarchy, doctrine, and obedience formed the basis of the Catholic faith, instead of the values of episcopal collegiality, primacy of the individual conscience, and theological objectivity that Vatican II would espouse.

Still, a question begs to be asked: How can the problems of the 21st Century be solved with 18th Century solutions?

In a candid conversation with my parish priest, I once asked him his thoughts on what he felt Jesus of Nazareth would have to say if He were living and breathing in the flesh, in today’s world. His reply was to quote one of Jesus’ most comforting and repeated exhortations in the Gospels, “Be not afraid!” (Matthew 14:27) This summons to courage was utilized so often by the late, Blessed John Paul II that it is often described as the unofficial motto of his pontificate.

This same hopeful premise was also the underlying theme in most of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. When it was finally completed, the entire trajectory and driving purpose of this monumental gathering was intended to impel the Catholic Church to have a greater, more intense dialogue with the modern world. Rather than seeing the church as diametrically opposed to all of the implications that modernity had to offer, Vatican II painted the church as an entity that was in the world, and not removed from it. In the words of Blessed John XXIII, who convened the Council, but would not live to see its completion, “We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand. In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.”

Undoubtedly, the failure on the part of the hierarchy to confront the global, human questions that the “signs of the times” have engendered is the biggest mistake the institutional church has made in the fifty years that have passed since the conclusion of Vatican II.

Earlier today, the College of Cardinals entered, and were subsequently locked within, the Sistine Chapel to elect Benedict XVI’s successor. This year, the events leading up to, and taking place during the Conclave have all occurred under the auspices of the liturgical season of Lent — traditionally observed as a time of conversion and repentance. Conventionally, repentance is usually understood as being contrite and remorseful for one’s sins. However, the biblical calls , to “repent” or “convert”, as Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist urged their followers to do, mean not to simply be sorry for one’s failings, but also, to turn towards God, and to adopt a new mode of being. This should make it all the more clear to the cardinals gathered in Rome that the Conclave of 2013 should not be business as usual.

My mother’s always-appropriate expression happens to paraphrase a similar message that can be found echoing from the mouth of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, “Neither is new wine, put into old wineskins, otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:17) In today’s paradigm, the wine described can symbolically be identified with the Catholic faith. The enlightening truth of the Gospel, (namely, God’s self-communication of love to us in the person of Christ) and the enduring traditions of the church must always be maintained. But new approaches (new “wineskins”) and insights must be used in transmitting the faith, allowing it to stay fresh and relevant for coming generations.

May we all pray that the College of Cardinals elects a pope who does not simply preserve the theological and bureaucratic status quo, that has been the norm in the Vatican for centuries, but instead realizes that whoever the next pope will be, he will have as his mission the task of emulating and personifying the Christ of the Gospels — engaging all members of the human family in a spirit of love, justice, and peace.

Now, more than ever, the Spirit of God must prevail, instead of the finite whims of fallible men. The credibility of the Roman Catholic Church has been universally placed under scrutiny. The church’s future hangs in the balance. Will it continue to remain a viable spiritual path, or is it destined to gradually be reduced to a reactionary cult?

Veni Creator Spiritus!

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What Really Happens at the Soho Masses?

Last night, I was up in London, attending once more one of the bi-monthly Masses in Soho which have a particular focus on the pastoral needs of the community of LGBT Catholics, their families and friends. Once again, I was struck by the remarkable value of these Masses, how strongly they are contributing to the spirit and ideas behind the Year of Faith for our community – and how much we have grown as a parish in the five years since we left behind our earlier base at St Anne’s Dean St, and made our home in a Catholic parish, as part of the pastoral program of the Archdiocese of Westminster.

There is a great deal of misinformation about these Masses out in some corners of the blogosphere, much of it sadly promoted by people who have not actually attended, or joined in serious conversation with the congregation. I, on the 0ther hand, have been attending regularly for a little more than eight years – and if not quite for every Mass, twice a month, then pretty close to it, and have nearly always stayed for conversation afterwards.  A rough calculation suggests that this approximates to something approaching 200 Masses that I have attended personally.

So –  what really happens at these Soho Masses? Sadly for those who like to spread or consume salacious gossip about these Masses, I can reveal, as one who was there these 200 times – much the same as happens at any other Catholic Mass, with one very notable difference: we do it so much better than most.

For instance, let me simply describe “what happened” at Mass yesterday, with a comparison with where we were when I first started attending eight years ago.

First, some raw numbers. By my count (not just a guess, but a rough head count) the total attendance was just shy of 130 people, on a cold and dark November evening, for a Mass which was not any particular special occasion. This was perhaps a little  more than the usual number  of somewhere between 100 and 120. For a congregation that comes together only for two Masses a month, it’s probably fair to put the  average total monthly attendance at about 220 – 230. We know that many of the congregation do not attend every time: some have regular commitments in their home parishes, some travel great distances, others have other reasons. The best estimate from earlier research is that “typical” attendance by the “average” member  of the community is of the order of every second Mass, representing a total nominally “regular” congregation estimated to be of the order of something like 400 – 45o people attending one average once a month.

