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