(The Age Newspaper, Saturday Extra, 22nd May, 1999)
by Michael Kelly
Michael shares with honesty his
spiritual and sexual journey.
Tomorrow morning, in St. Patrick's Cathedral, I will be refused
Holy Communion. I will be wearing a brilliant, rainbow coloured Sash, and
standing up for myself as a gay man. Because of this, I will be denied the body
of Christ, the sacred meal of Gods people.
Wearing the rainbow sash is hard work, and we do not wear it just for ourselves. I think of Catholic kids trying to sort out their sexuality, of gay people who've suffered breakdowns or committed suicide, or all who've had their hearts broken by the Church.
Amid the hostility, support and misunderstanding we routinely face, there is one question that is asked by people on every side: how can anyone bring together Catholic faith and Gay sexuality?
The answer lies in the living. I have been a member of the Church from the day I was born. My mother says she secretly baptised each of her children the moment we were put into her arms in the hospital, using a glass of water on her bedside table.
She also tells me I was three years old one I first announced I was going to be a priest. At five, I remember my parents taking me through the midnight darkness to my first Easter vigil. When choir and organ and bills burst forth into the "Gloria" of Easter, I closed my eyes and imagined Jesus rising from the tomb at that very moment.
I was entranced, God struck, seduced into a life-long love affair -- not with the Church, but the mystery that the Church, like a finger pointing to the moon, leads us towards. Still, with its ritual, music, incense, symbols and sacred teachings, the Church awakened my spirit, giving me my "mother tongue" of the mystery, my "native language" of the silence of God.
The language of faith filled Catholic primary schools in the early 1960s, and I soaked it all in. I loved being an altar boy, and I remember sweating religiously under my robes as I followed Father Coughlan round the Stations of the Cross on sweltering February nights in Lent. Old parishioners use to whisper: "I think that lad has a vocation." I didn't doubt it for a minute.
This sense of vocation deepened in great two, when I fell in love with St. Francis of Assisi, who became my hero, inspiration and guide. Through St. Francis, I absorbed the spirituality of the heart that was radical and demanding, yet joyous and free; filled with beauty and delight, yet identified with the oppressed, grounded in simple integrity, yet strong enough to challenge the corruption of the Catholic Church at its very core.
This was a potent brew for a boy of 13. It also became the foundation for the Catholic faith that sustains me today. At 17, I joined the Franciscans. Two years later I took off the brown habit, returned home dazed, disillusioned with formal religious life, defeated by another force that no pious structures could keep in check. That force was, of course, my sexuality.
My Catholic faith had left me completely unprepared for the sheer power and pleasure of sexual energy. For me, as for any unmarried person, every sexual feeling, thought or act was a potential mortal sin that could sever my relationship with God and send me to hell it were wilfully enjoyed. And so I fought and struggled against every sexual impulse.
This battle blighted my teenage years, but it was in the enclosed hot house atmosphere of the Franciscans noviciate that the tension between my faith and my sexuality began tearing the heart. Eventually, seeing no way forward out of the impasse and facing despair, I left the order.
Within six months, I was plunged into a crisis of faith. Not knowing who I was, or what I believed, I took refuge in one word "fiat" which became my life's touch stone. It is a Latin word meaning "yes" or "let it be", and, for me, it expressed a stripped down, essential faith in the goodness of being alive, a "yes" to whatever would come.
I know now that this word is at the core of Christian faith, and when the structures of religion collapse, as they must if faith is to truly mature, this core remains – the one thing necessary.
During this year I worked as a factory and a shipping clerk, and though I gradually made my way back to the Church I would never see it in the same way again. I had touched my own truth.
For the next 13 years I worked in Catholic secondary schools, teaching religion, running retreats, directing musicals, pouring myself into school life. I also learned to make a home for myself and enjoy life in the suburbs. I continued my theology studies, rattling in the Church's diverse, vibrant intellectual life.