That congregation is by no means an exclusively “gay” one. Looking at tonight’s congregation, which was fairly typical of those we have seen in recent years, we included substantial diversity, of age, sexuality, gender and ethnicity – including some heterosexual young married couples and older singles, gay men, lesbians, transgender and many others whose sexuality and gender identity are simply unknown to me – which is precisely as it should be.   Also present in the congregation, I spotted four  priests in active ministry of different kinds elsewhere, who had chosen to attend for the personal benefits they experience. As always, some of the congregation had traveled substantial distances to get there: one woman had traveled from Somerset, some others that I knew of had come from Reading, Basingstoke, Haslemere, and from Kent and Essex in addition to a full range of London boroughs.

So, the congregation was substantial, suitably diverse, and highly committed – but the Mass itself is not where it began. Long before the opening hymn, extensive work had gone into planning the Mass, by our liturgist and organist between them, selecting hymns and bidding prayers, and typing and printing convenient Mass sheets and our regular information – packed monthly newsletter.

My own involvement yesterday began well before Mass, with a committee meeting of the Soho Masses Pastoral Council, reviewing recent progress and planning ahead. It would be inappropriate to disclose too much detail of those discussions, but I can reveal that part of it included feedback on a recent Young Adults Group weekend retreat. One of the men who had attended reported that for him, the main value of getting away in a group was just to have the opportunity to discuss the Catholic faith with others of a similar age group. How many regular parishes are able to say they offer such opportunities for their own young adults? And this, the second year in a row that our young adults have arranged such a retreat, was fully booked, with an attendance of about two dozen people. Looking ahead, two developments for next year included confirmation that we will be beginning at least one (possibly more) men’s faith – sharing group, and perhaps initiating adult catechesis, in the form of an RCIA program and / or faith refresher program for those existing Catholics who simply want to know more about the faith.

Meanwhile, simultaneously with the committee meeting, another group of about a dozen people were rehearsing in the basement for our Advent carol service next month. Add in the people who prepared and distributed the hymn books and Mass sheets in welcome, read the lessons and bidding prayers, the cantor, the eucharistic ministers, those who took the collection, and the catering team for refreshments after Mass, and that’s well over thirty people (a quarter of the congregation) who were present not simply as bums on seats (“pew warmers”), but who were participating actively and directly, either in today’s Mass, or in preparation for the Advent carol service. Again I ask – how many more conventional parishes can claim that degree of active participation in the work of setting up a and conducting a Sunday Mass?

What of the Mass itself? One notable feature, familiar to all the regulars and obvious to any newcomers, was the sheer strength of the congregational singing, and participation in the liturgical prayers and responses. The homily, delivered by our celebrant Monsignor Seamus O’Boyle who is both our parish priest and vicar – general for the diocese of Westminster, was as we have come to expect from all our celebrants – thoughtful, intelligent, delivered with clarity and at times a light touch of humour, but on an absolutely orthodox, appropriate Catholic theme for the readings of this November day, on the last things that await us all: death and judgement. The bidding prayers that followed were similarly on completely conventional, appropriate themes for the season and current events: prayers that we should be ready for that day of judgement, for peace in the world , that we may be renewed by the Holy Spirit, for interfaith week, for prisoners and those who work with them, for those who have died,  and for the victims of violence (in particular, the victims of transphobic violence – the only reference in this Mass to the LGBT community specifically, and that because tomorrow is Transgender Day of Remembrance, for those trans people who have been murdered in hate crimes).

After Mass, many of us went downstairs for refreshments – tea or coffee, and biscuits. I did not count numbers, but my guess would be about 40 people – again a substantial proportion of the evening’s congregation. When I left well after seven, an hour and a quarter after the end of Mass, a good number of people were still there, with conversations going strong. I have never seen such a high turnout for tea after Mass in any of the other parishes where I have worshipped, nor have I found people so deep in conversation, for so long after Mass has ended.

But what were they talking about? To believe the rumour mill, you might expect that these notorious homos were looking for sexual pickups, making trysts and the like. I cannot state categorically that this does not happen (just as in any other human gathering, there may be people meeting and making connections that may turn sexual) – but I can state emphatically that in the 200 odd Masses that I have attended, I have never encountered any such sexual conversations or assignations. Instead, the kind of conversations that I have been aware of, are pretty similar to those I have heard after Mass, in all the parishes I have ever been part of.

These are examples of the conversations I remember  personally participating in, or hearing others discuss:

  • Talk about family (in my case, my granddaughter).
  • Talk about our countries of origin – with two others who, like myself, are not British.
  • Talk about travel plans for the month ahead.
  • Talk about work (and for one Religion Education teacher, it’s looming end, as he prepares to  cease his work at school, to start a new life in a Benedictine monastery).
  • Talk about religious books, at our impressive and extensive bookstall – specifically, a book I particularly wanted but was not there tonight, on reflections on the lectionary readings for the coming liturgical year.
  • Talk about the year of faith, available resource materials, and what local parishes are doing
  • Talk about the evening’s homily
  • And continued discussion of some of the business dealt with earlier in the SMPC meeting, especially about plans for faith sharing groups, and possible adult catechesis.

We have then, a vigorous and thriving, personally supportive congregation with a strong sense of community, and an ever expanding range of opportunities to explore and strengthen our Catholic faith, in the context of the Mass – and outside it. Those described above, and the degree of participation, could be the envy of many more conventional parishes of ten times the monthly attendance of our own 220- 230.

