(Eureka Street magazine, Sept/Oct 1998)
by Michael Kelly
Daniel Madigan, a Jesuit priest from the
Society of Jesus, and publisher of Eureka Street, wrote a leading article
stating that communion is not a place for arguing the complexities of any issue,
let alone one as involved and volatile as sexuality. He says "It is a moment in which we celebrate the unity that underlies our diversity
... around a table set for us by a loving God".
A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. On Pentecost Sunday the Church was offered a startling image. That day the Archbishop of Melbourne publicly refused communion to fifty people who were wearing brilliant rainbow coloured sashes. Old and young, gay and straight, celibate and sexually active all were refused. The Archbishop then formally rebuked them, and the congregation applauded. This vivid image continues to disturb hearts and minds both inside and outside the Church.
Daniel Madigan, in his article, Telling it straight (Eureka Street, July 1998) is clearly disturbed by it all. Like many liberal Catholics he shows considerable sympathy for the discrimination gay and lesbian Catholics face, and yet well, this is the family dinner table . You don t arrive spoiling for an argument . This is not the time to turn up, fight with your parents and dare them not to feed you . Many people have echoed these sentiments: We support what you re trying to do, but we re don t like your methods . Well, what about our methods? The methods the Rainbow Sash Movement uses are simple, dignified, reverent and clear. We attend Mass. During the opening hymn we put on our rainbow sashes, which proclaim that we are gay and lesbian people who embrace and celebrate our sexuality as a Sacred Gift . We then take part in the liturgy like everyone else. At communion we go up and quietly, but resolutely, claim our place at the family dinner table . We are refused communion. We return to our places and stand silently. Family members and friends wear the sashes with us, becoming lesbian and gay for a day , enduring our rejection for the sake of love and justice. (If Madigan wants to deepen his family / church analogy I suggest he look no further.) People who are not Catholics wear the sash and stand silently with us. After Mass we talk honestly about what has happened and about our call to the Church. That s it. These are our methods .
Archbishop Pell calls such methods an inappropriate ideological demonstration ; Cardinal Clancy says they are futile ; Daniel Madigan suggests they will set back the cause of gay people in the Church . We disagree.
The Catholic Church is not a discussion group, a theological academy or a debating society. It is a Church, and its lifeblood is the Eucharist. All that we are and all that we do finds its Source and Summit in this sacred meal. The Church makes the Eucharist; the Eucharist makes the Church , as the early Christians put it. To re-make this meal is to re-make the Church, which is why the bishops guard their control of it, why women are marginalised at it, why openly gay people are refused a share in it. Yet this meal is meant to express the depths of who we are as a Gospel community of love and justice. The Eucharist, then, must be accountable to love and justice. It must be answerable to the Gospel. The very idea of an unjust or oppressive Eucharist is a betrayal of everything Christ stood for. We have lived with just such a betrayal for far too long.
It is true that the Eucharist celebrates the unity that underlies our diversity , as Madigan says. However, at this table we celebrate heterosexual marriages, wedding anniversaries, religious professions, priestly ordinations, the legal profession, the racing fraternity, ethnic cultures and football teams. Everyone dresses up and celebrates! Yet gay people must not wear rainbows. No symbols, prayers or processions for us. We must be anonymous, lest we disturb the unity . The silence and invisibility demanded of us at the Eucharist reflect, deepen and perpetuate the discrimination we face in the rest of Church life. This is the place where we must make our call for justice. This is the heart of the Church, a heart that needs radical conversion. Well then, are our methods futile ? Firstly, no action on behalf of love and justice is ever futile. Secondly, as Madigan points out Church moral teachings do in fact change . Central to this process of change is the challenge and lived experience of those the Church refuses to hear. These people must speak. In our Pentecost letter we call on the Church to honour our wisdom and experience , to seek with us a new appreciation of human sexuality in all of its diversity and beauty and to work towards an Ecumenical Council with this focus. However, there are no public forums, no structures of listening in our increasingly authoritarian Church. How are we to be heard? Within two weeks our movement had engaged six Archbishops, made headlines around the nation and provoked intense discussions in the media, in homes, schools and parishes. Bishop Power in Canberra has even begun to explore open dialogue with gay people in his diocese. Our methods are not futile. The furore they have caused suggests, rather, that we have indeed touched the very heart of the matter.
Furores, of course, can also cause damage. Have we set back the cause of gay people in the Church ? A woman outside St. Patrick's thought so. My sister, a heterosexual mother of six, was still wearing her sash when she heard an exclamation behind her: Whatever sympathy I had for gay people is gone now! My sister snapped back, This isn't about sympathy, it s about justice! Precisely. Polite discussions in closed rooms have their place, but so do clear strong actions. We have held up a mirror in which the Church must face the ugliness of what it is doing to gay people. Even more importantly, the Rainbow Sash offers a call to consciousness , as feminist theologian Carter Heyward commented, that things really are as bad as they seem. The only ethical way to be a Catholic in that kind of situation is to be a resistor . This is the painful experience of Conscientisation , that first crucial step on the road to liberation. Gay people are waking up and standing up for ourselves after many centuries of persecution. We refuse to be non persons , rejecting that fate which liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez claims is the worst oppression of all. This waking up is the only true way forward.
The real question in all this is not how gay people can dare to upset the Eucharistic meal. It is how our brothers and sisters can continue to eat at this table when we are refused. Yet there was another woman on Pentecost Sunday who drew my mother aside. Mum had worn the sash and was still shaking from the palpable rejection. I am so sorry , she said, but I want you to know that when I saw you rainbow sash people being refused I said to the priest Well in that case I won t take communion either! We must make the journey to justice together. Please, join us.