PART THREE OF
THE JOURNAL OF JAMES CURTIS
BY MICHAEL J. BAYLY
THE JOURNAL OF JAMES CURTIS
BY MICHAEL J. BAYLY
(To start at the beginning of this series, click here)
Well, that was certainly different!
“You really should check Dignity out,” Jay had insisted. “It’s a ‘traditional’ Mass,” he had said.
Well, I did check it out – and, as I said, it was certainly different.
I arrived at Southside United Methodist early and settled into a pew towards the front of the church. It was a nice enough worship space – though way too sparse for my tastes. Well, it is a Protestant church, I reminded myself. I looked around dejectedly. No statue of the Sacred Heart anywhere within these walls!
I must admit that I was surprised by the turnout. There must have been about 30 people – mostly men in their fifties and sixties. They all seemed pleasant enough, but I wasn’t in the mood for chit-chat, and so kept to myself – hoping I wouldn’t be considered a spy from the chancery!
As I sat waiting for Mass to begin, I found myself wondering what exactly I was in for. Jay said that, last he knew, some more traditionally-minded priests were celebrating Mass with the Dignity community. Well, traditionally-minded when it came to liturgy, that is. Obviously we won’t be hearing the virtues and benefits of the Church’s official teachings on homosexuality or of the Courage movement being extolled from the pulpit. And, yes, there was a pulpit.
Yet as appealing as the idea was of a more traditional Catholic Mass, welcoming of gay folks like myself, I questioned if this space at Southside United Methodist would work for me in the long term. Looking around once again, I was definitely missing those distinctly Roman Catholic elements that I appreciated so much.
An organ began to play and I searched through my hymnal for the words that folks around me were already beginning to sing. Movement to my left caught my attention and I turned to look at the processional. Perhaps I’ll recognize the priest celebrating this evening’s Mass. As it turned out: definitely not.
To my utter shock I watched as a woman walked past me towards the altar – a woman in the place where a priest should have been! Our eyes briefly met, and by her expression I realized my look of shock had taken her aback. Well, I thought, I can hardly help that! I closed my gaping mouth and turned away, fumbling with my hymnal. Just wait until I see Jay, I silently fumed.
I seriously considered making a run for the exit, but people had stopped singing and the Mass – if it really was a Mass – had began. This is terrible, I thought. I’m stuck here. I have to sit through this . . . this . . . charade! And on top of it all, her vestments were all wrong for this time of the liturgical year!
I couldn’t focus on the opening prayers or even the readings as I was racking my brain to remember what I’d read about these women “priests.” I recalled something about an ordination on a boat on a river or a lake, and that the identity of the male bishop who ordained them had to be kept secret. Now, of course, the women were ordaining themselves. I think there were even some female bishops! According to them, they were in full apostolic succession – I guess because they had been ordained by that male bishop. Still, weren’t they all excommunicated? It was all very confusing. And I resented the fact that I had been encouraged to come here only to have to sit through . . .
. . . She smiled at me! The woman . . . the woman priest . . . she smiled at me as she finished the gospel reading and looked out over the congregation! It was a warm smile . . . a welcoming smile. A smile that, I swear, said, “I see you’re upset, and that’s okay.”
She then began her homily in a voice that was light and lilting. Her message was all about how, when it comes to sexual matters, we need to transform the Church’s current “theology of arrogance,” into a theology that lovingly and respectfully listens to the sexual wisdom of all. She also talked about sexuality as an education in how to be human, in how to be open and vulnerable, not hiding behind facades. She was adamant that our sexual experiences can and should open us to growth and to learning how to love. She reminded us that our God is a creative God, and a lover of diversity. She even suggested that to truly respect this diversity, we should talk about “homosexualities,” as differences are just as prevalent among LGBT people as they are within the straight community, of which she counts herself as a member.