Looking back

When I first starting attending eight years ago, typical attendance was about 40, and overwhelmingly white, older gay men. By the time we moved into our new home in Warwick Street, in a Catholic parish and under the auspices of the Diocese of Westminster, attendance had increased to about 60, with just the beginning of some greater diversity. The activities, however, were still largely restricted to Mass twice a month, and conversation afterwards. It is clear from the above description of yesterday’s service, that we have grown and developed over the past five and a half years, as part of a Catholic parish – in numbers, but even more importantly, in depth of involvement, and in exploration of Catholic faith.
But it’s not just our congregation that has benefited. Our presence has invigorated the parish, which without a significant resident population, was low in numbers before we joined them. Three Sunday Masses a week (thirteen, on average, a month) were previously poorly attended, but numbers have been increasing steadily, as some of our community have made this parish their regular Sunday base, in addition to the special Masses on the first and third Sundays of the month. Even so, our attendance of something like 220 – 230 a month at just two Masses represents about half the total monthly attendance from all thirteen Masses: or as much as all the other Masses put together. The indications and expectation for the year ahead, are that our congregation will continue to boost the overall numbers of the parish, as even more of us begin to attend for the second and fourth Sundays, in addition to the first and third, as at present.
Nor is the value of these Masses restricted to enriching and deepening the faith lives of our own congregation, or to the invigorating new life it has breathed into the parish. Over the years I have participated, I have noted a number of people who began attending after long years of absence from the Church, with no participation at all in its sacramental life. By returning to the faith by means of Mass in an explicitly welcoming atmosphere, they have found a measure of reconciliation with an institution that had seemed to them threatening and hostile. Some of these no longer attend – because they now prefer to practice their faith in their own local parishes. Others, like myself and a fair proportion of the most regular participants, do both.
In my own case, I no longer simply attend a local parish, I participate fully in parish life. I serve on the team of readers, I help to gather hymn and Mass books after Mass, join in the tea and discussions after Mass, and participate where I can in social and other functions. For the current activities around the year of faith, I am leading one small group working through the “Radiating Christ” booklet, and have been joining another weekly group, watching and discussing a DVD series on Catholicism. Over the past few weeks, I have had full and frank discussions with both of the priests who serve the parish, in which I described my journey in faith, and also the ways in which I try to promote ministry to LGBT Catholics.  From my perspective, I find it deeply satisfying to be able to participate so fully in parish life in a spirit of full openness and honesty, with no attempt to “pass” as straight – and to note the acceptance and support I have experienced in doing so, from clergy, sisters at the convent, and laity alike. But I could never have found the confidence to be this open and honest in my own parish, without the support of the Soho Masses and its congregation to help me to grow.
“Speak the truth in love”, and “The truth will set you free”, we are told in Scripture – and reminded by Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger at the CDF, in the “Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”.  For helping us to grow in truth and honesty, we should be deeply grateful to the Soho Masses. I know I am.
If you agree with me, please write to Archbishop Vincent Nichols, to show your appreciation – and to balance the nonsense and lies he is constantly receiving from our opponents, most of whom have never actually attended one of our Masses, to see for themselves what really happens at them.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols
Archbishop’s House
Ambrosden Avenue
London SW 1P 1QJ

A Tribute to the (London) Soho Masses Congregation

After Mass one Sunday evening last month, one of those celebrated twice a month at the Church of the Assumption and St Gregory in London’s Soho with a particular focus on the pastoral needs of LGBT (i.e. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Catholics, their families and friends, I was talking to one particular member of the congregation. She is not in fact any of LGBT herself, but conventionally heterosexual and a mother, who had travelled into the West End from Kent, as she does as often as she can for our Masses – usually, but inaccurately, described as Soho “Gay Masses”. She was telling me how much she enjoys the experience. “It’s the community”, she said.

Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and Saint Gregory, exterior

And so it is. I have previously heard exactly the same sentiment from another heterosexual mother,  married to her husband for over 40 years, who was also present at Sunday’s Mass.  She travels up for our Mass once a month only – all the way from Somerset, a very substantial journey. Later, I came to reflect on the achievement of these Masses, which have a particular focus on the needs of LGBT Catholics, their friends and families – but which take place in the context of a regular parish. When a visiting priest from my former parish in Johannesburg attended last October to see for himself how we operated, I was curious to know just what he thought. “But it’s just a Mass”, was his response.

Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and Saint Gregory, interior

Again, so it it – but what a Mass! Far from the hotbed of iniquity imagined by our critics, here’s a run-down of what actually happened on Sunday night, and some other recent activity: a record that puts many conventional parishes to shame.

  • Well in advance of the Mass, our liturgist had prepared and printed Mass sheets, bidding prayers, and our regular, extensive newsletter.
  • Members of the organising team began to appear at the church from about 4 pm onward – a full hour ahead of the scheduled start.
  • Two people inserted the Mass sheets/ newsletters into hymn books, offering  one to each Mass-goer in welcome, on arrival.
  • The celebrant for the Mass was Monsignor Seamus O’Boyle, parish priest and also the Vicar – general for the diocese.
  • Assisting Msgr O’Boyle on the altar was a sacristan / server
  • Music was provided by a highly skilled organist (one of a team of four), assisted by a superb cantor to lead the vigorous and enthusiastic congregational singing.
  • Readings and bidding prayers were shared between four readers.
  • Four more were Eucharistic ministers.
  • A further four people took the offertory collection, and a retiring collection for the registered Catholic charity, CAPS (Catholics for AIDS Prevention and Support).
  • Notices at the end of Mass included some matters concerning our planned pilgrimage to Rome, due to take place next April.
  • Out of about 100 worshippers, possibly 50 moved downstairs for coffee and biscuits provided by the catering team, and to browse through the extensive information tables and collection of religious themed books on our magnificent bookstall (with subject matter ranging across Scripture, spirituality and prayer, Christology, Vatican II, reflections on the liturgical year, and many more – and simply to chat among friends, or to discuss recent activities and future plans. When I left shortly after 7 pm, over an hour after the end of the service, conversation was still going strong.

