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Tension emerge as AGLO marks 25 years
by Chuck Colbert

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An invitation to the cardinal archbishop to celebrate a community Mass for gay and lesbian Catholics has sparked discord, if not division, among some local LGBT faithful and beyond. At the same time, others view the invitation as a good thing, an opportunity for hospitality and dialogue.

The occasion of the liturgy is June 16 when the Chicago Archdiocesan Lesbian and Gay Outreach ministry (AGLO) marks its 25th anniversary and Francis Cardinal George presides at the weekly 7 p.m. Mass, held in Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on Belmont Avenue, located in Boystown, the heart of the city's gay enclave.

News of disagreement sounded several weeks ago in a Rainbow Sash Movement Web posting. There, the organization's executive director, Joe Murray, scolded AGLO's executive committee for "a reckless, divisive course of action" in inviting George and by "ignoring the reality of the cardinal's long, antagonistic, and biased relationship with the Chicago LGBT community over the years."

Murray was referring the cardinal's highly visible and vocal advocacy against same-sex marriage and full LGBT equality under civil law. In an effort to derail a same-sex marriage bill in the state legislature, George recently formed an alliance with African American clergy to denounce the measure.

Murray also objected to the cardinal's promotion of "the ridiculous idea that AGLO support celibacy for its membership."

In fact, when George spoke to a gathering of AGLO members at Mass in February 2004, he stated "AGLO was begun as a way to assure gays and lesbians the spiritual gifts, the means of grace to live chastely in the Church, in conformity with Christian morality. That remains AGLO's purpose," according to a transcript of his remarks.

If George continues his anti-gay rhetoric and celebrates the Mass on June 16, said Murray, "He will be met with open opposition."

More recently, in a letter to the editor of this publication, Murray stepped up his criticism of AGLO and Cardinal George.

"The Rainbow Sash Movement opposes the cardinal's visit because over the years he has personally opposed every bit of LGBT legislation that seeks to promote the human dignity of this community. He has told lies about our love for one another and has used the pulpit in his cathedral to mount a war against gay marriage and gay adoption; in other words, he has promoted bigotry against us. As if that is not bad enough he has been silent in the face of bigotry directed against us that promotes violence," wrote Murray.

"The only metaphor that comes to mind is that of inviting Hitler to a remembrance service for holocaust victims," Murray added.

For its part, the Gay Liberation Network said it would coordinate a protest outside the church. "Our argument is with the hierarchy of the church, the bishops, and Vatican leaders who have been vocal and sometimes hateful in their opposition to our equality in civil society," spokesperson Bob Schwartz said in e-mail correspondence.

The Gay Liberation Network, he said, was most irked with George's likening some gay activists in their opposition to the Catholic Church to the Ku Klux Klan.

"You don't want the gay liberation movement to morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism," George told Fox News Chicago in an interview, which aired on Christmas 2011. He subsequently apologized for the comment.

"We think George's remark was likely aimed at our group, said Schwartz.

The history of AGLO's founding dates back to October 1986 when the Vatican issued a letter on the "Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons," in which then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus, used the language of "objective disorder" to describe the "homosexual inclination" and "intrinsic evil" to explain "homosexual acts.

The letter also held out mandatory, life-long celibacy as the only way to sexual morality.

At the time, Dignity/Chicago, like other chapters of the national organization, was celebrating Mass in Catholic churches.

When Dignity could not abide with the call to celibacy, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin notified the local chapter that it could no longer celebrate Mass in Catholic space because the archdiocese "does not endorse organizations 'which assume a position of advocacy against Church teaching.'"

Bernardin then established AGLO, which celebrated its first Mass on June 5, 1988.

Attempts to reach members of AGLO's executive committee for comments were unsuccessful. However, during telephone interviews half a dozen AGLO members offered varying points of views, both pro and con, on the cardinal's presence at the anniversary celebration.

Geoff Duffy, who has served two years as choir director, does not support the AGLO executive committee's invitation to the cardinal. "I can't believe they would consider asking him considering all that he has done all year speaking out against our rights and what we stand for," Duffy said. "I can't imagine what credibility he could possibly have that Sunday evening, how he could get up and look that group in the face and have anything to say that would actually matter."

Duffy told the board he would not direct music for the June 16 liturgy. He is stepping down as choir director in early June.

Brenna Cronin, choir member and cantor, is torn. "For me as a music minister, I will have to make a decision. My heart says that I want to be there that day and minister for my community," she said. "At the same time I want to stand on the sidewalk with Joe Murray and hold a candle to show my protest."

Cronin's predicament underscores the tension gay and lesbian Catholics experience in balancing their faith with anti-gay church teaching and harsh rhetoric from the hierarchy and in reconciling their sexual identity with a sexual ethic that requires of them life-long celibacy.

"How I reconcile all of my life and all I am with the church," she explained, "All I know is that I was touched at a very young age and profoundly influenced by the power of the Spirit."

