Coming out - Paul Andrews, SJ
Many parents have described what it was like to discover that one of their children is gay. I'm fresh from meeting a friend (call her Kate) who experienced that in an unusually painful way. One of her children, Conall (as usual I'm changing names and irrelevant details), was every mother's dream, good, loving, handsome, clever.
He was eighteen when he told his mother he was gay. More than that, he was in a relationship, a love affair, with a man twice his age, a man who had been a respected guest in the house, whom Kate had trusted. She is a smart woman, and pretty unsurprisable. She could live with the news that Conall was gay, though she grieved to think of the loneliness and prejudice he might have to face. Her pain arose from a suspicion that his gayness was not inborn but the result of seduction. She remembered how this attractive boy had fancied girls when he was younger. She had watched with amused pleasure how he related, gently and happily, to the girls who flocked round him.
She had not noticed how this older friend of the family, a man of outward piety and probity, was grooming her son, slowly persuading him that he had other appetites. When Conall at the age of eighteen told her he was gay, there was already sexual contact between the two men. Kate never faltered in her love for Conall; but she found it hard to see God's hand in the scheming of the older man. This was the hardest trial of her years of motherhood. Was God asleep on his watch?
Kate was sure - and is still - that Conall's 'coming out' was premature. A proclamation like this, which touches the family at a sensitive level, can never come at an ideal time. It is always hard to take. And it happens all the time. If we accept the most conservative findings of research, that about 1% of the male population is born with an exclusively homosexual orientation, then there may be up to 15,000 males like Conall in Ireland, over 200 of them in each age-group. So up to 200 men of twenty may feel this year: I am gay, and I have to let my family know.
The first reaction to the news is not so much tears as questions and misgivings. Conall was sick as a baby. Could that have contributed? Should the doctors have warned me? After three sons I wanted a girl, and got Conall. Is the Lord punishing me for desiring a daughter? Or did we somehow treat him differently, more softly than the others? Was he too close to his mother, put down by his father?
Is he too young to decide on his orientation? Surely these things can change, and many men are bisexual? If he 'outs' with this label now, will it make further development impossible? After all, we've known men to rear a family, then decide they were gay, and go off with another man. Perhaps the same could happen in reverse if Conall gives himself time? Anyway it is one thing to have a particular sexual orientation. Why should that mean adopting a whole lifestyle?
They are all fair questions, and they all need to be answered. On the other side, it must be said that for most boys and young men in Ireland, the last thing they want to find in themselves is a gay orientation. No matter how tolerant their family and surroundings, they are facing a lonely and complicated life. For their parents it may mean agony.
Why should it be agony? Surely that is casting a slur on gays? But in fact it was something approaching agony for every family I have ever known who worked through this. Certainly its impact was different from news of serious illness or disastrous exam results. Part of the indignation that comes through Gay Pride marches is the feeling that they should not be a source of agony or embarrassment for those they love. God made me this way. Why should people weep about it?
This is the body in which God placed them. In the mystery of God's providence, this is where they must work out their way to him. The sexual cocktail is different for each of us: from high to low testosterone (a measure of sexual urgency in males); from strongly male and hetero- to bisexual, to strongly gay, to transgender. Our job is to live with the challenge of our own mix, to enjoy our own cocktail, and to have respect for others, never use them, try to be faithful, aim to make sexuality as it was meant to be, a channel of love.
In the present climate, most boys and girls will ask themselves the question at some stage. Some will go through a period of panic in which they actually fear that they are gay - but a year later they know without doubt that they are not. So a boy's initial fears and misgivings are an unreliable guide for making decisions.
On the other hand I have listened to boys in their late teens who have never had any sexual contact or experience, and who are absolutely sure - they may say it with sadness and even dread - that they are gay. They have no attraction to girls, but a strong sexual arousal to other men. They have not been seduced by friends or conditioned by family, yet their fantasies and desires point in only one direction.
