The Day Cardinal Dolan Hugged A Gay Man: Me

US cardinal and head of New York archdiocese, Timothy Michael Dolan (R), waves after leading a mass at the Nostra Signora di
US cardinal and head of New York archdiocese, Timothy Michael Dolan (R), waves after leading a mass at the Nostra Signora di Guadalupe church (Our Lady of Guadalupe) on March 10, 2013 in Rome. Roman Catholic cardinals from around the world will assemble in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel from March 12 for a conclave to elect a new pope in an unprecedented transition after Benedict XVI's historic resignation. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE,FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

That's right, Cardinal Dolan and I shared a hug, but more on that later.

Over the past few days, I have received both letters of support as well as letters suggesting that I pursue "ex-gay therapy." Regardless, the positive responses have been overwhelming and have provided me with a deeper understanding of why this presence at St. Patrick's Cathedral was so important, because in the eyes of Christ, all are welcome.

It is this message of "all are welcome" that I was greeted with by His Eminence, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, last November at his office in Manhattan. After writing a very personal and reflective letter to the Cardinal, he responded in writing expressing his "apprehension" about meeting with me, but still invited me to schedule a time. We ended up meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012 at 3 p.m.

I can still remember the nerves I felt in my stomach traveling up to the Catholic Center located at 1011 First Avenue, where the Cardinal's office is. I arrived quite early and found myself standing in the rain, so I made my way into the chapel that is adjacent to the Catholic Center. Inside the chapel there was only one other person -- an elderly priest. It was here that I knelt and prayed the same prayer that I say every day:

Dear Lord, help to make your church a place where all can dwell. For those who are hungry, provide them with food of a spiritual nature. May all those who seek, find you. Amen.

After completing my prayer and remaining for a few additional moments of reflection, I made my way to the top floor of the building. I was warmly welcomed by the Cardinal's staff and ushered into his office (there's a bit more of a story here, but it's detail that is largely irrelevant).

As the Cardinal entered his office, I rose and we embraced each other in what could best be described as a bear hug! The Cardinal then turned to me and said, "You are most welcome here." Do you know what is radical about that statement? He didn't inquire about my sexual activity, he didn't ask if I had gossiped earlier, and he didn't ask if I had failed to be charitable that day. Instead, he said, "You are most welcome here." Throughout our private meeting, I was received with love and absolute welcome.

It was, however, during our meeting that he did make a few statements and asked certain questions that I felt revealed a certain ignorance and naivety on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex relationships. Questions related to the basis of same-sex relationships were of particular concern. At one point, His Eminence inquired, "Are all homosexual relationships based on genitalia?" Even amid these questions, at each juncture in our conversation, he listened to my responses and engaged in what I viewed as a fruitful dialogue. At many points in our conversation, we found that we shared misunderstandings about each other and the various viewpoints we represented. It is this radical welcome that Cardinal Dolan expressed on a personal private level that I find so difficult to understand in light of his column from last week.

Toward the end of our time together, Cardinal Dolan asked me what I expected him to do in light of Church teaching. In turn, I asked Cardinal Dolan to write a letter of welcome to the gay community. I suggested that he avoid sexuality and instead focus on the person. To my surprise, he agreed to write the letter and suggested that Catholic New York or his blog might be an appropriate venue. It's what he said next that caught me off-guard: He said that he would share the letter with me in advance so as to make sure that it would be viewed as pastoral and sensitive to the LGBT experience. Sadly, that is not what ended up happening. And I wouldn't mind if the resulting letter was a "welcome," but his recent blog post, "All Are Welcome," came with caveats and conditions. In many ways, a welcome with conditions is no welcome at all.

As I was preparing to leave, His Eminence also challenged me. He expressed the need for a theology from the gay community that could be shared with church. Based on our discussions, we also shared a mutual desire to work with the gay community to achieve a greater degree of mutual understanding and respect.

It is with this background experience that I approached St. Patrick's Cathedral on Sunday. In a released statement from the Archdiocese of New York about Sunday's events, Joseph Zwilling, Director of Communications, writes:

"Although organizers have attempted to call yesterday's events by another name, it is clear that they were trying to make a statement, had hoped to get media attention to spread their message, and were using the setting of the Mass in Saint Patrick's Cathedral as their forum."

Sadly, Mr. Zwilling is misguided and ill informed about our intent and apparently the details of how Sunday unfolded since he was not present. In fact, Mr. Zwilling and other commentators have failed to acknowledge an important aspect of our presence at St. Patrick's Cathedral: We advised those joining us to wash their hands before participating in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This direction as well as a statement asking individuals not to engage others attending the Mass were offered both on the event's Facebook page as well as on a printed handout that was distributed to those attending the Mass. In addition, although Mr. Zwilling suggests otherwise, we had no interest in obtaining any media exposure: We merely sought to be present at Mass with the dirty hands that Dolan had already implied we possessed. In fact, I'm pretty sure that if the Archdiocese had allowed us to be silently present at Mass without disturbing others, there would have been no story at all. (A note of clarification: We had soiled our hands to be present at Mass, but out of reverence for the sacrament, those receiving the Eucharist in their hands were advised to wash their hands before receiving the Body of Christ, as we are all clean and welcome before Christ. It was suggested that they re-soil their hands after receiving the Eucharist. For those receiving on the tongue, this was not an issue.)

Max Lindenman at Patheos makes an important and valid point about the events that transpired on Sunday:

It's easy to sympathize with the archdiocese. Pointed statements by any name can turn disruptive. Kevin Donahue, the cathedral's director of operations, did agree to admit the men on the condition they wash their hands. This suggests their demeanor gave him confidence they wouldn't switch to some brasher tactic...

Further, Lindenman draws reference to what was at the center of our presence: "...before everyone stampedes to agree how Amodeo & Co. are ill-mannered, ill-catechized, or both, do (sic) let's pause for a moment to notice that what they wanted, more than anything else, was in. Given the state of the Church today, that's nothing short of miraculous."

That is what we wanted: to be welcomed into the church with our dirty hands and clean hearts. Although, Mr. Zwilling remains steadfast in his accusation that our blackened hands where somehow a "protest," I would challenge him to explain the presence of other outward symbols that apparently are permitted within the walls of the Church. Whether considering lapel pins or T-shirts supporting various political agendas, these are expressions of an individual's beliefs and values. The notion that our expression of humility was denied entrance speaks volumes.

Lastly, over the past few days, I have been reflecting on the greatest protest of all that occurs in churches around the country every Sunday: the sign of peace. In that moment, Christians around the world protest the very barriers that on the surface appear to divide us. At the instance upon which we share the sign of peace, we protest a world of judgment and violence to discover a moment of serenity defined not by differences, but by our common humanity.

In the coming weeks, we will return to St. Patrick's Cathedral with clean hearts filled with charity and our hands bearing witness to our own humanity. We can only hope that we will be permitted to share in the sign of peace, so that we may help to change hearts and minds to slowly see the inherent dignity of all people without exception.