Fr. Jim McDermott, an openly gay Jesuit priest and pop culture writer, has penned an essay in America arguing for the importance of canonizing LGBTQ+ saints.
While McDermott was in Los Angeles, admiring the tapestries at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, he realized:
“. . . . not a single one of these people has been identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, though undoubtedly some of them were. In fact, the Catholic Church has yet to recognize a single L.G.B.T. saint.”
McDermott acknowledges that the stigma associated with queerness in the church still impacts him, and that some Catholics will view calls for LGBTQ+ saints as ludicrous, despite the work of Pope Francis and LGBTQ-positive clergy in recent years. The priest admitted:
“Honestly, I instinctively feel that way myself, and I’m gay. No matter how much work Pope Francis, various bishops, clergy and others have done to try and normalize the place of L.G.B.T. people in the church, the fact is, for many Catholics of a certain age, being L.G.B.T. still seems wrong or disobedient.”
A confined vision of who should and should not be saints does not reflect the teaching of the church that every human being is a reflection of God, he pointed out. It should not be considered subversive to promote the canonization of openly queer saints:
“The fact is, as Catholics we believe that each of us is born in the image and likeness of God. Not just straight people, white people or men—everyone. There is no asterisk in the Catechism on this point. This is the teaching of the church, even if some Catholics discuss or treat us in ways that suggest otherwise.”
While advocating for queer saints spotlights the importance of respect and dignity for LGBTQ+ people within the church, the importance of openly queer saints goes beyond the validating queer Catholics:
“To say that God created us or that we are made in God’s image is to say that we offer a glimpse of who God is, that we are each a means by which other people can know that they, too, are an image of God, seen and loved by Him. It’s an incredible statement, to think that any of us could be such a gift, a way by which others may come to know God and themselves better. And yet we believe that to be true of all human beings.”
McDermott offered two potential LGBTQ+ candidates for canonization, both of whom are inspiring figures in the modern history of the Church.
Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM, was a chaplain for the New York City Fire Department who perished during the September 11th attacks while aiding first responders. He ministered to unhoused New Yorkers, to those suffering from HIV and AIDS, and to people struggling with substance abuse. Grassroots calls for his canonization are widespread.
Fr. Henri Nouwen was a Dutch theologian who dedicated his life to spiritual writing and service to disabled adults. While he never publicly came out during his life, due to concerns that his work would not be received well because of his orientation, Nouwen was an exemplary theologian who grappled with what his sexuality meant for his spiritual life.
In addition to the canonization of new saints, McDermott called for the recognition of saints who lived in an era which did not recognize LGBTQ+ identities, but who were likely queer:
“As we look at church history, we might reconsider the stories of St. Brigid and Sister Darlughdach, who resided together, worked together and shared a bed; of St. John Henry Newman and Father Ambrose St. John, who lived together for 32 years and shared a grave, or of the Venerable Juana Inés de la Cruz, who believed that God had changed her gender in the womb and imagined Jesus could be mother or father, wife or husband, depending on the needs of those who search for [God].”
He concluded his piece by underscoring that queer people have always been important contributors to the church, and it is time that their impact is recognized through the canonization process:
“When L.G.B.T. people look at the communion of the saints, we should be able to see someone who looks like us. And it is not because of who we are, but because of who those individuals were and what they did.”
McDermott’s words are a strong call for greater inclusion within the institutional church through valuing queer spiritual narratives in the Catholic imagination. His inspiring work as an openly gay cleric advocating for a church which recognizes the indispensability of LGBTQ+ people to the mission is a source of empowerment and of hope for the future.
Who are your LGBTQ+ saints? Perhaps they are LGBTQ+ people who have not yet been recognized as saints. Perhaps they are canonized saints who strongly appear to have been LGBTQ+. Share your saints’ names and any description of them with other readers in the “Comments” section of this blog post.
—Andru Zodrow (he/him), New Ways Ministry, June 9, 2022