Lest We Forget: Remember the Ashes of Our Martyrs

For Ash Wednesday, I reminded readers here that the season of Lent is also a “joyful” season, an aspect that should not be ignored.  We should never forget though, that it is also a solemn time, above all a time for repentance and renewal, individually and collectively.

So it was entirely appropriate and welcome ten years ago, that at the start of the season Pope John Paul spoke of the horrors that had been perpetrated by the church in the past, apologised for the evils it had done to .    and asked for forgiveness. This was important and welcome:  I do not wish to belittle it in any way.  However, there is an important category of offence which was omitted from the list, for which he did not apologise, and for which there has never been any apology: the persecution of “sodomites”.

For the first thousand years of its history, the Church was disapproving of homoerotic relationships, as it was of all sexual expression, but showed varying degrees of tolerance, culminating in what John Boswell described as a flowering of a gay sub-culture in the high medieval period.  During the 11th century,  Burchard, the Bishop of Worms in Germany,

classified homosexuality as a variety of fornication less serious than heterosexual adultery. He assigned penance for homosexual acts only to married men. In civil legislation regulating family life in the diocese of Worms there is no mention of homosexual behaviour

In 1059, the Lateran synod accepted all of the reforms for the church proposed by St Peter Damian – except for his proposal for harsher penalties against monks engaged in homosexual affairs.

All that changed within a few decades. In 1120, the Church Council of Nablus specified burning at the stake for homosexual acts.  Although this  penalty may not immediately have been applied, other harsh condemnations followed rapidly. In 1212, the death penalty for sodomy was specified in in France. Before long the execution of supposed “sodomites”, often by burning at the stake, but also by other harsh means, had become regular practice in many areas.

St Patrick: A Gay Role Model?

So why should we see St Paddy as a gay icon?

In a notable book on Irish gay history (“Terrible Queer Creatures”) Brian Lacey presents some evidence that Patrick may have had a long term intimate relationship with a man:

“St. Patrick himself may have had a relationship tinged with homoeroticism. Tirechan, a late seventh century cleric who wrote about St. Patrick, tells the story of a man Patrick visited and converted to Christianity, who had a son to whom Patrick took a strong liking. Tirechan wrote that “he gave him the name Benignus, because he took Patrick’s feet between his hands and would not sleep with his father and mother, but wept unless he would be allowed to sleep with Patrick.” Patrick baptized the boy and made him his close lifelong companion, so much so that Benignus succeeded Patrick as bishop of Armagh.”

Going backwards in his life, I have seen elsewhere a report* that after his escape from slavery and return to Britain, he supported himself by working for a time as a prostitute  – yes, good old Patrick may have sold sexual favours.

Mar 15th: The Gay Centurion

In Catholic tradition, Longinus is the name given to the Roman centurion at the crucifixion who pierced Christ’s side with his spear.  Some writers, like Paul Halsall of the LGBT Catholic Handbook, also identify him with the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his “beloved boy”, who was ill. It is this second person that I am interested in here.  In this persona, he is one of my personal favourites, as his story shows clearly how the Lord himself is completely not hostile to a clearly gay relationship, and also because we hear a clear reminder of this every time we attend Mass – if only we have ears to hear.

It may be that you do not recall any Gospel stories about a gay centurion and his male lover, but that is because cautious or prudish translators have softened the words of the text, and because the word “gay” is not really appropriate for the historical context. You are more likely to know as the story as the familiar one of the Roman centurion and his “servant” – But this is a poor translation. Matthew uses the word “doulos“, which means slave, not a mere servant.  Luke uses quite a different word, “pais“, which can mean servant boy – but more usually has the sense of a man’s younger male lover – or “boyfriend”.

Saint Appolinaria / Dorotheos, Cross-dressing Monk (Jan 5th)

St.  Apollinaria /Dorotheos of Egypt  is one of a group of women saints of the early church who took on men’s clothing  in order to live as monks. The historian Paul Halsall says of this group:

At work here is an old notion that women are saved in so far as they have male souls, a repeated term of praise in lives of female saints. These women’s lives do show that the Levitical Law was not determinative in Christian estimations of holiness, and that modern rigid gender categories had much less role in earlier epochs of Christianity than nowadays. These saints found a place in both Orthodox and Roman calendars.