Dr Richard Green, in his classic book on the origins of homosexuality, discusses the numerous attempts to change the orientation of such boys, by conditioning or by individual therapy. The attempts have proved expensive failures. Psychotherapy can help them, as it helps heterosexuals, to come to terms with their own past and present, and to find a direction in their lives. But there is no point in parents asking a counsellor to see my son and talk him out of this nonsense.
A gay son should not find himself isolated in his family, suffering like a rejected child. The parents and other children have to work at the task of loving him where he is, in all his differences. What is the work of the Gospel but helping love to flow again?
An Emerging Church - Christopher Carey
There is a new church emerging. It flows from the primary model of church, the People of God, envisaged at Vatican II. Its birth parent, like a jealous sibling wary of a new family member - especially one who could threaten her control, is often a reluctant midwife in this birthing process. It encompasses much of what is best in its institutional parent to whom it will always be bonded, alongside which it will always sit. Two dimensions, one church.
I realised this most graphically as I attended the Christmas midnight service in the Far North during the holidays. Knowing there were virtually no ordained priests left in the north, I was not quite sure what to expect. I was warmly welcomed at the door by a bloke in gumboots. He slipped them off as he led me to a seat. Around me lots of people were greeting one another with a kiss or a hongi or both. There was no sign of a priest. He was celebrating Mass 40 miles away.
When most expected had arrived, about 80 in all including several visitors, one of the local men gave a mihimihi to the assembly and invited us to join in and welcome Christ into our hearts and homes in a special way at this time. As the congregation launched into the opening hymn, they hit their notes with gusto, reminding me of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in full flight - vibrant, voices raised, really believing. Who said that Catholics couldn't sing?
Four young people read the lessons. Clear, confident, articulate, reverent, well prepared. Then Auntie Beatrice led a reflection. She is not my aunt, but she seemed to be everyone else's. Talking quietly of the Christ born into her home every day, this beautiful elderly kuia reminded us that we were a privileged people able to be present in such numbers when so many of Christ's people lacked the basic necessities of life and faced starvation, or lived in refugee camps or were in prison.
It was as good a homily as one is likely to hear anywhere, Spirit-filled and wise. Her reflection came from the heart, from someone who lives the word she was speaking. She then invited people to share their own insights. About ten others took up the offer and brought some wonderful insights to bear.
There followed 'the prayers of the people' reflecting both local and international concerns - babies to be born, people kept safe on the roads, an end to the Iraq war and a remembrance of victims, hopes for exam results, better health for grandma and Uncle Rangi: prayed with feeling and faith.
The communion service was led by a local man, reverently, barefooted (gumboots at the door I presumed). It was interspersed by frequent bouts of singing - wonderful harmonies, obviously practised but blending in with the throaty offering I was attempting. And sung with pride - like a Welsh rural village choir I thought. You can sense the pride and the awareness of the sacred.
The obvious presence of the Spirit in this worshipping community was tangible. People were being nourished, none more so than me. As one who never misses Sunday Mass, I had not been present in a church for many years where the leadership had taken such care to empower people and get to grips with what Christ was asking of them this day.
I came away greatly heartened. A new church is emerging, building on the old, slowly but surely. It is an obvious scandal and a sin that we are sacrificing the one thing Jesus gave us in his memory - the Eucharist - in order to maintain a medieval form of priestly caste and control. The only thing I was left wondering about is how long it will be before the Catholic Church catches up with other sister churches and recognises local leadership as being priestly.
One hundred years ago Pope St Pius X declared Modernism to be a heresy and excommunicated its leading proponents. It was to be stamped out everywhere. Sixty years later it became a major platform for Vatican II. One hundred years from now our descendants will look in bewilderment at the teaching of these times about the exclusion from ordination of married men and women and raise their eyebrows in wonderment at the way the Eucharist was being systemically denied to the faithful.
Meanwhile, in the Far North as elsewhere where lay folk take the ball in their own hands, prepare themselves well and run with the Spirit at their backs, the new church is emerging - kicking a little, crying sometimes in anguish, centred on Christ, full of hope - and singing three-part harmonies en route.