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Hope followed by familiar abandonment


The recent banning of Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent from ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics has caused me to revisit my own fleeting hopes and crushed dreams.

The morning in the spring of 1995 I discovered a letter in my mailbox from Bishop John McGann of the Rockville Centre, N.Y., diocese, I began to believe again. It was an unusually prompt response to my two-page epistle urging the diocese to inaugurate a reconciliation program for Catholic parents and their gay/lesbian children.

“Thank you for sharing your powerful letter and struggle,” he wrote. “I have asked Msgr. John ..., director of Catholic Charities, along with several of his staff to work closely with gay/lesbian Catholics in order to provide support.” I held the letter like a sacred object. Unable to contain my excitement, I phoned Mom and Dad. “I’ll believe it when I see the signature of the bishop,” Dad shrugged with his usual skepticism.

Plans for the new ministry swiftly went into motion. A steering committee was formed of which I and other gay/lesbian Catholics were members. Joining us were priests, parents and religious who all embraced a contagious spirit of solidarity in this auspicious mission. Small support communities were established within four Long Island parishes. Creative ritual and heartening welcomes marked our liturgical celebrations, which were scheduled quarterly.

“I’d be honored to celebrate Mass at my parish and publicize the event in Sunday’s bulletin,” said Fr. Frank. “Wow! Publicize it!” I said in surprise. A lifetime of outsider status was vanishing before my eyes.

For our first committee meeting we arrived for a tour of the Catholic Charities building, which began in a long corridor. The walls were sculptured with crystal-like transparent acrylic and featured scenes from the story of the Good Samaritan. Msgr. John said the Samaritan characterizes the ethos of Catholic Charities by becoming the good neighbor who “does not pass by.”

I remember how Msgr. John affirmed the guiding principle of this ministry. “This ministry will be directed by the people in the trenches, not the church administrators,” he declared with conviction. Members of the committee looked at each other, smiled and prayed we heard correctly.

Parents, siblings, sons and daughters of all ages began to fill the support groups and liturgies. For Mom and Dad, the tension of torn loyalties between a faith tradition they cherished and the lesbian daughter they loved was alleviated. Gay/lesbian Catholics dared to peek at the faith community to which they have long desired to belong.

More than 100 people streamed into St. Mary’s Parish for our third liturgy, despite icy roads. I was convinced it wouldn’t be long before Bishop McGann would celebrate Mass with us. His letter clearly stated this intention.

I approached the microphone to begin the welcome and spotted unfamiliar and pensive faces in the crowd. A man dressed in a dark suit alongside a woman draped in a black veil. Still, no one saw it coming. In the midst of a dialogue homily, they erupted with shouts, raised fists and demands.

“This Mass is irreverent and blasphemous, and that woman [pointing at me] is a blasphemer,” a man shouted with veins bulging from his neck. I was seated next to my partner. “They must confess before coming to Eucharist,” he continued. The entire congregation sat stupefied and motionless. We looked toward the priest for help and direction.

Fr. Frank finally restored calm and returned us to the liturgy. I noticed a tall, distinguished man sitting in the back taking notes. Members of the congregation anxiously glanced at one another, hoping to avert another disastrous confrontation. During the sign of peace I extended my hand to the man who had called me a blasphemer. He pulled his hand back and shouted, “Get away!” The social hour to follow was hardly social and very brief.

Shortly thereafter a story fabricated with lies and distortions appeared in the infamous conservative Catholic newspaper The Wanderer. An urgent meeting was called by Msgr. John who briefed us about the barrage of phone calls threatening to discredit Catholic Charities and “out” gay/lesbian people in local newspapers. I asked, “What is our priority now?”

My heart sank when Msgr. John responded, “We must protect the bishop.”

Perplexed, I questioned, “Who will protect the vulnerable flock?”

Since the Wanderer story broke three years ago, our original steering committee has been disbanded and replaced with one composed of internal church officials. Liturgical celebrations have become obsequious and infrequent. Publicity is now a dirty word. This results in poor attendance and disheartened families. Msgr. John has transferred to another post and is no longer guiding the ministry. Bishop McGann, now approaching retirement, never celebrated Mass with our community as he had hoped. There is a familiar sense of abandonment.

I revisited the compelling acrylic images of the Good Samaritan on the walls of Catholic Charities. This picture was the original inspiration for our ministry. Ironically, I now empathize with the portrait of the wounded traveler as he was dismissed by religious men and left to bleed. We are still waiting for a Good Samaritan to arrive and pick up the broken pieces.

Ann Amideo writes from East Northport, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999