Recent events at the Vatican reminds me of a visit to St Peter’s Basilica with my partner Frank Wilson. He was an English art historian and took me to Italy for the first time as a newly ordained priest in the Anglican Church of Ireland.
We were barely 25 years old and madly in love. I had to be closeted n my parish on the edge of Roman Catholic West Belfast, not as a Roman sympathizer (though that was well rumored in my staunchly Protestant parish), but as a gay man. It was still illegal to be gay in Northern Ireland then.
So here we were, two gay men flying to Rome for a vacation in 1978 and Pope Paul VI had just died so the church was going through another famous election. We soon found ourselves in the middle of the great Basilica during the Mass of the Holy Spirit, the service immediately preceding the Conclave of Cardinals to be held in the Sistine Chapel.
It was particularly inspiring to feel connected (as a gay Protestant) to this moment and difficult to describe. My country and people were bombing each other because of sectarian hostilities and there was nothing Christian about our behavior. So here I was in the center of Roman Catholicism, a world I knew little about and feared intensely. As a child, we were taught all kinds of weird ideas about Catholics, but even is sectarian Belfast, one of my best friends was a Catholic and there was something about my own gayness that taught me to identify with the stigmatized and outsider. So here I was in the center of that which I was taught to fear most.
What was significant 30 years ago was the scale of the Roman Catholic Church compared to its present day 1 billion members, whose majority membership now lives in the Southern Hemisphere of this planet. There were few African Cardinals walking up the aisle of St. Peter’s that day and what amazes me today, there were so few of us actually present for this historic Mass. Today, we would have been required to have tickets, security screening and long lines to attend such a major historic event, but there we were just rattling around this exquisite space, under the same roof with two future Popes, John Paul I and John Paul II.
We visited Venice for the first time just after the election of the Cardinal Archbishop of Venice as the new Pontiff who called himself John Paul 1. We joined the long line of well wishers to sign his visitors book in his former palace in Venice. He only lived 30 days before a fellow Northern Irish priest (Luciano’s private secretary) found him dead in his bed and the Conclave was called back to elect a very different Pope.
As Archbishop of Venice, Luciano was a bridge between East and West long before the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall came down. Venice is historically a See where Eastern and Western cultures and theologies combine. Had John Paul I lived, we might have seen a very different church than the one we have today. In electing a Cardinal from Poland, the Church reflected a Cold War era and a theological conservatism that took everyone (Protestants and all) in a different religious and political trajectory. The growth of conservative Catholicism and its future bedfellows of conservative Protestantism and Islam could not have been imagined back then. Yet here we are.
This week in a dramatic turn of events, the Roman Catholic Church has just elected its first Global South leader who has called himself Francis after one of the church’s most favorite saints. Francis was a reformer and a man who worked within the church to bring it back to its basics - love and service, particularly to the poor and most stigmatized. His love of these people meant he bore in his own body the marks of stigmata - the wounds of Christ caused by the violence of others. He supported his sister Claire to also reform how the church felt about women and between the two of them, the world was transformed right up until the present day.
What is interesting about an institution like the Church is that we have living examples of enduring legacy - what is authentic about a particular leader in the church that endures beyond their own age and how future generations will remember and connect with them. The new Pope’s name is significant in that he not only identifies with one of our most enduring saints but he is coming from the Global South to give fresh leadership to the world. For this reason, it is a remarkable moment.
We live in a globalized age. Benedict was the first Pope to have a Twitter account with the handle Pontifex (bridge). He believed that you should live your virtual online life in the same way you live your real life. I am not a great fan of Benedict’s papacy, but this particular wisdom has profound consequences for the Internet age. Francis I will undoubtedly have his own Twitter handle - maybe i>FrankandErnest.com (not to be confused with a same-gender couple, God forbid). It is clear this Papacy is going to be about the margins moving to the center - the Global South speaking differently to the Global North, and this is an entirely new conversation. At the conception of Jesus, tradition records his teenage mother cried:
“He (God ) has cast down the mighty from their thrones. He has lifted up the lowly and meek.”
The center fades away while the edges become the center of the new reality. For LGBT people, this is a significant shift of power. There has been immediate reaction in some LGBT quarters to define the new Papacy as extremely ill-informed and homophobic, but my prayer for our LGBT global community is that we can pattern a dialogue of listening and respect between Global South and Global North that our commonalities far outweigh our differences.
I predict the reign of Francis I will be dominated by this north/south dialogue and the Internet and role of women in society, and the church are several places in front of the line for his attention. So we will have to wait out turn, but there is much we can do as LGBT people and allies waiting in line. The Roman Catholic Church will have to deal with gender equality before it can deal with LGBT issues and Francis I’s reign will be about this new emergence.
I am en route to Uganda, one of the most difficult places to be LGBT on the planet because it was selected by the Christian lunatic fringe to be a testing ground for not only an experiment in LGBT persecution, but also in gender conformity. It is significant that a parliament that may pass an anti-homosexuality bill also cannot decide after 20 years of discussion that rape can occur within marriage.
We can thank the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Uganda’s opposition to the Bahati bill, aka “Kill The Gays” bill, as the only significant voice of sanity in the particular form of Christian madness within his country. The Archbishop is concerned that demonizing and imprisoning gay Ugandans, or denying them basic services, is not something he wants to be a part of.
There are places of great difficulty on the planet for LGBT people and it is important to remember the difference between Vatican policy and actual grassroots activity by the faithful. Of our 26 people who came to the International AIDS Conference in D.C. last year as LGBT allies, 40% of them were practicing Catholics. They are looking for a different kind of leader and a way to include us in the provision of services and education, particularly around HIV. There is active debate in places like Uganda where Catholicism is the firewall between the LGBT community and mob violence.
Just as I was forced to look at my own propaganda about Catholics in Ireland in the 1980s and face some of my own prejudices and demons, I hope Catholics will continue to examine their relationships with their own LGBT children, neighbors and allies.
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.