Presiding at Eucharist — An Open Letter to the Dignity/Washington Community

A (Long) Open Letter to my friends at Dignity/Washington

Dear Friends,

This evening, a Dignity/Washington “Task Force considering the issue of Women Presiders at Mass will facilitate a 1-hour community dialogue … to express thoughts and opinions on this issue.”

Wine-and-BreadFor many years, D/W was my spiritual home, a place where I was privileged, along with other LGBT Catholics, “our family and friends,” to gather regularly for the celebration of Eucharist. As I am not able to be present for this community dialogue, I’d like to do the next best thing. I’d like to say from afar what I wish I could say in person. So, I am putting in writing my thoughts and ideas on this fundamentally significant issue. I say it’s “fundamentally significant” because, for us as Catholics, the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our lives as Christians. That phrase from the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, ch. II) reminds us that it is most clearly in the public celebration of Eucharist that we tell the world who we claim to be, and that we are united with all of our sisters and brothers throughout the world and even across the centuries who share this same apostolic faith. It continues to be a truism that any Catholic can go into a Catholic church anywhere in the world and join in the Eucharistic celebration — even if that celebration is in a different language and an entirely different culture — and still feel very much “at home.”

At the beginning of this dialogue, it’s essential to define some terms and then clarify what this discussion is really all about. Without those definitions, I contend that the conversation would be one of mere emotion and opinion, and as such, would be incomplete.

First, what does “presider” mean? In liturgical practice, a “presider” is any person who leads a community during a liturgical prayer. It is a term that has meaning precisely in the act of doing. Thus, in the Catholic context, it is a functional term only. There is no such thing as a presider outside of the act of presiding. The term should not be confused with terms referring to an office or position in the Church (such as “Pastor” or “Catechist”), nor with terms that denote one’s sacramental character. “Pastor,” for example, indicates someone who holds an official position as the leader of a local parish and “Catechist” is someone who has been designated to teach and guide those seeking full initiation into the Church (as in the RCIA process).  “Baptized” and “Confirmed” and “Ordained” indicate the sacramental character of a person who has received those respective Sacraments. By way of illustration, consider the Abbess of a community of nuns who leads her religious sisters daily in praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Each time she does this, she is “presiding.” While engaged in the act of presiding at morning and evening prayer, it would be correct to say she is the Abbess and that she is functioning as the presider at those particular liturgical celebrations. Outside of those times, she would still be Abbess, which is the formal office which is hers as the leader of her community. Outside of those times of liturgical celebration, however, it would be somewhat meaningless to refer to her as “presider” because there is no “presiding” going on. Similarly, there have been many times when the D/W community has had prayer services of various types and a community member — male or female — has led that prayer. At such times, that person could properly be called “presider” because he or she was engaged in the act of presiding over the celebration. Once the act of presiding is over, one is no longer a presider.

Second, what does “Mass” mean? Mass is a term which Catholics use to refer to our primary liturgical celebration. The Mass is the celebration of the Eucharist, and the Eucharist is at the heart of the Sacramental life of the Church. One of the hallmarks of the D/W community’s celebration of Eucharist is that it has, heretofore, always adhered to the Roman Catholic Church’s norms for what is called a “valid” celebration of the Eucharist. The apostolic Christian Churches of both the East and the West have, for two millennia, recognized the importance of “validity” in celebrating the Sacraments. For example, in order for the celebration of Baptism to be valid, water must be used, along with the invocation of the Trinity. If someone were baptized simply “In the name of Almighty God,” that baptism would not be considered valid Christian Baptism, because the Holy Trinity was not invoked. For some sacraments, one essential element for validity is the “minister of the sacrament.”  Catholic and Orthodox Traditions have always identified a validly ordained priest as the minister of the Eucharist. Thus, as a way of expressing its own commitment to our Catholic identity, Dignity/Washington has always celebrated Eucharist with a presider whom the Catholic Church recognizes as a validly ordained priest. (I used this phrase very deliberately, because I suspect that those who would like to see a change in D/W’s current practice would state that there are women who have been ordained as priest. It is not my purpose — nor do I think it should be D/W’s purpose — to enter the contentious discussions about the validity/invalidity of any such ordinations.) It is this fact — that D/W has always celebrated Eucharsist with a presider whom the Catholic Church recognizes as a validly ordained priest — which has allowed many leaders of the D/W community to answer in the affirmative when a visitor or potential new member has inquired, “Is this really Catholic? Is that a ‘real’ priest?” Those leaders could honestly answer, “Yes, it is really Catholic, and yes, that’s a real priest.”

