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Prophetic, unsettling times


I do not write about the dismissal of Sr. Jeannette Normandin and Fr. George Winchester as members of the pastoral staff of Boston’s Jesuit Urban Center as a disinterested observer.

The center has been my primary worshipping community for more than five years. Not only do I know Normandin and Winchester, who were removed from ministry after the nun assisted in a baptismal rite (NCR, Nov. 10), but also I know Fr. Tom Carroll, the center’s director. All three of them have been present to me during difficult times -- as they have been to countless others who consider the Jesuit Urban Center a safe spiritual place called home.

I have had my share of disagreements with all three, expressed any number of disappointments to them during my five years associated with the center. All three, however, have heard me out, bearing with my frustration and impatience. I say frustration, referring to the institutional roadblocks that exist even at more enlightened Catholic worshipping communities for those on the edge, outside the traditional boundaries of contemporary Catholic experience.

These are unsettling times. Just about any gay-friendly pastoral ministry is perceived, sadly by far too many, to be crossing the line, pushing the envelope.

The public posture of the church hierarchy, sadly, often seems to lack compassion. This spring, for instance, the Vatican permanently silenced Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent, ministers dedicated to building bridges between gays and the church. This summer all 15 New England bishops decried “civil unions” in Vermont. The pope himself even scolded gays -- from the balcony of St. Peter’s no less -- expressing his “bitterness” over the celebration of World Pride, a gay event, in Rome this summer.

Nonetheless, significant numbers of us remain faithful gay Catholics, although the ties that bind us to our church are becoming increasingly tenuous.

Where do we find encouragement? Some of us take heart, finding consolation at the Urban Center. For the past several years, a dedicated handful of us have served on a gay and lesbian ministry planning group. With Carroll, we are exploring together what might be helpful and possible in our ministry to so many in the community. At the Urban Center, the gay community is in fact the majority. Seventy-five percent are self-identified as gay or lesbian, according to surveys.

Under Carroll’s leadership -- and with the support of the New England province of the Jesuits -- there has been measurable progress in attempting to meet the real needs of gay worshippers. I offer, as one small measure of progress, the scheduling this year of a six-lecture series on spirituality, particularly to address the spiritual growth and concerns of gay and lesbian persons.

Another, perhaps even more hopeful, development has sprung up from a most unlikely place -- the Catholic lesbian and gay baby boom. Before Normandin and Winchester got into trouble over the recent baptism, other gay couples had presented their children to the church for initiation.

To see committed couples presenting their children publicly for initiation into the church is a powerful expression of faith, if not a prophetic moment. Baptisms, moreover, are not one-shot events -- for the children, parents or those of us present, who take vows to assist in the infants’ religious and spiritual upbringing. God and community willing, the Catholic Christian reality of initiation will continue to unfold, with the sacraments of confirmation and Holy Communion to follow.

Carroll said in a recent homily that a prophet’s role is three-fold: to point ahead, to communicate and to encourage. The baptizing of gay couples’ children fulfills such a role. It communicates and encourages our bearing witness to the truth of our lives. These baptisms point ahead to a more hopeful future.

The recent and unfortunate turn of events, the dismissal of Normandin and Winchester, is truly sad, profoundly disturbing. It pains me to see them suffering. Quite frankly, I would like to see a rapprochement between the nun and priest and the Jesuits.

Still, I trust the power of truth and justice to find their way out within the Jesuit Urban Center’s worshipping community. Meanwhile, we cannot lose sight of the importance of baptizing a gay couple’s children. There is a powerful mystery at work here -- Catholic sacraments and their amazing ability to bind the faithful. We believers attribute this power to the Holy Spirit.

Chuck Colbert, a graduate divinity student at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, serves on the board of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. His e-mail address is CrcIIIUND@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, January 5, 2001