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Brave steps to correct the course

It recently came to our attention that we had missed one of those remarkable little moments in the life of the church that point to enormous hope. The moment we missed was an Advent homily by Bishop William Newman of the Baltimore diocese during a Mass for Gay and Lesbian Catholics at St. Bernadette Parish in Severn, Md.

The talk is significant because, in a church where language such as “objectively disordered” should be applied to no one, Newman speaks lovingly and inclusively of gay and lesbian Catholics. His language is empathetic and insightful of the gay and lesbian experience. Most significant, in language dramatic because of its simplicity and directness, the bishop asks forgiveness.

John the Baptist’s role, said Newman, was “that of bridge building. For us he connects the Old Testament with the New Testament. He connects us with Jesus, our Savior.”

“In a sense, today I feel like John the Baptist, a bridge connecting the church community with you, the gay and lesbian Catholic community. And Cardinal [William] Keeler and Bishop [Gordon] Bennett add their support to this connection.”

Newman refers to lesbians and gays as an integral part of the church, “children of God” and “companions together in this journey of faith.” Simple terms, well worn in this church. Yet refreshingly new in the context of gay and lesbian Catholics.

Gays and lesbians, he said, have to deal sometimes with separation from family, friends and church. “You perhaps have had to climb the mountains of prejudice and discrimination, which need leveling. Or have had to contend with the winding ways of cruel humor, attitudes and ignorance, which need straightening out. Or perhaps you have had to negotiate the rough roads of verbal and physical abuse.”

Recalling the pope’s plea for the Jubilee Year, that the church “should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children,” Newman said:

“I lead the church community in seeking the forgiveness of our loving God for the sins individually and collectively the church has committed against the gay and lesbian community. We are all children of God made in God’s image and should enjoy the dignity of being a human person. For the times we have stripped you of your human dignity, we ask God’s forgiveness. Our relationships with one another should reflect the mystery and love among the three divine persons in God. … For the times we have not accepted you for who you are, we ask God’s forgiveness. We are all one human family in the world and in the church. We need each other, to affirm each other’s gifts and to support one another that everyone may have the opportunity to reach his or her potential. For the times we have deprived you of those opportunities, we seek God’s forgiveness.”

One homily will not erase the violations of human dignity, too often abetted by church pronouncements and attitudes, experienced by gays and lesbians. It is essential, though, to take note of any steps in courage that begin to correct the course. Let us all join Bishop Newman in asking forgiveness.

National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2001