Her story comes from the Orthodox website, “God is Wonderful in His Saints”

She was a maiden of high rank, the daughter of a magistrate named Anthimus in the city of Rome. Filled with love for Christ, she prevailed on her parents to allow her to travel on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem she dismissed most of her attendants, gave her jewels, fine clothes and money to the poor, and went on to Egypt accompanied only by two trusted servants. Near Alexandria she slipped away from them and fled to a forest, where she lived in ascesis for many years. She then made her way to Sketis, the famous desert monastic colony, and presented herself as a eunuch named Dorotheos. In this guise she was accepted as a monk.
Anthimus, having lost his elder daughter, was visited with another grief: his younger daughter was afflicted by a demon. He sent this daughter to Sketis, asking the holy fathers there to aid her by their prayers. They put her under the care of “Dorotheos”, who after days of constant prayer effected the complete cure of her (unknowing) sister. When the girl got back home it was discovered that she was pregnant, and Anthimus angrily ordered that the monk who had cared for her be sent to him. He was astonished to find that “Dorotheos” was his own daughter Apollinaria, whom he had abandoned hope of seeing again. After some days the holy woman returned to Sketis, still keeping her identity secret from her fellow-monks. Only at her death was her true story discovered.

The Handbook lists some scholarly references in support, while a look at some orthodox websites corroborates the story and confirms her feast on 5th January.  The Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. however,  dismisses the tale as ‘hagiographic fiction.’

Apollinaria’s story and motives are remote from our time, and ‘transvestite’ is not to be confused with ‘transgendered’. (UPDATE: After I first described this group of women as “transvestite”, I was taken to task by a reader, who pointed out that these days, “cross-dressing” is more appropriate terminology). Still, whatever the full historic truth of Apollinaria/ Dorotheos specifically, it seems to me this is a useful story to hold on to as a reminder of the important place of the transgendered, and differently gendered,  in our midst.
Many of us will remember how difficult and challenging was the process of recognising, and then confronting, our identities as lesbian or gay, particularly in the context of a hostile church. However difficult and challenging we may have found the process of honestly confronting  our sexual identities,  consider how much more challenging must  be the process of confronting and negotiating honestly a full gender identity crisis.

Let us acknowledge the courage of those who have done it, and pray for those who are preparing to do so.

Related articles


Talbot, Alice-Mary: Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation Anson, J., “”, Viator 5 (1974), 1-32

Bennasser, Khalifa Abubakr, Gender and Sanctity in Early Byzantine Monasticism: A Study of the Phenomenon of Female Ascetics in Male Monastic Habit with a Translation of the Life of St. Matrona, [Rutgers Ph.D Dissertation 1984; UMI 8424085]

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David the Prophet & Jonathan, His Lover

The story of David and Jonathan is one of those most frequently quoted in any discussion of biblical same sex relationships. As with the stories of Ruth & Naomi, or of Jesus and John (the “beloved disciple”), it is similarly bedeviled by discussion over the degree of physical intimacy involved (was there or wasn’t there?), and the impossibility of knowing for certain.

Personally, I see these questions as something of a distraction, just as I do with the other cases. Gay men are frequently accused of being “obsessed” with genital sex. If we only accept as “gay” those men for whom we know there was this genital activity, we are simply reinforcing the stereotype. I prefer simply to recognize that there was clearly a deeply intimate emotional relationship here, and to ignore the degree of physical expression. (Chris Glaser has pointed out that whatever the nature of the relationships, the stories of David & Jonathan, and of Ruth and Naomi, are the two longest love stories told in the Bible – longer than any obviously heterosexual love stories. Marriage in Biblical times was not about love. See “Coming Out as Sacrament“)

However, for those who are determined to dig deeper, there is a reference by John McNeill (in Sex as God Intended) which is worth thinking about.

Reaffirming Vatican II: We are the Shepherds

From the archives, this was first published in February, 2009. Two years later, I am more convinced than ever by its central thesis: that in the Catholic Church as it is today, we too are called to be shepherds – including at times and in some respects, shepherds to the clergy.