It is my perspective that this practice has been the hallmark of D/W community. Were it not, I know that I and many others would never have called D/W our spiritual home, because it would have felt illegitimate to call our celebrations of Eucharist “Catholic.” While there is no doubt that many Catholics — myself included — believe that women should be admitted to ordination within the Roman Catholic Church, the sad fact is that this is currently not our Church’s practice. I wish it different — but it’s not.

It’s About Sacrament (and not sex or gender)

Catholicism takes Sacraments seriously.  They are the glue which binds us together. They mark not only significant moments in our individual lives, but also have, at their very core, the Mystery of Faith which brings us into the Christian family and which nourish, strengthen, and restore us throughout our lives. Because Sacraments are so central to the life of the Universal Church, no individual community — no parish, no diocese, no religious order — has the liberty to change by their own authority the fundamental character of how the Sacraments are celebrated. To do so would, in a significant way, “break communion” with the rest of our brothers and sisters around the world with whom we are united each time we gather “in word and in sacrament” to hear the Word of God and to be nourished by the Real Presence of Christ in Eucharist.

And so, I believe that the question posed by the D/W Task Force is fundamentally not about women, no matter how strongly we feel about the inclusion of women and their many gifts in the ranks of the Church’s ordained ministers.  The question IS about whether or not the D/W community wishes to continue to celebrate Eucharist with presiders whom the Catholic Church recognizes as validly ordained priests.  The question IS about whether the D/W community wishes, in all honesty, to be a Catholic community and not just a “Catholic-like” community.

Pope Francis and Hope for the Future

pope-francis-gay-quoteMost of us have been overwhelmingly surprised and pleased by the ways in which Pope Francis has made positive overtures to the LGBT community in the months since his election as the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of St. Peter. For the first time in decades, LGBT Catholics have legitimate reason to hope that the years ahead might be very, very, very different than what was imagined only a few months ago.

Until now, the D/W community can correctly state that what has separated us from the wider Church was not of our own choosing.  If D/W strays from its practice of celebrating Eucharist with presiders whom the Catholic Church recognizes as validly ordained priests, that would no longer be true. The D/W community could no longer state that any distance between us and the wider Church was not of our creation. Rather, we ourselves would have taken steps to further separate ourselves from the institutional Church. A decision to move in this direction is a decision one would anticipate if D/W wished to become its own independent denomination rather than a community that proudly proclaims its status as an integral part of the Roman Catholic Church. Given the hope that fills the Church now under the leadership of Pope Francis, now is not the time to move further away from the Church we love and the Church we call home.

It is my prayer that Dignity/Washington will continue to be a place where LGBT Catholics not only are welcomed — for we are welcome in many gay-affirming Christian Churches — but that it will also continue to be a place where, through the community’s wonderfully rich, beautiful, and inspiring Eucharistic liturgies, LGBT Catholics, our family and friends, feel very, very, very much “at home”!

In God’s Peace!