I must admit I was impressed by her words. They conveyed so much compassion and wisdom. And I realized with a curious mixture of sadness and anger, just how spiritually malnourished I had been kept at St. Jerome’s. Yet here, at last, was substance! Here was someone speaking to me as an adult, as a thinking, feeling human being. Here was someone who recognized that my experiences as a gay man had something to offer the Church, were needed by the Church.
I suddenly felt embarrassed by my initial reaction to this woman. I had been fuming and agitated, petty and judgmental. Yet now, after hearing her words and the truth they contained, I felt centered and at peace. I also felt compelled to talk to her, to learn more about her and the whole women priest thing.
To be honest, it had crossed my mind that I couldn’t possibly go to Communion. Yet now, after hearing such a welcoming and inclusive homily, I realized that I couldn’t possibly not go. Again, the difference from my last experience at St. Jerome’s was profound.
After Mass there were announcements, one of which threatened my new found peace. Apparently, Fr. O’Connor is hosting a Courage conference next month at St. Jerome’s! Furthermore, he has an article published in the latest issue of the diocesan paper (which I must admit I don’t read!) emphasizing the Church’s teaching that “same-sex attractions” comprise a “disordered desire for love.” Dignity, along with some folks from St. Anne’s, is planning on having a presence at this conference – to protest it, if need be. From what I could gather, someone from Dignity leadership is trying to negotiate with the chancery for a special forum at the conference – a forum that would allow people from both Courage and Dignity to exchange experiences and insights. It’s still unclear whether such a forum will take place, and I could sense that if it didn’t many of those present would be willing to picket the conference.
Wow, I thought, this is something new. Maybe I could cover it for the paper.
As people made their way downstairs for refreshments, I approached Cathie, the woman who had presided at Mass. Yes, I admit it: I was feeling ashamed about the way I had looked down on her and judged her. I wanted to apologize. But before I could get a word out she stepped forward and gave me a great big hug.
“Thank you,” she said.
No . . . Thank you,” I replied. “Your homily . . . I . . . it really spoke to me.”
“Wonderful!” she said. “Actually, I hope it spoke to all of us – male and female, gay and straight, partnered and single. That’s what is needed in our Church: a theology of human sexuality that is informed by all of our experiences; all of our dreams and desires and insights.”
“Yes!” I said with a wide smile. “Yes . . . yes!” To my amazement I was laughing – laughing with relief and joy!
“My, you have such a beautiful smile! What’s your name?”
“James. James Curtis.”
“Well, James Curtis, it’s a pleasure and honor to meet you. Is this your first time at Dignity?”
I shared with her my situation, of how I felt like I didn’t have a spiritual home within Catholicism anymore. Her eyes welled with kindness and empathy as she listened. And, movie buff that I am, I couldn’t help but think of Dr. Aziz’s words to Mrs. Moore in the film A Passage to India: “You have the most kindest eyes of any Englishwoman I’ve met.” Only I would have to say, “. . . of any priest I’ve met.”
Suddenly, my own situation seemed not so unique, not so important. And I heard myself asking: “But I want to know more about you, and about this whole . . . er . . . priest thing.”
I faltered, embarrassed.
“Why, yes, of course, James. I’d love to share my journey with you. And, believe me, it’s been quite a journey.”
Her warm smile really was quite infectious. I returned it and handed her my card.
Later, I got talking to some of the Dignity regulars. I shared with them my issues with St. Jerome’s - and, in particular, how, as a gay man, I no longer felt welcomed there. A guy named Vince suggested I try St. Aelred’s.
“It’s a Cistercian parish,” Vince said, “and as such it has a certain amount of, shall we say, independence from the Diocese. I think you’ll find it to your liking. I know the parish priest quite well. And believe me, you won’t be hearing Courage promoted from the pulpit - or on any church bulletin boards. It’s a very gay-friendly place.”
I asked how long female priests had been saying Mass at Dignity.