I make that something like 20% of the congregation who had contributed directly to the planning and conduct of the Mass, and 50% who gathered for refreshments and discussion. Talk about community! How many conventional parishes can claim that degree of  active involvement?

The “recent activities” under discussion will have included a successful Marian Day of reflection last Saturday, arranged by one of our team, led by a notable theologian and attended by eighteen members of the congregation, a weekend retreat the previous week for members of our Young Adults Group – the second retreat set up, planned and organized by the young adults themselves. Our young adults group have become a prominent, vigorous part of the congregation, as ministers of the eucharist, readers and on the Pastoral Council, as well as conducting their own regular social and religious activities – such as this, the second retreat they have arranged.

In addition to the young adults, we also have a women’s group and a transgender group meeting monthly before Mass for discussion and mutual support, and we will soon be starting a regular men’s faith-sharing group. Coming up for the Christmas season will be a Carol service, and for next year, there will be repeats of the successful “Next Steps” workshop on extending ministry to LGBT Catholics. Also on the horizon, is serious discussion on launching an RCIA program (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), to welcome people wanting to join the Catholic Church.

Last July, we had a large group participating alongside other Christians in the London gay pride parade – promoting to the wider LGBT community the idea that they too, could be welcome in Church.

In addition to the deep involvement in our own parish community, I should also note the investment in travel time and money it represents, and that for many of us, this is in addition to participation in local parishes.  I had travelled up from Haslemere in the south of Surrey – some 40 miles. Others that I know of had come similar or even greater distances – from Basingstoke, Salisbury, Somerset, Tunbridge Wells and Brighton and elsewhere in Sussex.

Many of our people also participate in local parish activities, as liturgists, musicians, special ministers – or passive pew sitters – and in affairs of the diocesan and even national church. Possibly also under discussion may have been the recent “Call to Action” gathering at Heythrop College, which some of us attended. Out of about 4oo  total attendance,  from right across the country, I spotted about ten of our community. (The whole of Arundel & Brighton diocese did not have many more than that).

Not all of us are active in local parishes: some have felt so rejected by the Church that they have not participated in any Catholic sacramental life for years. But our experience has been that many of the people who come to us for the first time after years outside the Church, become reconciled to the faith and move on to attendance, and then deeper involvement, in local parishes as well.

In this year of faith, Catholics around the world are reflecting on the twin themes of evangelization, and on the unfilled promises of Vatican II – one of which was much greater lay participation, in sharing the burdens of ministry. In the Soho Masses congregation, we have strong examples of both: extensive lay participation in planning and conducting our liturgies, and by our continually expanding pastoral programme, active ministry / evangelization to the broader community of LGBT Catholics.

Contrary to the apparent belief of the critics of the Soho Masses, the “face of Jesus” is not one of rigid enforcement of doctrinal rules and the loyalty to a religious hierarchy, but one of love and service to the community. (Jose Pagola, in “Jesus, an Historical Approximation“, describes Jesus’ mission above all as that of preaching the immanence of the reign of God).

When I first joined the congregation in the days at St Anne’s, the group was notable for comprising mostly older white men (at 52, I was probably at about or under the median age). No longer. We are now notably younger, and although there’s some way to go, we are also notably more diverse in gender and ethnicity. We have grown in numbers, but more important is that we grown immensely in community and active life in the faith. Summarizing the points above, this includes, in addition to the Masses themselves the following characteristics which any Catholic parish would hope to support:

  • Growth in spirituality (retreats and days of reflection)
  • Special interest support and faith – sharing groups
  • A planned pilgrimage
  • Community outreach activities and regular charitable giving (in our case, especially to CAFOD, CAPS and some other causes)
  • Informal catechesis through our extensive bookstall / information tables
  • A possible start to formal catechesis and RCIA
And above all, a most remarkable, powerful community spirit and fellowship. Yet all of this astonishing achievement is produced by a group meeting for just two Masses a month. Although some people undoubtedly contribute more than others, this is no longer something arranged by just a small group, or even by the formal pastoral council. This is a collaborative venture, strengthened and invigorated I am convinced, by the Holy Spirit working through us all, in which many gifts contribute for the greater good – of our community, and of the church as a whole.
Soho Masses community – I salute and thank you.
(Originally published October 25th. Also see the follow – up post “What really happens at the Soho Masses?”, written after Mass this past Sunday, November 18th).

