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Standing Up For Gays In A Boston Catholic Church

Father John had an official message from the Archdiocese which he never read. Instead he walked amongst his flock, back and forth, speaking with so much passion that at times his face became red.
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I went to my daughter's confirmation in the Catholic Church this morning and got a lot more than I expected. I found another personal hero, along with former Sing Sing inmate Julio Medina and photojournalist Michael Kamber.

I am not Catholic. I was born Quaker and have never been baptized as that is not part of the Quaker tradition, though I do attend Episcopal Church in our neighborhood on a regular basis. My daughter's mom, my first wife, is Catholic and is a long time parishioner at St. Cecelia's in Boston. Both my kids by my first marriage have travelled to Haiti with Father John Unni, the priest at St. Cecelia's to participate in his long term mission work there.

My daughter Kerry wore a bright yellow dress and carried the Bible over her head in the processional on the way down the aisle of a crowd that numbered close to a thousand, including such notable Boston icons as Peter Lynch, the Fidelity investment wizard. My son Seamus carried the cross, a senior alter server. The Bishop joined Father John for this special confirmation service. Kerry did the first reading beautifully and was indeed confirmed.

Everything was going along predictably, the mass ended, and Father John came forward to say a few final words, or so I thought.

I had noticed in the bulletin the following:

"The Rainbow Ministry of St. Cecilia Parish invites all friends and supporters of the LGBT community to a Mass in celebration of Boston's Pride Month.The theme of the liturgy, 'All Are Welcome,' honors Christ's message of hope and salvation to all people. We will also celebrate the diverse community that finds its home at St. Cecilia.''

I thought it pretty cool that such a thing could happen in a Catholic Church. Little did I know that there had been outrage over the service all week played out in the press, causing it to be postponed, and that The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston made the following statement in the Boston Globe:

"The wording and placement of a bulletin notice announcing that the St. Cecilia Rainbow Ministry will be joining the parish at a Mass on June 19 may have given the unintended impression that the Mass is in support of Gay Pride Week; it is not,'' said Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese. "The pastor will clarify this issue at the Masses this coming weekend.''

Without any idea of what was coming, I was about to witness Pastor John Unni's clarification. What followed was one of the most inspiring speeches I have ever witnessed in any context. Apparently, Father John had an official message from the Archdiocese which he never read. Instead he walked amongst his flock, back and forth, speaking with so much passion that at times his face became red. He talked in the strongest terms possible about the importance of inclusion not exclusion. Several in the crowd near me wiped away tears as he spoke.

Father John explained that his only agenda was Christ's agenda and that it was all of our responsibility to love even when doing so was difficult. And this was one of those moments. He talked about the many messages of support he had gotten since the Rainbow Ministry's mass had become front page news. But he had also received messages on email and message boards that were deeply troubling. He made it clear we all have a fundamental choice to make in our lives: we can either love or hate. And that Jesus teaches us to love the rich and the poor, the white and the black, the gay and the straight.

"I don't know if you saw Chronicle the other night," he concluded. "But one in three teenagers who are gay will attempt suicide. If you are one of those who criticize our outreach, I ask you to look into your soul and ask whether there isn't a profound opportunity for service and mission when it comes to those young people. Look at the places where you are broken and afraid and ask yourself why we shouldn't be doing something to help those young people."

Just as Father John finished, I heard one heckler at the back of the church stand and begin to shout something angry. But before I could make out what she was saying the whole congregation was on its feet giving Father John a standing ovation. It went on for two minutes, not fading away, but getting stronger. Father John applauded them back.

I was very proud of my daughter for being confirmed. I was inspired by the man who led her in faith and made clear to all present what faith really means, even when it is hard.

Father John with Cardinal Seán

Photos: by author and courtesy of Cardinal Sean's blog

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