Tim

Dolan is Disingenuous re: LGBT People and “Defense of Marriage”

NYC archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan

NYC archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan

“We gotta be – we gotta do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people.”  These words from NY Cardinal Timothy Dolan sound friendly and encouraging. They sound as if they echo his earlier statements in the same interview with George Stephanopolous recognizing even gay people are created in God’s “image and likeness” and that he (Dolan) loves gay people too.  All well and good! But if Dolan and other Catholic leaders claim that their “defense of marriage” is not an “attack on gay people,” then why did we never hear about bishops “defending marriage” until the issue of public recognition of same-sex unions and civil marriage became a viable reality in the US? Why is it that the high divorce rate among heterosexual Catholic couples wasn’t enough to spur the bishops to “defend marriage”?  Why is it that the economic pressures on the American family practically demanding that both parents work outside the home — leaving so many children to essentially raise themselves — didn’t cause the bishops to speak out and “defend marriage”?

Dolan’s Irish joviality and good-natured humor make him a darling of the media. We want to believe him and take what he says as true. Facts and history, however, tell a different tale.  The truth is that the Church’s “defense of marriage” is a direct response to the recognition by the majority of Americans and people of good will around that world of a truth that the bishops will one day regret not recognizing sooner.  That truth is this:  all persons, including God’s LGBT sons and daughters, are created in the divine image and likeness; and by this very fact, every human person has the right to live his or her natural and God-given sexuality as he/she understands that gift to be.

Until Cardinal Dolan and other Catholic leaders own the truth that their so-called “defense of marriage” is nothing but an “attack on gay people” and that their words and actions don’t mesh — not until then will LGBT Catholics be truly welcomed in the religious home that is ours and that we refuse to give up.

Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)

Dignity NoVA/DC
January 26/27, 2013

Scripture Readings

Before I say anything about the scriptures we just listened to and what they might mean for us today, I think I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that – as Americans – we are gathering today as a different people than we did one week ago.  While many people who listened to the President’s Inauguration speech on Monday may have had to look up what his references to Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall meant, no one could misconstrue the meaning of his words when he went on to say this:  “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”  Regardless of whether we voted for Mr. Obama or not, or whether we agree or disagree with his stance on this or that political issue, there can be no doubt that – for us as gay and lesbian Americans – a page of history turned last Monday.  There can be no doubt that his speech marked the dawn of a new era and the beginning of a new chapter in the long road of LGBT Americans to see our full acceptance and inclusion in American society.  For this, I’m sure you join me in being very thankful to God.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

View from Whiteface Mountain, New York

Sadly, the corresponding chapter in the history of our Church has yet to see the full light of day.  But let me suggest that the pages of that chapter are being written right here and right now, week in and week out, as we gather to celebrate in Word and in Sacrament the faith of our ancestors – a faith that, as today’s scriptures remind us, brings healing and liberation to those who both listen to and live God’s Word in daily life.

By now you all know that last fall marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.  One of often repeated beliefs frequently heard after Vatican II is that the Church is most fully itself when it gathers for Liturgy.  Today we have 3 scripture readings that remind us of this – two of them call to mind the Liturgy of the Word, and one of them reminds us of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Ezra the priest reads to the people who have recently returned to Jerusalem form their long captivity in Babylon.  Jesus of Nazareth, “as was his custom,” entered the local synagogue, reads to a gathering of people who surely knew him well, and tells them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And finally Paul, in that unusually long passage from his first letter to the Corinthians, reminds a somewhat troubled and fractured community that they are, indeed the very Body of the Christ in whose name they have been baptized.  When you hear those words, “Body of Christ,” I suspect that for many of us the first thing that comes to mind is the Eucharist – the bread which we will soon bless and break and share among us.  Those are, after all, the words to which we say “Amen!” when the minister of the Eucharist offers us the Communion.  Using the image of the human body, however, Paul provides us with a related and dare I say deeper meaning of what “Body of Christ” means.

