Today’s post is from guest blogger Christopher G. Frechette, who is a writer & lecturer in biblical studies and spirituality, an editor for Paulist Press, and a contributing editor for New Testament Abstracts. A member of the Jesuits from 1992-2015, he earned his doctorate in Old Testament at Harvard University, served on the faculties of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and St. Mary’s University (San Antonio), and is pursuing a Master of Social Work degree at Salem State University. His website is https://www.christopherfrechette.com/.
During this Christmas season, many of us may be trying to wrap our hearts and minds around recent challenges and losses, especially those linked to the pandemic or the polarization in the U.S. The story of the birth of Jesus invites reflection on how God meets us not only in the high moments, the joys, but especially and precisely in messy, difficult realities. The mystery of God becoming human, being born as a child, prompts us to consider how especially in those challenging times God’s love can become tangible through the love that we evoke from each other and for each other.
One of the most vivid and compelling experiences of God’s love I have experienced happened more than twenty years ago, following my ordination as a Jesuit priest. For six weeks during that summer of 1999, I ministered at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Hollywood, California. One day, the pastor approached me and said that a family wanted to have a funeral at our church. He asked if I would meet with the family to plan the funeral and then preside at the funeral Mass. He added that the deceased was a gay man in his early 40s who had died of AIDS, and that his family had traveled from Arkansas for the funeral. Without hesitation, I agreed.
As I prepared to meet with the family, I wondered how that meeting might go. This was a time when “living with HIV” was just beginning to be conceivable. It was not until 1997 that antiretroviral therapy became the standard treatment for HIV. The yearly climb in number of AIDS-related deaths per year in the U.S. that had begun in the 1980s had only recently abated. AIDS still carried a stigma, as did being gay, and both stigmas could be strong among Catholics. The first major update of The Catechism of the Catholic Church had been promulgated in 1997 and called homosexuality an “inclination, which is objectively disordered.”
I must admit I had my own prejudices, stereotypes about what kind of homophobic attitudes might be coming out of religiously conservative Arkansas. I feared I might be in for an uncomfortable conversation, but I could not have been more wrong. I do not know what the family thought of the official Catholic teaching on homosexuality or if they were scandalized by AIDS. It became clear to me quickly, however, that they loved Tony and wanted to plan a funeral that would reflect not only their Catholic faith, but also their love for him and his love for them.
At least a dozen family members met with me that day. We barely fit around the large conference room table. Parents, siblings, and even nephews all wanted to be part of the conversation. They described in poignant detail their love for Tony and his love for them, including the deep bond he shared with his nephews. They told me Tony had distanced himself in some ways from Catholic practice, but that dimension was not the focus of conversation. In their sharing I witnessed how the love of God had taken human form, been made tangible, in the loving relationship between Tony and his family. This love was formed in the depth of their Catholic faith, but it was not constrained or diminished by the church’s official stance on homosexual orientation. Their love and the love of God made tangible through the mystery of the Incarnation, God becoming human, became indistinguishable to me. I could see this love holding their pain of losing Tony at such a young age to AIDS, and also inviting their trust in the mystery of that same love, into which they were committing him.
Presiding at this, my first funeral Mass, I was nervous, but that feeling faded as the liturgy began and I became absorbed in God’s love present and active in the love of family and friends for Tony. That love resonated with my own experience of God’s love poured out in Jesus. It pained me to sense that aside from the family, many of the people gathered were from the gay community or were otherwise alienated from the Catholic church and felt uncomfortable being there. I understood why. Each time I spoke to the assembly, I made a point to express God’s welcoming embrace and inclusivity. During the prayers of petition, I invited the congregation to pray for people who felt excluded or rejected by the church, and to pray that the church would become a place where all are welcomed. Twenty years on it’s a prayer I continue to repeat.
The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus loved Lazarus, and Lazarus’ death grieved Jesus deeply, to the point of gut-wrenching tears. As I preached on this story, I invited Tony’s mourners to consider the power of Jesus’ love for Lazarus, and to imagine the moment the voice of Jesus brought Lazarus back to life. I shared what I had heard from Tony’s family about the deep and powerful love they shared with him. This Gospel story, I told them, invites us to consider that as we commit Tony to God, and as Jesus approaches their loved one and speaks his name, that Tony would hear and understand the Savior’s voice and accept his embrace, because they speak the same language. The language of love.
Afterward, I stood at the back of the church and greeted Tony’s family and friends. I still recall their faces. Many expressed words of gratitude for the service. More than a few of the smiles gave me the unmistakable impression of surprise at what they had just experienced. A Catholic funeral Mass for their dear gay friend had helped them to imagine and in some way touch the love of God made flesh in their own experience of love and loss.
It’s been more than twenty years, but meeting Tony’s family and friends and presiding at his funeral remains for me incontrovertible proof that, despite how the Catholic church still struggles to be inclusive, the core of her teaching—and the teaching of all Christians—is rooted in what we celebrate at Christmas, the Incarnation: the power of God’s love made tangible in human love—especially in times like ours, times of suffering and loss.
—Christopher G. Frechette, December 28, 2020