Yesterday was the first anniversary of the death of Rachel Held Evans, a writer who was born into an Evangelical family, but who later moved to the Episcopal Church. According to the New York Times obituary last year, Evans authored several books and numerous newspaper columns “which wrestled with evangelicalism and the patriarchy of her conservative Christian upbringing, and documented her transition to a mainline Christian identity, which moved away from biblical literalism toward affirmation of L.G.B.T. people.” Her writings became a refuge for many who, as she put it, “refuse to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith.” Evans died an untimely death at the age of 37 after an allergic reaction to a medicine prescribed to fight an infection. The Times said that her Twitter feed “became her church, a gathering place for thousands to question, find safety in their doubts and learn to believe in new ways.”
So, where’s the Catholic dimension in this anniversary? Bondings 2.0 always posts items that have BOTH an LGBTQ and Catholic dimension. As inspiring as she was, what is Catholic about a memorial occasion for Evans?
I am a subscriber to Give Us This Day, a daily devotional publication which arrives every month and contains, among other things, morning and evening prayers, the liturgical readings and prayers of the day, and a short reflection. For each day, the booklet also contains a short biographical portrait of a saint–though the definition of saint goes well beyond those who are canonized, well beyond people who have been long dead, and even beyond those who are Catholic. These portraits are written by Robert Ellsberg, who has collected many such life stories in several publications, most recently Blessed Among Us, published by Liturgical Press, which also produces Give Us This Day.
Yesterday’s “saint” was Rachel Held Evans. Ellsberg identified her as a “Woman of Valor” who helped “Christians and seekers of all stripes to live their faith with greater courage, integrity, and joy.” He also noted that she “challenged her own evangelical community’s compromises with white supremacy, misogyny, and rejection of LGBT people.”
As I read that last line, I was stunned. This publication has been my prayer companion every day for almost five years. (Okay, maybe not every day, but a lot.) I have never seen the term “LGBT” used at all in this Catholic publication until yesterday. (And I’m always on the lookout for LGBTQ issues in Catholic publications.)
Given that LGBTQ issues are discussed frequently in the church and society, it is not uncommon to see that term in the Catholic press, in both news stories and opinion pieces. Even the Vatican used “LGBT” in its working document for the Synod on Youth in 2018 (though it was noticeably absent from the final report). Yet, I have never seen the term used in devotional literature from a major Catholic publisher until yesterday. For me, that is an occasion to be noted because it means that support for LGBT people is becoming recognized as a value that describes holiness. (Even if this is not the very first mention, it is still rare enough to be noted.)
For decades, many Catholics have been promoting the idea that support for LGBT people is not only an admirable value, but a sacred duty. Yet, institutional Catholicism has been slow, as we know, to acknowledge these ideas, let alone to make them part of the church’s prayer disciplines. While it is a small detail, adding support for LGBT people to this description of Evans’ sanctity is a giant step for Catholic publishing and devotions.
So kudos to Robert Ellsberg, the editors of Give Us This Day, and to Liturgical Press! Breaking the ice is never easy. At the same time, let us continue to pray for the day when such an innovation is not seen as a, well, “innovation,” but becomes part of ordinary Catholic liturgical discourse. And, let us also pray for the day when a major Catholic prayer publication will praise Catholics themselves for the same kind of courage and leadership that Evans displayed.
St. Rachel Held Evans, pray for us!
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 5, 2020