Tongues of Fire Burning the Building Down

(Mother of the New Pentecost:: taken from the wonderful site St. Andrei Rublov Icons)

I’ve been reflecting today on the wonderful interview given by Matthew Fox, regarding the publication of his new book, The Pope’s War. Fox is also one of the keynote speakers at the ongoing American Catholic Conference in Detroit. Thanks to Colleen Kochivar-Baker of Enlightened Catholicism for alerting us to this interview and for her own insightful comments, and thanks to Betty Clermont’s posting below, with her provocative question about possible reform, which prompted these reflections: I am waiting for anyone to suggest a path to reform of the Roman Catholic Church which would be more effective than Catholics staying away. )

I’ve chosen several passages from Matthew Fox’s interview which particularly struck me as very prescient of the future of Christianity, and have followed them with my own reflections:

As a theologian I am trying to ponder how the recent events of Catholic history can be seen through the eyes of the Holy Spirit. Is there some good that come out of so much anguish, so much betrayal, so much disappointment with the false direction the church has taken under Pope John Paul II and Ratzinger? And I come to a clear conclusion that Yes, the Holy Spirit is still at work in the events of deconstruction and reconstruction that are at hand. It is time to restart the church. Let many of its forms go; let them die as they are doing.

With the death of Pope John Paul I in September 1978 [most likely by assassination], I felt that we were being given a sign by the Holy Spirit that we were not meant to have a ‘reformed Church’ along the lines proposed by Vatican II, as so many of us of the Vatican II generation were longing for. In a way my hope for meaningful ‘reform’ of the Church died along with the saintly, gentle, collegial and open-hearted Albino Luciani, who reined for only a short 33 days, and who died in such mysterious circumstances which have never been adequately explained to this day. If one ventures down into the crypt beneath St. Peters, which contains the remains of past Popes, John Paul I’s coffin has been placed on the side of the central aisle, the least significant location for any pontiff. Pilgrims rush past it, oblivious to this genuinely saintly martyr to reform of the Church, in their haste to get to the far more dramatic and spacious alcove which contains the remains of his successor, John Paul II, with the ‘eternal flame’ burning to the side and the permanent guard standing by. I always bring a bouquet when I visit Papa Luciani’s tomb, but I have never seen any other evidence of tokens of devotion and affection for this most ‘perfect’ of collegial minded Pontiffs. If the Spirit had intended us to have a reformed Church, without any radical reconstruction, John Paul I would have remained alive to have fulfilled that destiny. His death must be read as a sign of the Spirit that a much more radical purging of the Church was intended and that we were being asked to ‘let go’ of the forms of the old Church, to surrender our longing for renewal itself, even to cut the umbilical cord to Mother Church herself (in her present institutional structure) and to find the courage in the Spirit to venture out into the unknown, living in trust that the Maternal Spirit of Wisdom would find a way to preserve the lineage of Catholic Christianity outside the present, moribund institutional structure. However, I could not have imagined a more terrible or more profound purging and deconstruction than that enacted, albeit obliviously, by Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II. Such is the irony of history that the genuine saint is ignored and (taking my cue from Matthew Fox) the ‘schismatic’ Polish Pope in his spacious alcove down the aisle is honored beyond belief. Using the “S” word will be seen as contentious, but I am in agreement with Matthew Fox here when he says:

The “S” word rarely gets used these days but I think that Schism properly summarizes what the past two papacies have been about. They deliberately turned their back on a valid Ecumenical Council and in doing so are in schism. This means that its appointed cardinals and bishops are in schism. They do not represent the lineage of the church. This opens up whole new possibilities of seeing the church anew. All the Yes men and sycophants that have lined up at the papal trough for a piece of the power these recent decades are seen for what they are in their transparent reality.

An ecclesiastical system in schism? Is that too strong a word and does it not make us similar to those ultra conservative Catholic sects (St.Pius X), who consider Vatican II itself to be in schism and every pope elected after Pius XII? A contentious issue and a very strong word, but sometimes honesty, courage and directness in language are necessary instruments to pierce the boil that is infecting the Church. However, rather than hurl invective, I prefer to follow Fox’s inspiration and ask what the Holy Spirit is telling us through these powerful and painful ‘signs of the times.’ It is my own view that we cannot understand the present crisis in the Church without taking into account the overall shift in religious and spiritual outlook in the culture at large. Sincere spiritual searchers are no longer so dependent upon or so trustful of large religious institutions, but are finding alternative sources of nourishment in a variety of places and religious communities. The time for the great institutional structures has past, and what is to replace them remains a mystery and perhaps a cause of anxiety, as we fearfully contemplate fragmentation, splintering, chaos. But I feel such fears must be faced and overcome in the peaceful, interior conviction that the Spirit is leading us towards a radical reconstruction of the whole Catholic tradition and to forms of community which are at present beyond our imagining. Fox continues:

I have tried to sketch out some directions for new versions of Christianity that are needed today with of course the primary emphasis on lay leadership. We do not need another Council (after all the last one was totally stuffed); what we need is a rise and indeed a take over of the church by lay leaders. Jesus was not a clericalist. He never heard of the Vatican (or of cardinals) all of which developed centuries after his death. Time to start over. And with the courage and imagination and generosity that characterizes all authentic spirituality.