Paul is writing to a group of Christians in about the year 55 – some 25 years or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  This small group of people – perhaps 50, but probably not much more – had embraced Paul’s message when he had traveled to the Greek city of Corinth the year before.  They had heard him preach, been baptized in Jesus’ name, and had made an initial commitment to what we today would call Christian discipleship.  In the year since Paul had gone to preach elsewhere, Paul has learned that things aren’t so good in Corinth.  He’s heard that there is tension and division and jealousy; that some people are straying from the message he had taught, that others are living what we can euphemistically call “less than virtuous” lives, and that they were neglecting the poor in their midst.

It is to this small group, this Church, that Paul writes. He probably knew all the people at least by face if not by name, just as we know one another gathered here.  He also knew that this was quite a diverse group of people – men and women; Jews and Gentiles; young and old; married and single and widowed; rich and poor; some free and sound bound in servitude and slavery – each with their own gifts and shortcomings, their own weaknesses and strengths. Knowing all this, Paul goes on great length comparing this community, this local Church, to a body.  Just like any human body has different parts that all must work together for the good of the whole, so must every member of this body work with all other members for the good of the whole.  And just like every part of a human body as its own unique purpose and function, so too does each member of this body have his or her own unique talents and skills and blessings to contribute to the greater good of the whole.  And so for Paul, the Body of Christ refers to you and me, gathered as we are in the name of Christ.  His words are clear: “… you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.”

Even though the Church today is very different than it was in Paul’s day – much larger and even more diverse than two thousand years ago – Paul’s message remains unchanged:  Through Baptism into his death and resurrection and through the sharing the One Bread and the One Cup, we are all members of the One Body of Christ.

As LGBT Catholics, we’ve often heard quite a different message from many quarters within our Church, haven’t we?  We’ve been told in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we either are somehow de-formed parts of the Body of Christ, or that we aren’t even a part of that Body at all.  You and I know in our hearts that such claims are patently false.  We reject positions that would disparage our full humanity or our full Christianity – positions that would seek to exclude us from the Body of Christ.  And yet, hearing such claims as we sometimes do, we can feel like the hand or the foot or the eye that says to those other parts, “I do not need you.”  In our anger at being rejected, we can reject in turn those who dismiss us … especially those who wield great power within the Church and who … unlike the President in his speech … would never even speak the word “gay” let alone engage in fruitful dialogue with God’s LGBT sons and daughters.

And so for us, if God’s Word is to be fulfilled in our hearing, then there is a new challenge.  Like our Corinthian ancestors, we are called to see fellow members of the Body of Christ not only in the faces of one another gathered here – people whom we know and care for and even call friend – but also we are challenged to see as members of the Body of Christ those who may still be blinded by prejudice and bound by ignorance.  And … if our blindnesses are healed … we may even have cause to see some signs of hope for our Church.

Some gay Catholics were pleased, for example, to see seeds of hope in this week’s statement from the Bishops of France where, as you probably know, the issue of same-sex marriage is being hotly debated.  While their statement would hardly be endorsed by gay rights groups, the French bishops’ statement at least:  Recognizes that homosexuality has always existed; Rejects homophobia in any and all forms; Recognizes that there can be value in loving, committed same-sex relationships; and Recognizes that the concerns and needs of gay people themselves must be listened to directly.

The passage of Scripture that Luke tells us Jesus declared “fulfilled in their hearing” was from the prophet Isaiah.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

May these same words of Scripture reminding us that we are Members of the Body of Christ, united in love for one another and called to bring God’s love to a world and a Church that is broken, be fulfilled in our hearing and usher in a new era of healing and liberation for all God’s holy people.

(material for parts of homily is drawn from a variety of sources, including homilies by Fr. Joseph Komonchak, In verbo veritas).

(c) Copyright 2013 – Timothy J MacGeorge

Where’s Nature in Natural Law?

Desert Blossom

I don’t often have “aha” moments of insight, but I did the other day. It occurred to me that much of organized religion’s arguments against the rights of LGBT people to live full and complete lives as God created us — including lives that include sexual expressions of love — are often connected with a loose understanding of Natural Law theory.  I say “loose,” because I think that Natural Law theory — properly understood — has lots of room and possibility within it to come to different conclusions about homosexuality. In its crudest sense, Natural Law theory claims that what is natural is also universal, and that a proper understanding of “human nature” is what governs human life and activity, including moral activity.