Throughout these years, low my faith grew more radical I remained celibate. It's hard to say why. It says if I were trapped, as if there was a language I couldn't speak, while beneath the surface of my life, a silent sexual struggle was inexorably crushing my spirit. I would have to find a new way forward; I would have to face the fact that I was gay.
In the journey ahead, I would be guided by one conviction: that Christian faith is about a real love and true life. Through "love and life" I would sit at every experience and every Church teaching.
When I was 28, I began long-term counselling. Many gay people, having grown up in a homophobic culture, need help to claim their dignity and freedom, but I also needed to deconstruct a religious faith that had opened me to the love of God, then imprisoned me in shame. A few years later, I quit my job and moved to the Mornington Peninsula to rest and heal. That silent year by the ocean set me free.
In 1989, embracing this freedom, I travelled to San Francisco. During my four years there I completed a Masters degree in Spirituality, worked as a university chaplain and let the city of St. Francis lead me home to myself as a gay man.
This wasn't easy -- I had a lot to unlearn. Yet I treasure the memory of the first time I took a handsome man to way formal dance, the shock of a passionate kiss, the ecstasy of erotic play, the discovery that the blissful bodily aftermath of love making could lead me into deep prayer.
I treasure, just as dearly, memories of protesters at the nuclear test sight, helping Franciscans run retreats for people with HIV/AIDS, discussing the "gospel of Liberation" with campesinos in a village in Nicaragua called, yes, San Francisco.
Bishops sometimes claim people like me are not in "full Communion of faith" with the Pope in Rome. I am more concerned with being in communion of heart with Catholics like these, for it is love and justice that bind us to one another and to Christ, not rigid doctrinal purity.
It was love and justice that would guide me in early 1993. A priest in Berkeley had been receiving death threats because of his ministry to gay Catholics, and a local newspaper asked if I would support him by sharing my own story of being gay and Catholic. At the end a long, intimate interview only one question remained: did I want my name published?
I knew my career was on the line: the Church does not employ "publicly avowed homosexuals" as teachers and chaplains. I remember sitting in the dark in a chapel, watching the Moon rise over San Francisco Bay, and wondering at the paths of blessing and change that had lead me to this moment.
I took up the Scriptures for the day, and smiled. It was the vigil of the Pronunciation, the feast of "Fiat", which use not only my sacred word, but the Latin version of the "yes" the Virgin Mary and said when the angel asked if she would consent to be the mother of Christ.
I read the old Gospel story then prayed the accompanying psalm: "you're justice I have proclaimed in the Great Assembly. My lips I have not sealed. I have not hidden your justice in my heart, but declared your love and your truth." The next day I rang the reporter, said yes, and my life changed.
In the past five years, I have lived alone on the Mornington Peninsula in a quiet, contemplative way. I've walked down some rough roads, but I've also found peace and joy and learned to rest in the gentle silence in the centre of my soul. I've remained on the fringes of the Church, sometimes drawing people together to create community and ritual that are close to the earth and to the gospel, exploring new ways of being Christian.
Two years ago, a young man asked me if I would wear the rainbow sash, and become visible as a gay man in the heart of the Catholic Church. The question wasn't greatly welcome – I had no desire to re-engage publicly with Church structures. And yet, as we talked and prayed and argued, I suddenly found myself telling the story of Mary's "fiat", and I laughed out loud: another "yes", another surrender to the hidden God of the road.
Tomorrow is Pentecost, the feast of the fire of the Holy Spirit. Looking back over my life, I can see that it is my body, no less than my soul, that has drawn me into that fire. In trusting my body, I have learned to trust the Holy Spirit, and so I have been led into the heart of life where all is grace.
Tomorrow morning a whole community of people will wear the Rainbow Sash, confronting the Church's shameful treatment of lesbian and gay people, and standing up for justice and freedom. I will stand with them, wearing the rainbow and coming back into my Church to share not only my challenge, but my joy. I will call my Church to learn new songs of celebration that emerge from the sacred language other bodies, the wisdom of our passions, the goodness of the earth.
For all of us must, when our moment comes, be free to say the "yes" we were born to say, and allow divine love to become flesh once more.