DW Documentary has released a new web documentary called Renegade in a Cassock about a historic Catholic church in the heart of Madrid that is creating a space for all regardless of social status, wealth, race, or sexuality. The person in said cassock does not actually wear one quite often, opting instead for a suit and tie: Father Ángel García Rodriguez. As the priest of San Antón Church, Father Ángel has gained acclaim and controversy by opening the sacred space to a variety of social services.
As the founder of Messengers of Peace, a local charity organization, Father Ángel has long been concerned with the rights of people in poverty and those experiencing homelessness. San Antón is the only church in Madrid open 24 hours a day, and is filled with comfortable chairs for resting, free coffee, outlets to charge phones, and televisions for entertainment. He has enlisted a great number of volunteers to run a social services hotline. He also founded the restaurant Robin Hood which charges those who can afford to pay, while feeding the poor for free. Father Ángel’s ministry does not end with the poor, however. It also extends to Spain’s LGBT community.
In the opening minutes of the documentary, Father Ángel notes that he wants to create in the church a place of life, not a place of death. “We became priests to bless people,” he continues “not to curse them. And if I meet a priest who refuses to bless two people of the same sex who are in love, I would tell them to go to the Bishop and resign.” Filmed during the celebration of Christopher Street Day, a European Pride occasion, the documentary illustrates the church’s positive relationship to the residents of its neighborhood, Chueca, which is known as an LGBTQ enclave. However, Father Ángel rescinded the documentarian’s permission to film the blessing of a gay couple in the Church.
Later in the documentary, we meet Maria and Bea, two lesbians and friends who have very different outlooks on Father Ángel’s ministry and the Catholic Church as a whole. Bea, a devout Catholic, wants to bring Maria, who has left the church, to watch a soccer match at San Antón. But Maria recalls the deep pain she has experienced coming out, which led her to find her lesbian identity incompatible with the church:
“My stepfather is very religious, he would never accept me liking women. When I told my mother I was a lesbian, she had a crisis. She kept my coming out a secret, so she lied to her husband. She didn’t know how to break it to him. Many people have suffered because of the Church, because it’s not a place for coming together, a place of faith. It excludes people. If you don’t follow our rules, we don’t want you in our club.”
Maria’s relationship with the Catholic Church wasn’t casual; she notes she prayed the rosary every day as a child and wanted to become a nun at the age of 12. However, she grew to realize the Church’s role in maintaining the patriarchal status quo.
Bea sees her relationship to the Church differently: she says she is proud to be a Christian, and sees her faith as a source of support. “You can be free here,” she explains “it’s liberating.”
Ultimately both come away with different outlooks. Bea, who has some mixed feelings about eating, drinking. and socializing in the church, believes that Christianity is about helping your neighbor regardless of sexual orientation. Maria, however, maintains she can be a good person and a good neighbor without following a church. “I have empathy for my fellow humans,” she says “that’s why I’m a good person.”
It is heartening to see a church open up and become a place where the needs of everyone are met. As pews continue to thin out in Spain, once a bastion of Catholicism, more spaces could and should be used as sanctuaries for people of all backgrounds. After all, a church does not exist to house austere statues, pristine stained glass, or bellowing organs. It exists as a place for community–for everyone.
—Melissa Feito, New Ways Ministry, July 7, 2020