After writing earlier this week about Bishop Robinson’s book (“Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church“) on power and abuse in the church, with its reflections on the attempts at Vatican II to re-balance the power structures, I was interested to find in quick succession two items which between them shed some light on the problem.  And the answer, I suspect, lies not with ‘them’, but with  ‘us’.

First,the more seemingly frivolous item:  a report in New Catholic Times (sensus fidelium) on a novel, “Waiting for Mozart”, by Chuck Pilon, set in a Catholic parish 25 years after the conclusion of Vatican II. “Less than and somewhat more than” a review,  it is John Quinn’s reflections that I found particularly insightful.  Let me quote from  Quinn’s review /reflection:


“In Chapter 2 of Waiting for Mozart, Fr. Joe Burns is described thus:

A  fine priest…Ordained before Vatican II but known for aggressive application of its directives.

In those couple of sentences we have the story of Waiting for Mozart captured.

Ordained before Vatican II“, so socialized by a Catholic world-view radically different from that articulated by the council.

Joe was “known for aggressive application of its directives.” His was the responsibility of ‘applying” the directives of the council. This he would do “aggressively.

And it was “directives“, that is something given him to implement, to put into operation.


Quinn goes on to describe an incident from his own parish experience, in which parish priests would not ‘allow’ development & peace groups (a diocesan initiative). This led to a follow up where his own PP prevented him setting up a children’s liturgy for the parish – so he went elsewhere, and set up a children’s liturgy in a parish 25 minutes away.

The point is, that even where clergy have embraced the ideas of V2 (and many have not), they still cling by habit to the old style – and too often, too easily, we let them.  In my own experience on the Parish Council of a reasonably progressive Jesuit parish, I recall several instances where council members would privately say to each other “Fr….. will never allow that”, and so would never raise the issue!  But it is not the business of the priest to allow, or to disallow, but to serve.   In acquiescing without a fight, we are collaborating in our own oppression, to use the language familiar from my time in South Africa during the ‘struggle.’

Later, Quinn notes

“Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher said that an idea, once implanted in the mind, takes at least fifty years to see the light of day.”

If that is so, than the time is now.

(Read the full original article )

The same theme is put more formally in an address by Dr Diana Hayes given back in 2006 to the Call to Action conference, but posted this week on New Catholic Times (sensus fidelium) “Our Leaders are Like Sheep! so Rise up Shepherds! We are the Prophets. “ I loved the title! Even before reading the article,the key message strikes home.  If the point of the re-balancing at V2 was to empower the laity, we are on weak ground blaming the hierarchy for the problems.  If those at the top of the power pyramid are behaving like sheep (and it has often seemed so in recent weeks), then it is time for the rest of us to take charge, to become the shepherds.

I quote just a small part of this address:


“Where are the prophets of our time? Prophecy is a dangerous, thankless job. Too often it leads to martyrdom. It certainly leads to pain and suffering. But prophets we are called to be. For the rebuilding of the Church and the revamping of its structure is not the work of the weak or timid, but of those willing to rise up in God’s name and proclaim the truth!

The bishops are naked! They hide themselves behind vestments and liturgical rites and gobbledygook; they shield themselves behind cadres of yes-men – and a few yes-women. They destroy parish life, ignore the Holy Spirit’s voice and deny the fear and emptiness at the heart of their efforts to control rather than shepherd.

WE are the prophets
We are the prophets; all of us in this room and scattered throughout the nation in groups large and small are the voices that refuse to be silenced. How do we learn to prophesy? The late Monika Hellwig set forth two aspects of prophecy. The first is the willingness to turn towards God in receptivity of God’s grace and blessing. The second is to turn to the world around us as it stumbles forward, seeking the way to a better future.”


It is of course true that notwithstanding the council, formal power remains in the hands of the top echelons of the hierarchy. Even the bishops, as noted by Bishop Robinson, often seem helpless in the face of Rome.  But in reflecting on papal history, I have been struck how, until modern times, the growth of papal power and control mirrored that of secular power and control in the emergence of the state.  In recent times, though, we have seen seemingly powerful autocratic states crumble in the face of populations who refused to be cowed indefinitely.  Certainly, in South Africa change did not come because the government decided to change the laws, but because the people gradually refused to cooperate in injustice.

So, take up your crooks – let us become the shepherds.

Recommended Book

Robinson, Bishop Geoffrey: Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church

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