These words themselves need to be deconstructed and their implications laid bare. A “take-over” of the church by lay leaders ultimately must mean a take over of the sacramental system, and a refusal to be intimidated by the monopoly of control the hierarchy presently maintains over the sacraments through the myth of ‘apostolic succession.’ (Readers of Terrence Weldon’s blog, Queering the Church can find an abundance of documentation for exploring the justification for calling this doctrine a myth.) And here I am in complete agreement with another key note speaker at the Detroit conference, theologian Anthony Padovano, who is simply following the great Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx by insisting that a ‘validly ordained’ minister is not an absolute requirement for a genuine celebration of the Eucharist. In the absence of ‘ordained priests,’ communities must find the courage within themselves, through the most profound and heartfelt prayer and discernment, to bless their own lay leaders and celebrate the sacraments independently of episcopal approval. This is a radical act that requires the utmost trust in the Spirit, because ‘the real presence’ is among the great treasures of the Catholic tradition. Such communities will find themselves under fire and will endure censure and ‘excommunication,’ but it is already happening in increasing numbers of breakaway communities. Until increasing numbers of communities are willing to take this painful step – in the absence of ‘officially ordained’ priests – no real revolution within the church is possible. Lay leaders must rise up and take back the church and that means listening to the interior movements of the Spirit, experiencing the peace and joy which are the signs of the Spirit, when and as they celebrate the Eucharist on their own. The Holy Spirit is already imbuing communities with the fire of Pentecost, the interior joy and consolation that bring with them the assurance of conscience that this step is the right one. We are already being blessed, we are already being assured, we are already being led into the new Church of the Holy Spirit. It simply requires more and more laypersons to listen to this interior call. This will not happen overnight. It is too radical, too frightening, it calls for too great a sacrifice, too painful a wrenching from the security of the Mother Womb, but in my opinion it is way the Spirit is leading increasing numbers of us. The official organizers of the American Catholic Conference in Detroit are ‘following the rules,’ but I would not be surprised to learn that informal Eucharists on the periphery of the conference are fulfilling Archbishop Allen Vigneron’s worst fears. To take such a step, however, requires the most prayerful discernment and this brings me to Matthew Fox’s final points.

I believe, the most important direction that religion needs to go in its reconstruction—that is spirituality, the experiential dimension of religion. The mystical-prophetic tradition I have been recovering including the Cosmic Christ, Hildegard, Aquinas, Eckhart, Julian and others, together with today’s post-modern science, offers new and deeper expressions of healthy religion. They are among the treasure to take from the burning building.

Let us remember what Thomas Aquinas taught about religion. That it is, he felt, primarily a virtue, that is a habit that persons carry within them. Indeed, for Aquinas religion’s essence is Gratitude. Gratitude for existence. This means that institutions are NOT what religion is primarily about. What goes on in the heart and mind and gives birth to outer form is what is at the essence of religion. This means that social constructs like basilicas, cathedrals, churches, vaticans, popes, cardinals, bishops, canon laws, etc. are on the periphery of real religion. And they render themselves religiously irrelevant when their thrust at certain times of history is very far from the love and compassion and service that Jesus preached. They have more to do with accumulation of power and prestige and institutional and personal ego.

(All the more reason, then, for alternative communities to branch out of their own, while maintaining their ties to the larger community through prayerful discernment, counseling, advice, and listening to the authentic voices of wisdom within the community, born of contemplation and prayer. Nothing could be more important than the spiritual witness in peace and joy of lay led communities, celebrating the presence of the Resurrected Lord. The time for waiting upon ecclesiastical leaders for change has past. The ecclesiastical system must be bypassed, and only when increasing numbers of lay led communities are forced by circumstance to take this painful step, and discover within themselves the Pentecostal peace and joy assuring them that the Spirit is with them, will the real revolution of the Holy Spirit within the Church have begun. For this to happen, we need increasing numbers of genuine prophets and mystics who are attuned in the depths of their being to the life giving movements of the Spirit.

At the bottom, the crisis in Roman Catholicism is a crisis in spirituality or the lack thereof. Real people want spirituality. The church as we know it today is the last place they go looking. We are talking about the future of religion, the future of spirituality and very likely the sustainability or unsustainability of our species on this planet. This is why the issues at hand are of deep importance to us all, whether within or outside of organized religion.

I would like to close these reflections with these moving words from another contemplative teacher of the Catholic mystical tradition:

DIARMUID O’MURCHU: There’s certainly a part of me as a human being, a part entirely of being a Christian, that feels I don’t want to abandon any sister or brother on the journey of life and the journey of faith. But this is a very real question for me and for people who are like me who facilitated for renewal programs and chapters of religious congregations, because this one comes up often. What do you do with the people who don’t want to move, that want to keep things as they always were, and are so rigid and frightened and scared, and you can’t get them to move without badly damaging them, which I don’t feel I have any right to do or anybody else has a right to do. And so I think the delicate balance has to be something like this and for me Gerry Arbuckle is the person who has named this very, very clearly. Supposing you have this group…and let’s put this into percentages…and you have 50% that are totally rigid and stuck, if you like, and you have 50% that are yearning to go. Insofar as there are people that are committed primarily to life and to the evolution of life, the primary energy should move with the 50% that want to move. And then we keep a secondary energy to try and help and maintain the others in a meaningful way. So this principal is that you go primarily where the life is! I think the tendency, particularly in churches, is that we try to keep everything at the lowest common denominator to please those who want to keep things the way they are. That, in my opinion, is not what Jesus would do. That is not Christian gospel. I think we need to go where the life is, primarily, without abandoning the others. And we need to try and bring them with us, in so far as we can, in love, in charity, and also in challenge! And ok, if they choose to remain totally stuck, or totally where they are – let me not be too judgmental about it – ok, that is their freedom, that is their right if you like, but I think in the overall sense of things, whether at the human level, at the religious or spiritual level, I think this commitment to life always has to be honored. And so go where the life is primarily, put your energies primarily there. And then also spare some to try and maintain, in kindness and dignity, those that pretty much want to remain. And a corollary of that, of course, which is much more difficult and this requires a lot of skills, we do not allow this subgroup to dictate. And I think that’s where leadership has a huge responsibility. Leadership has to put it’s commitment with the new primarily.

