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For gays, now is the acceptable time


During his years as Boston’s spiritual leader, Cardinal Bernard Law has demonstrated an ability to bridge the various gaps that far too often divide people of faith and goodwill. He eloquently articulated his commitment to bridge building recently, while preaching at the Saturday evening vespers service for the first Sunday of Lent.

An “evening of prayer, repentance and reconciliation,” this service was the local reflection perhaps of the pope’s mea culpa for the sins of Roman Catholics - a sweeping and unprecedented papal apology. I attended vespers. It was my first time worshiping in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

“Now is the acceptable time,” said Law, expressing remorse for the shortcomings of Catholics in the Boston archdiocese since 1808. “The church should be a sign of unity, of hope, of justice and of love. To the extent that we have not been that, we acknowledge our faults and we ask God’s pardon.”

Law added, “We ourselves have suffered as a community of faith the effects of discrimination and prejudice. All the greater should be our sorrow.”

The cardinal spoke also of “intolerable situations,” referring to “the obvious cases of sexual abuse, which have seared us all.” He went on to mention the “less celebrated cases of harsh words, as well as rough and unjust treatment, which have affected clergy, religious and laity.”

Moreover, he observed: “As Catholics, we have too often been exclusive in our love and concern, defining ourselves erroneously by race, language and land of origin.”

Heralding the time to leave behind such exclusivity, Law acknowledged the presence of Orthodox Christians at vespers, referring to them as our “beloved brothers and sisters with whom we are not yet in full communion.”

The cardinal acknowledged “our revered Jewish brothers and sisters with whom we share the memory of discrimination and persecution.” He acknowledged our “Islamic friends with whom we share the memory of the crusades.”

“Now is the acceptable time,” said Law, acknowledging just about everybody - “brothers and sisters from many racial, ethnic and national backgrounds” - except gay and lesbian Catholics, also his brothers and sisters in Christ.

It was a disheartening, in fact jarring, omission for a faithful gay Catholic such as I am. The several hundred people praying in our truly magnificent cathedral were gathered in the heart of Boston’s most visible gay neighborhood, the South End.

A few blocks away stands the Jesuit Urban Center where hundreds of gay Catholics worship each week. Not far away, in another diverse and inclusive Catholic community, lesbians and gay men gather at the Paulist Center on Park Street.

But Catholics who belong to the primarily lesbian and gay congregation Dignity/Boston must hold their liturgical celebration at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist on Bowdoin Street, having been banned from Catholic church property years ago.

No doubt there are many other gay Catholics who attend Mass in the various parishes throughout the Boston archdiocese. Yet, in a prayer service of reconciliation, our spiritual leader missed the opportunity to acknowledge his neighbors, express sorrow and seek pardon for the ways in which gays are still the brunt of - to use the cardinal’s own language - “harsh words, unjust treatment, prejudice and discrimination.”

In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony’s mea culpa asked pardon from specific groups, including the gay and lesbian community. “I ask pardon of our Catholic homosexual and lesbian members when the church has appeared to be nonsupportive of their struggles or of falling into homophobia,” he wrote in a Lenten message to his archdiocese, dated March 6.

“The archdiocese has tried to make amends by establishing a special outreach ministry to our homosexual and lesbian brothers and sisters, by including them fully in the life of our parishes and by being attentive to protecting their civil rights,” Mahony wrote.

“There is no saving value in simply naming a group or issues unless we have some real, firm purpose of amendment, for example, a real program that seeks to redress the wrong or some archdiocesan policy or procedure to bring about needed change.”

Mahony’s program is the Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Catholics that operates from his archdiocesan offices, facilitated by a priest and his assistant, the mother of a gay son.

In the Los Angeles archdiocese, inattentiveness and homophobia have given way to acknowledgment and redress.

In the Los Angeles archdiocese, lack of support and exclusion has given way to special outreach ministry and full church participation for gay Catholics.

Now is the acceptable time for gays in Los Angeles. Can this also be an acceptable time of reconciliation for gays here in the Boston archdiocese and elsewhere around the country?

Chuck Colbert, a divinity school student at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambridge, Mass., serves on the board of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000