My “insight” was simply this:  if there were more Nature in Natural Law, then perhaps the mistake wouldn’t be made of placing general and abstract principles above specific, concrete individuals.  The notion of “flower” exists precisely as that — as a notion, an idea.  It doesn’t really exist in the concrete such that it can be pointed to, described, or experienced in the here-and-now.  What does exist is this flower and that flower and those flowers over there.  Similarly, “the human person” only exists as a notion and an idea to help aid in understanding ourselves.  But any conclusion about “the human person” as an idea must always, always, always give way to the reality of you or me or any other individual human person.  Abstractions about “the human person” can indeed help us understand those things that are at the core of what it means to be  human, but if the the list of those things becomes such that fewer and fewer of us see ourselves as thus described, then the list needs to stop.

When the lived, concrete experience of living, breathing people becomes subordinate to an abstract notion of what it means to be a man or a woman or a person, then our thinking has taken a wrong turn and we need to return to the drawing board of Nature.

After all, isn’t it in Nature that we find what is Natural?!

When Students Become Teachers: LGBT students, Catholic University, and the cost of discipleship

LGBT students at the Catholic University of America (CUA), one of my alma maters, continue to struggle for even simple recognition of their organized group to foster greater awareness and understanding on campus.  This brief film documents that struggle of CUAllies, the unofficial “gay-straight alliance.”  We should all be proud of efforts like this — efforts in which young Catholic Christians stand in respectful opposition to institutional practices that fall short of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

At about 5 minutes in can be seen several members from Dignity/Washington (including me) who joined in a prayerful vigil last spring in support of these efforts.

Homily for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ

Dignity/Washington

June 10, 2012

Today we celebrate a feast that has been a part of the Church’s liturgical calendar since the thirteenth century.  In English we call it the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, but it’s also commonly known by the abbreviated version of its Latin name, Corpus Christi.  Although I’ve never actually participated in it, one of the special ways in which this feast can be celebrated is to have a public Corpus Christi Procession.  While the liturgical norms provide great detail on how to conduct such a procession, it essentially is quite simple.  After Mass, the gathered community is lead through the streets of their city or town by the celebrant of the Mass.  He carries the Eucharist, which in turn is held under a canopy of some sort – a sign of respect for our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

I couldn’t help but think of that image yesterday as a group of us – over 40 members of this community – joined with many hundreds of others in marching in yesterday’s Capital Pride Parade.  Thanks to the artistic skills of Larry Ranly, we had our own version of such a Corpus Christi canopy.  Constructed in the shape of a chapel, our lightweight canopy was draped in the colors of the rainbow, and it was carried by six of us as we walked the parade route behind a banner indicating that we were the Dignity/Washington contingent.

Even as I thought of that image in relationship to today’s Feast, I couldn’t also help but think of what this feast – the feast of Corpus Christi – means for me personally.  For the past quarter of a century, it has been a very special day. Although it’s been quite a few years since I was in active parish ministry, it was on this weekend twenty-five years ago that I was ordained a priest. And so it was on this feast day that I had the great joy of presiding at the Eucharist as a priest for the very first time.

In the diocese where I was ordained, the tradition is that a newly ordained priest would often invite someone else – perhaps a close friend, maybe a classmate from another diocese, or someone who had been influential in one’s years of seminary study – to give the homily.  And so it was that I asked my good friend Gerry – ordained several years ahead of me and who, sadly, has since passed away – to give the homily at my first Mass. In that homily, Gerry talked about the room on Mount Zion in Jerusalem that has been venerated as the site the “Upper Room” since the 4th century.  In that room, there is a carving at the top of a stone pillar.  It’s a carving of a mother pelican feeding here young with her own flesh and blood – a symbol of Jesus who gave the ultimate sacrifice for us, who gave us the gift his very self on the cross, a gift which we remember and receive again and again every time we share in Eucharist.