Website for Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu : http://www.diarmuid13.com

ONE NATION UNDER GOD: Sacred Art and the Mystical Dimension

This extraordinary portrait of the face of Christ, entitled “The Light of God Within,” was created by the remarkable artist, One Nation Under God (formerly known as Steve Kreuscher. He is now seeking a suitable Church that would like to incorporate this great image into its sanctuary.) By a fortuitous “accident,” we became friends when I posted one of his mystical paintings of  The Immaculate Conception of the Divine Degausser at Gay Mystic – without permission, I might add.

When I first viewed this astonishing painting, I was stunned into silence, because One Nation’s work has such a powerful effect on the viewer, drawing her into the interior depths of being. It took me several minutes before I realized this was not an image of The Immaculate Conception, as we have come to think of it (mythologically or not) because then the feminine figure would be that of St. Anne, the mother of Mary. Rather, this is a painting of The Annunciation, that moment when Mary’s YES to the Spirit incarnated the Divine Son within her womb (which can actually be seen within the figure’s lower quarters). Other symbols include the flowering boat, the stream flowing into the horizon, the citadel on the left, the frozen fountain on the right, the flames of fire, and of course the white Dove itself, descending from a mysterious figure above. Rarely, if ever, have I seen a more powerful image of the spiritual fecundity of the feminine than this radiant work of art. It stuns the viewer into silence, suggesting realms within realms of infinite and multiple spiritual dimensions,  and resonating with the viewer’s own interior depths. In fact, it brings the viewer’s spiritual depths into conscious awareness, symbolizing for us our own most intimate mystical reality, and the indwelling Spirit within. Such is the power of great religious art to evoke the mystical and the sacred. Even the title is shocking in it’s originality, The Immaculate Conception of the Divine Degausser. ‘Degaussing’ is the process of eliminating an unwanted magnetic field (Wikipedia), and clearly the artist means to suggest the power of the Divine Son to eliminate from the world the negative magnetic field of “Original Sin.”

One Nation Under God’ very graciously thanked me for featuring his work (rather than scolding me for my presumption) and we exchanged a series of emails through which I came to know more of the work of this very unique and deeply spiritual artist. He referred me to his website, Yessy Art Gallery, where more of his work is on display and for sale.  Preparing this post on One Nation’s work reminded me of the remarks made by Robert Dessaix, quoted in my previous posting, Twilight of Love, that ‘the music, paintings, Cathedrals,’ don’t make up for the ‘huge disappointment’ the Church has become to many. Perhaps for some, but for those individuals whose hearts are open, sacred art of this quality has the rare ability to assist in a religious awakening. At the very least, it conjures realms of mystery within our own being that make us pause, reflect and wonder.

Another astonishing painting, which evokes the power of the Church at it’s most mystical is this one, entitled, The Angel Comes.  The symbols need no explication, the divine light within, the luminous cross which casts a shadow before the couple below,  the beads of prayer evoking the rosary, the parent figure  pointing the way to the young girl, the severe angular designs – which, when the viewer steps back from the whole, clearly become the welcoming arms of the Angle figure, which is the Church itself. In times such as ours, when so much heartfelt (and heartbroken) criticism is leveled at the Church and it’s official leadership, it’s well to be reminded by such glowing works  of art of the mystical dimension of the church which transcends all reasons and disputations, divisions and disputes. Even the black cross itself that shadows the path for the two figures below, suggests the trials of faith that await the seeker before one can cross into the threshold of Divine Light.

One Nation has since added this ‘correction’ to the above painting. Rather than amend the posting itself, I will quote his comments in full as a reflection on how we subjectively interpret an artist’s work:
The Title of the piece is “Trinity’s Angel”, and it is about my very close personal love relationship with my 8 year old granddaughter, (who also is a great artist herself, for 8 years old. ), and it is also about me teaching her about Jesus and the things of the Lord, and about angels watching over us, and about what her name, Trinity, means spiritually speaking.  When she was 4 years old, I had her pray with me to ask Jesus to come and live in her heart, and Jesus has meant everything in the world to her since that fateful day at 4 years old when she had her very powerful mystical experience.

As a fitting end to this reflection  on this remarkable religious artist, here is another heart stopping piece (in honor of artist, M. C. Esher) which evokes the formidable and disorienting power of the sacred, turning our ordinary perspective upside down and dissolving our customary sense of self through the relentless and terrifying power of the purifying Spirit. Look closely at the eyes as the ichthus (fish) becomes the dove becomes the ichthus becomes the dove again (The ichthus is the Christian symbol from the Greek, taking the first letters of the phrase, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior). The dark, blood-red cross transforms into the luminous, glowing Angel figure, whose wings blend with the dove-like figure above, whose own outstretched wings embrace an image suggestive of a sea shell,  a symbol used for centuries in the Catholic tradition for pilgrims engaged in the religious quest. Pope Benedict, in fact, has a scallop shell at the point of honor on his coat of arms.

For those familiar with the image below, the  sea shell in One Nation’s painting above might also conjure in the memory  the great painting by  Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, the chaste goddess of Love.


 

As mentioned above, One Nation Under God is looking for a suitable Catholic Church that is interested in using his portrait of the face of Christ, posted above. If you know of such a church, you may contact him at his website, Yessy Gallery.

