A recent article in U.S. Catholic examined how sainthood—and the work for canonization specifically—are impacted by contemporary issues, citing gay priest Fr. Mychal Judge’s causes as one example.
The article, “U.S. sainthood causes reveal a longing for church renewal,” includes several people who have been forward by Catholic communities as worthy of sainthood. These include Black Catholics like Sister Thea Bowman and Julia Greeley, and conservative figures like Irving C. Houle and Michelle Duppong.
The list also includes Fr. Judge, a gay Franciscan priest who died in the September 11th attacks. U.S. Catholic reported on the man many think could be a patron saint for LGBTQ+ people:
“A cry that Judge be considered for sainthood arose almost immediately as his story became identified with that of the firefighters and police officers who entered the World Trade Center as rescuers and perished. Soon the stories of the living Judge emerged, including his generosity to many down on their luck and his support for those in 12-step programs. It also became known that Judge acknowledged himself as gay, causing consternation in some Catholic circles.
“But that is changing, says Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an outreach to LGBTQ Catholics, and a biographer of Judge. Five years ago, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints asked New Ways Ministry to gather material on Judge’s life. The cause was bolstered when Pope Francis added another consideration to sainthood, someone who dies in service to others, even if it is not a religious martyrdom. Judge’s death fit that category. . .
“Judge’s sexual orientation is a part of his life that should be considered in the sainthood calculus, says DeBernardo. Judge ministered at a Dignity New York chapter, a support group for gay Catholics, and worked with HIV/AIDS patients. While not everyone knew he was part of the LGBTQ community—after his death, some police officers and firefighters argued that he was being maligned by the association—Judge let it be known that he identified as gay, says DeBernardo, though he only made that revelation to those he felt were ready for it.”
The debate over Judge and his gay identity exemplifies how contemporary issues impact the canonization causes of those long dead. So far, no saint is known as openly LGBTQ+, though many people in the community recognize existing saints who were likely outside a cisgender, heterosexual paradigm. U.S. Catholic continued:
“One factor working against such recognition, besides church teaching, is that gay culture is a relatively modern phenomenon. . .DeBernardo argues that Judge, who as a gay man of modern times struggled with church teaching and identity issues, could be a role model.
“‘LGBTQ people would see him as one of their own. They recognize the same struggles every LGBTQ person has, in particular the struggle about how public to be,’ says DeBernardo. ‘Because he struggled with it, it makes him more of a candidate to be a gay saint. He shared the same struggles that everyone in the community does. Holiness and a gay identity are not only complementary, they are often integral to each other.'”
In addition to questions over whether the church is ready to canonize an openly gay saint, there are the normal obstacles of any sainthood cause. The process takes a tremendous amount of sustained funding and effort, which often can only come from religious communities or formal movements. This lack of institutional support, coupled with racism in the church, has also held up the cause of Black Catholic saints from the U.S., of which there are currently none.
With the feast of All Saints approaching, it is a moment to examine how structural injustices in the church are keeping Catholics from recognizing what God has done in so many saints who lived on the margins.
After being approached by the Vatican, DeBernardo said New Ways Ministry is looking for people who could take up Judge’s cause. If you have organizational skills and would be interested in forming an organization to promote Fr. Judge’s cause, contact info@NewWaysMinistry.org.
New Ways Ministry also makes available several resources about Fr. Judge’s life and legacy including:
- Francis DeBernardo’s new biography of the priest, Take Me Where You Want Me to Go, for which more information and an order form are available here.
- A prayer service in memory of Fr. Judge is available here.
—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, October 28, 2022