It you either marched in or were present for yesterday’s Parade, you know what a wonderful spirit was there – a spirit of celebration blessed by the beautify of a warm June day, but also marked by a sense of a changed or changing landscape for the LGBT community in the U.S.  When we look at past Gay Pride events – events which have become the “High Holy Days” for the gay community around the globe – one cannot fail to recognize how different things are for us in 2012 than they were say, in 1987 when I was ordained … and maybe even before some of you were even born!  So much has changed, in fact, that I’ve heard a number of people say over the past year or so that the struggle for gay rights and for the full inclusion of LGBT people in civil society here in the US is just a matter of time.  I think perhaps the general consensus is that, although there are goals yet to achieve, it really is just a matter of time before the barriers toward such full inclusion in civil society are greatly diminished or eliminated.  Indeed, I think there is strong evidence to support this perspective.

If that is true – and I hope and pray it is – I think it presents to us as LGBT Catholics an important time for reflection.  At the heart of this is the fact that what can be said about civil society, the broader culture, and even many other branches of the Christian family tree … those things unfortunately cannot yet be said about our Catholic community. While there are many positive indications about where we as LGBT Catholics are today when compared with two decades ago … it is not quite so clear that the tide has turned, or that full inclusion of LGBT Catholics into the life of the Church at all levels is in any way imminent.  If it is indeed, just a matter of time for such inclusion to come about, I daresay we’re probably talking in terms of decades and even longer, rather than months and years.

So if that is true, then what does this mean for us as a community of LGBT Catholics? Where do we want to be in 5, 10, or 25 years in terms of our relationship with the broader Catholic community … and how do we get there? What does this mean for how we will move forward in ensuring that popes and bishops and other leaders of our Church – as well as those of our lay brothers and sisters who still accept what the media call the church’s “official teaching” regarding human sexuality and the rejection of God’s image and likeness reflected in people like you and me – what does this mean for how we ensure that they understand that we, too, are members of the one Body of Christ?  How do we share with our fellow Catholics at all levels of the church’s structure the truths of our own lives? How do we help them to understand that the there is indeed room under that Corpus Christi canopy for ALL members of Christ’s Body? How do we do all this and still remain faithful to our call to live our Christian faith in the context and tradition of Catholicism?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but if we are to take seriously the fact that through our Baptism we have been made part of that One Body of Christ, then I think we at least need to think about this unique moment in time, recognizing who we are, where we are, and being thoughtful about where we are heading. While I don’t know all the answers, I have no doubt that sacrifice will be involved. Just as that mother pelican gave her life for her young, and as Jesus gave up his very self so that we might have access to the fullness of life,  we too must be prepared to give up and let go of what is non-essential, so that our voices may be unified and the core truth of our message will be not only heard, bur received.

As you’ve heard before and I’m sure will hear again … this year marks a very special anniversary.  It’s the 50th year since the Second Vatican Council began its work in Rome in 1962. If you’re not familiar with that Council’s 16 Constitutions, Declarations and Decrees, maybe you should pick up a copy and add it to your summer beach reading list!  There is in those documents great richness for today that goes beyond what is sometimes minimizes the Council’s work by referring to the “spirit of Vatican II, ” as the documents themselves paint a picture of a Church very different than what some current leaders would have us see.  In the Dogmatic Constition on the Church, Lumen Gentium (#12), the Council Fathers wrote:

“The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.”

I don’t know how you could be more clear in declaring that every member of the Body of Christ has a role to play and a voice to speak in discerning matters of faith.  As we claim our rightful place within the Body of Christ – as we become more fully what we receive in Eucharist – our task as faithful members of Christ’s one Body – is to discern rightly and to live out that discernment in faith and in hope and in dignity.

Happy Pride!