One Nation has made this final comment about his intentions for his Christ portrait, “The Light of God Within”:

I want the portrait of Christ to be about 12 to 20 high, multi-layered, very powerfully 3-D, with strong white light shining through the inner most white layer, and the necessary lighting to light up each layer, so that even in a candle light service the whole portrait of Christ will be lit up and glow outwardly towards the congregation, in such a powerful way, that it almost enraptures their spirit into Heavenly places just by gazing upon it as their heart and their minds dwell upon God.

I have found the work of this remarkable ‘Catholic’ artist to be deeply inspiring and uplifting. Contemplating his work has brought a healing to my own soul and a clarity and serenity as well, making me more conscious of and more grateful for the infinite riches of the indwelling Spirit of the Divine Degausser.

By way of a lovely contrast, I would like to close these reflections with the work of another spiritual artist who draws inspiration from another great religious tradition, Buddhist Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat.

Why Catholics Can’t Sing: Benedict’s Retrieval of “Old” Liturgy as a “New” Liturgical Movement

At  National Catholic Reporter, John Allen has just published an excerpt from Joseph Ratzinger’s (now Pope Benedict) 1997 memoirs entitled Milestones.  Allen is publishing this excerpt as Benedict issues a motu proprio on the “new liturgical movement” he has sought to effect in the church—a new as in back-to-the-future movement which self-consciously and deliberately retrieves the “old” liturgy in the name of making it new again, following Vatican II’s liturgical reforms.

And here’s what strikes me as I read Ratzinger’s reflections on liturgical renewal in 1997, which continue to provide the foundation for his thinking about liturgy today: Continue reading

Minnesota Progressive Catholics

Catholic Coalition for Church Reform

Australian born Michael Bayly is a leading spokesman for the local (Minnesota) gay Christian community.  He serves as the executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), the editor of The Progressive Catholic Voice, and co-chair of the Minnesota-based Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR).  Earlier this year when an international group of progressive Catholic bloggers decided to collaborate on a new blog called Open Tabernacle, a pair of Minnesotans, Michael and I, were invited to participate.

From the CCCR website:

We are the Church. In our understanding of Church, all the baptized are one big community of smaller communities, we are all equal, we all participate in different ministries (lay, clergy, bishop), we communicate with one another, and we share a vision and a self-critique. The five words we have been using to summarize this model of Church are community, equality, participation, dialogue, and prophecy. It is a model arising out of Vatican II and seems to us most in line with the Gospel message. It has been promulgated by the Asian bishops and it also fits well with the positive values of our U.S. culture.

Dignity Twin Cities

Formed in 1969, the same year that the gay rights movement was born in the Stonewall riots of Greenwich Village, Dignity USA continues as the leading LGBT advocacy group within American Roman Catholicism.  Here is their vision statement:

DignityUSA envisions and works for a time when Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Catholics are affirmed and experience dignity through the integration of their spirituality with their sexuality, and as beloved persons of God participate fully in all aspects of life within the Church and Society.

A local chapter, Dignity Twin Cities, was formed in 1974.  Initially accepted by the local Catholic hierarchy, the organization was eventually booted out of Catholic property and now holds its liturgies and meetings at Prospect Park United Methodist Church.  The Rainbow Sash movement is associated with Dignity.  The current president of Dignity Twin Cities is Brian McNeill.

Womenpriests

The Roman Catholic Womenpriest movement is small but energized, and I have blogged previously about the women who challenge the patriarchal Catholic hierarchy at the cost of excommunication (here and here). 

Roman Catholic Womenpriests reject the penalty of excommunication issued by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith on May 29, 2008 stating that the women priests and the bishops who ordain them would be excommunicated latae sententiae.” Roman Catholic Womenpriests are loyal members of the church who stand in the prophetic tradition of holy obedience to the Spirit’s call to change an unjust law that discriminates against women. Our movement is receiving enthusiastic responses on the local, national and international level.  We will continue to serve our beloved church in a renewed priestly ministry that welcomes all to celebrate the sacraments in inclusive, Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered communities wherever we are called.

Bishop Regina Nicolosi Bishop Regina Nicolosi of Red Wing, Minnesota is a leader of the national Womenpriest movement.

Regina Nicolosi, MA, was born in a small town on the Rhine River. She was a teacher in Germany. 1969 she came to the USA to marry the love of her life, Charles, a radiologist and deacon. Together they raised four children, one of them from Colombia and one from Korea. Regina participated fully in Charles’ preparation to the diaconate. She earned her Masters Degree in Pastoral Studies. Regina has worked as a housing manager for seniors, as a chaplain in a correctional facility for boys, in a drug and alcohol recovery unit and in a nursing home. She is retired now. She helps prepare women for ordination and celebrates Eucharist with Dignity and other small faith-communities.

On Thursday, June 24th, I met Michael, Brian, Bishop Regina and other leaders of the progressive Catholic movement in Minnesota at a gay pride mass held in south Minneapolis. Following the liturgy, I was honored to be the guest speaker at this gathering of committed, Catholic, Christians.  Michael’s personal blog reports on the events of the evening in his post entitled LGBT Catholics Celebrate Being “Wonderfully Made”.  Click on the link to Michael’s blog for many pictures and Michael’s excellent reporting of this event.gay pride mass foursome

From left to right: Art Stroebl (event coordinator), Obie Holmen, Brian McNeill, Michael Bayly.

Cross posted at Spirit of a Liberal blog.