Cronin also has a girlfriend of three years. "I have every intention of spending the rest of my life with her," she said. "I am very traditional and want her to go from girlfriend to fiancée to wife."

An AGLO member for 10 years, Steve Engles has "mixed feelings," he said. "Any time you have the cardinal of the archdiocese celebrate the Mass at a special function, it's always important. I have great respect for the man, and his position within the Church, despite the fact we may share different views on practicing the Catholic faith."

"That being said, I do have some issues. Five to ten years ago, he did have some inflammatory remarks that had a significant impact on the AGLO community. Personally, I know people who stopped coming because of that. I didn't take the level of offense that some people did and wasn't going to let his remarks keep me from practicing my religion and attending AGLO."

Added Engles, "My faith is very important to me and AGLO is very important. That's why I have mixed feelings. I am glad that he is joining us and hoping it does not have a negative impact on the AGLO community, depending on what he has to say."

Like Cronin, Engles said that he "has a strong relationship with God. Like Cronin, he also has a partner. Reconciling his faith with having a life partner, said Engles, "I am okay with that. I won't let the church keep us from getting married, if that is what we decide to do—have a civil marriage ceremony."

In all, Engles said he is 100 percent behind the AGLO executive committee's choice of the cardinal as Mass celebrant. At the same time he voiced concern about "the scathing criticism Rainbow Sash Movement has for the AGLO executive board."

Yet another long time AGLO member, in attendance when the cardinal last presided, voiced mixed feelings. "I've been wrestling with it, am a little nervous, plan on attending, and will hope for the best" he said, requesting not to be identified. "I can see both sides, why some people see [the invitation] as a good thing and hope it will be a reconciliation and others are disturbed and feel demeaned that AGLO invited him and he's attending. I feel some of that."

For Gordon Nary, the cardinal's presiding is all about respect. "(Re, re, re, re) 'spect," he said, citing Aretha Franklin. "We owe respect to our church officials, as well as to our political officials. We may not agree with all they do, but we also don't agree with all our family does. The fundamental issue is respect."

Nary also voiced appreciation for archdiocese's longstanding support for ministry with gays and lesbians. "The people at AGLO may not appreciate the history of LGBT people with different dioceses," he said. "This diocese is paramount in the US for providing a place, a specific space for the community to go."

An AGLO member since 1996, Mike Cobey also supports the executive committee's invitation to the cardinal. "I am happy he is coming," said Cobey, adding, "I am hoping there is a little bit of dialogue with him, which we did get to do the last time he came."

Cobey was referring the time George spent at the social hour after Mass in 2004 when "the cardinal hung around for a long time and spoke to everyone who wanted to speak with him," he said.

"I talked to him pretty strenuously and told him how I felt, "Cobey added. "I hope to get the opportunity again because the cardinal is opposing the same-sex marriage bill."

In addition to the June 16 Sunday evening Mass, AGLO's 25th anniversary celebration includes a night out at the Lyric Opera and a gala dinner to be held either Friday or Saturday, June 14 and 15, said Rick Guasco, a co-chair of the "Faith and Pride" festivities. Interested persons are encouraged to join any of the six anniversary planning committees, which include are ad book, history, publicity, social events, spiritual events, and volunteer action, he said.

Guasco, who first went to AGLO 15 to 20 years ago, said, "I loved the idea of going to Mass that was being celebrated in the church itself. Just knowing that it was organized by gay people, that the archdiocese endorsed it—that made me feel complete."

Because of his feeling of completion, said Guasco, "I didn't need to reconcile being gay and Catholic. I still get that sense of faith and community. I cannot say enough. It just feels complete."

In all, "I take it as a good thing that a conservative cardinal wants to come celebrate Mass with us," said Guasco.

Outside the immediate AGLO community, other LGBT Catholic ministry organizations voiced support for the cardinal's invitation.

"While it is true that Cardinal George has said some damaging things about LGBT people, I don't see that excluding him from presiding at AGLO's 25th anniversary liturgy will be productive," said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry. "I see the invitation as an opportunity for AGLO members and friends to dialogue with the cardinal, and I think that we need more opportunities in the church for the hierarchy to dialogue with LGBT Catholics. I don't see the invitation as a reward for good behavior."

In the same breath, DeBernardo voiced disappointment over George's organizing against same-sex marriage. "I think it is a shame that Cardinal George has decided to form an alliance with ministers from other denominations to present a united front against marriage equality," said DeBernardo. "Instead of reaching out to members of other Christian churches, Cardinal George should be spending his time and energy meeting with and dialoguing with members of the Catholic Church who support marriage equality so that he could better understand the deep spiritual and faith-based reasons for their position."

A recent Quinnipiac University poll (March 2013) found increased Catholic support for same-sex marriage nationwide, with 54 percent of American Catholic voters favoring it and 37 percent opposing it.

For his part, Chris Pett, chapter president of Dignity/Chicago, said. "There is no controversy from our end. AGLO is a recognized ministry of the archdiocese. The cardinal has a right to go [to the community liturgy] and speak to it."

©Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.

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