On the Feast of All Saints, We Honor Queer Saints

On this Feast Day of All Saints, Roman Catholics celebrate the lives of all saints, both known and unknown within our Tradition. This includes the queer saints!

But we should stop and ask ourselves, “Were there really LGBT saints in the history of the Catholic Church?” The short answer: perhaps, but we must be careful of our use of the terms “queer” or “LGBT” in historical analyses. Theologians across the board would likely say that to call any saint from the 1st century to the 19th century “queer” or “LGBT” would be an anachronism. However, we cannot deny the historical evidence of homoerotic language and behavior of saints throughout history.

Saints Perpetua and Felicity

The Advocate compiled a list of 30 saints from Catholic history that have been considered, for one reason or another, to be LGBT. Some of the names listed are quite familiar, like Augustine of Hippo and Francis of Assisi, and others are less well known. For example, Saints Perpetua and Felicity are often said to have been in a very intimate relationship, if not a lesbian partnership. The Advocate said this about the two women:

“These Christian martyrs lived during the early persecution of the church in Africa under Emperor Severus, about which Perpetua would pen The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and Their Companions. The writings describe how she met Felicity after both were imprisoned for practicing Christianity. Perpetua already had a child but makes no mention of her husband, and Felicity bore a child in prison as well. The women would live together until their deaths, when they were mauled by animals in a Carthage arena before being beheaded. Today, they are considered patron saints of lesbians.”

Other saints are also known for being depicted in homoerotic art, such as St. Sebastian:

“Considered the main patron saint of gays by many, Sebastian was martyred in Rome in the year 288 on the orders of Emperor Diocletian. While no tales actually exist providing information about Sebastian’s love life or sexual orientation, the fact so much Renaissance art depicts him in homoerotic poses demonstrates a strong connection to LGBT people.”

One saint that we do not often consider in relation to queerness is St. John of the Cross, a 17th century Spanish mystic. Although John of the Cross is famous for his defining the concept the “dark night of the soul,” his poem entitled “On a Dark Night,” which examines this spiritual reality, uses explicitly homoerotic language. The last three stanzas of the poem go like this:

“Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He caressed my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.”

St. John of the Cross-

Let us recall why the Catholic Tradition emphasizes saints. The meaning of the word “saint” is usually taken in two ways in Catholicism. Saints are people who lived extremely holy lives and are canonized after their deaths. But Catholics also understand that we the living are also part of  the “communion of saints,” which refers to the union of people in the Church, living and dead, within the mystical body of Christ.

Many people within the Catholic Church practice a devotion to particular saints. Praying to a saint does not mean that we worship saints but that we ask for a saint’s intercession on our behalf. As a part of the mystical body of Christ, we assume that saints like Perpetua, Felicity, Sebastian, and John of the Cross are already sharing in divine beatitude with God; therefore, we pray to them to ask that they act as advocates for us to God. For example, people may pray for the intercession of St. Cecilia before an orchestra concert, as she is the patron saint of music. My fifth grade teacher used to use a poem to pray to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, when she had lost something: “Tony, Tony, look around. Something’s lost that can’t be found.”

So what is the importance of recognizing these gay or gender-queer saints? Perhaps we LGBTQ people and allies can recognize them as our advocates. It may be helpful for some people to pray for the intercession of queer saints, if only to recall that people within the communion of saints desire our thriving as queer people in union with Christ.

Lizzie Sextro, New Ways Ministry, November 1, 2017

Related:

For information on New Ways Ministry’s efforts to aid research concerning the canonization of Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM, click here.

3 replies
  1. Terence Weldon
    Terence Weldon says:

    I agree that the terms lesbian and gay would be anachronistic when applied to saints – especially those that as ordained clergy or religious, took and kept vows of celibacy. Similarly, “queer” is inappropriate if used simply as a synonym for LGBT+. However, a more basic meaning of queer would be just “outside the heteronormative standard”. In that sense, there are certainly many “queer” saints.
    We should also remember that many of the saints are remembered and honoured as martyrs for having faced persecution and execution as witnesses to their faith. Conversely, there have been countless LGBT people who have been persecuted or killed in the name of religion, for their sexual or gender identity. I would claim these too as LGBT martyrs – martyred by the church.
    For an extensive collection of queer saints and martyrs, including an historical narrative, see “Queer Saints, Sinners and Martyrs” http://saints.queerchurch.info

    Reply
  2. Tom Ericksen
    Tom Ericksen says:

    You forgot good old St. Aelred, the British, probably Anglican Saint I’ve always heard was the patron of gays, just saying

    Reply
  3. Kevin Elphick
    Kevin Elphick says:

    Thank you for Lizzie Sextro’s reflection for All Saints Day. She should add to her comments on St. John of the Cross his thoughts on Jonathan & David. He wrote: “The love Jonathan bore David was so intimate that it knitted his soul to David’s If the love of one man for another was that strong, what will be the tie caused through the soul’s love for God, the Bridegroom, who in his fathomless love absorbs the soul in himself.” The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 31.

    Reply

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