“They’re called Roman Catholic Womenpriests, dear,” Vince informed me, “and they’ve been celebrating Mass with us for about a year now. And let me tell you, when they first started it caused quite a stir. We lost a good 20, maybe 30 percent of our members. All men, I should add. It seems they want the Church to change only enough to accept them. In their view, women can stay in their subservient place. They just don’t make the connections.”
“You mean the connection between the different ‘isms’ - like sexism, racism, and heterosexism?”
“Yes, dear! Exactly.”
Goodness, I thought, who would have thought that a sweet old queen like Vince would be talking just like my radical queer activist friend, Jack. What a night of surprises it’s been.
Vince winked at me. “You know, I sometimes think that if those guys who walked weren’t out gay men, they’d be among our most rabid opponents. Do you know what I mean?”
And now I’m at home, reflecting on the various and surprising turns of events at Dignity. I wrote at the beginning of this journal entry that this evening’s Mass hadn’t been “traditional.” But now I’m thinking differently. And not because – as a quick search of the Internet has shown – there were indeed the equivalent of female “priests” in the early church, but because Cathie seemed to be what a priest – a pastor – should be. Not someone who lords it over others and pushes them this way and that, but a loving figure who gathers people together in a spirit of acceptance and welcome – in the spirit of Christ. Perhaps priests and bishops should be shepherds not of people, but of all the experiences and insights of the people. Perhaps then, and only then – equipped with such wisdom – should they be considered authentic teachers . . . like Cathie was tonight.
Oh, such radical thoughts, James! Just one experience of a female priest and already you’re re-imagining the Church. Yet, I wonder: is it really such a re-imagining? Or is it rather a reclaiming? I need to do some research. Perhaps Jay could direct me towards some good books on the early church and the role of those people in it whom we now call priests.
It’s late . . . after midnight! I really should go to sleep. Yet I still feel as if I’m on . . . well . . . almost a high from this evening. It’s not just Cathie’s homily, or the prospect of challenging the Courage conference and its screwed-up ideology, but the fact that I’m also feeling incredibly horny. Is there a connection? I mean, I feel spiritually aroused, and, as is often the case with me, it gets manifested – or better yet, embodied – by being sexually aroused. I’m as hard as a rock!
And, of course, whenever I’m feeling this way I think of Carlos . . . beautiful Carlos. Why? Because it’s with him that I still long to express this spiritual/sexual desire. With him such expression feels, or rather felt, so right and so very good.
But Carlos is out of the picture, and if I think about him for too long resentment rises within me and makes me angry and sad . . . and anything but horny (as I can tell already!). And what and who exactly is it that I resent? Is it ever having met him? How our relationship ended? Is it myself? Him? God? Life? All of the above? Okay, this is getting me nowhere. It’s a useless exercise. God, help me focus on more positive things.
Tomorrow I plan on attending early morning Mass at St. Aelred’s. Then at work I’ll ask Frank, my editor, if I can cover the Courage conference and Dignity’s response to it. Hopefully, Cathie will call and we can arrange to meet and talk. I feel I have so much to learn. Oh, which reminds me, I must contact Jay and get some book recommendations.
It’s strange: Cathie said she’s been on a journey, and tonight I feel like I’ve begun one. It’s a journey of consciousness, an awakening in many ways. It’s exciting, yes. But also a little scary. Yet I remember that smile of Cathie’s. She was okay with where I was at when I first saw her and reacted the way I did. I think she knew I was on a journey and that I had it in me to go beyond where it was I was at. And she was right.
I can’t help but think that this is how God works - accepting us where we’re at but always encouraging us and trusting that we can go beyond, be better yet.
So now, before I go to sleep, I light a candle before my portrait of the Sacred Heart, and I pray that God will guide me on what’s definitely feeling like a new journey in my faith life. I trust you, loving God. You love me, I know. Guide and strengthen me on my way. May it always be your Way as well.
See also the previous installments of The Journal of James Curtis:
• Part One: A “Bells and Smells” Kind of Guy
• Part Two: A Quiet Visit and an Exhausting Conversation
Image: Gabriel Loire