I am deeply honored to be the one privileged to bring the accumulated wisdom and pride of DignityUSA to this incredible occasion this evening. I can definitely say that DignityUSA would not be nearly the strong, vital, growing organization we are today without the leadership, generosity, and expertise given by so many from this community from your earliest days to the very present. I have been privileged to work alongside many of you on DignityUSA projects, on the Board, and during Conventions, and know well the gifts and generosity of this community. I also want to take just a moment to thank you for your kindness to my family and me during my sister’s long illness and recent passing. Knowing we were in your prayers and in your hearts meant so much to us all, and I will be forever grateful to all of you for the support you have offered.
Last night’s dinner was both a beautiful family reunion and a tribute to the tremendous contributions you have made, whose impact on individual lives, on our Church, and on the LGBT justice movement reaches across Chicagoland, across our country, and far beyond. The only thing I can think of that would have made it any better would be if Jim Bussen was able to be her in person. Illness has kept him away, but his spirit and many contributions are definitely with us this weekend!
Sometimes the coincidence of liturgy and Dignity moments just has to be the work of Sophia Spirit, and such is the case tonight, as we mark Dignity/Chicago’s 40th Anniversary and the Feast of Jesus’ Ascension to Heaven 40 days after his Resurrection. Forty (40) is one of the most sacred and significant numbers in our Scripture and our Catholic tradition, signifying the end of one moment and the dawn of another.
Whether it is the years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness following their liberation from slavery, the nights Jesus fasted and prayed in the desert before beginning his public ministry, or the days we spend preparing for the triumphant miracle of Easter, 40 marks the very end of a period of preparation and the beginning of something radically transformative.
As we hear in the Scripture for this evening, Jesus’ ascension initiated something entirely new for those who had been his closest friends and disciples. One of our movements great prophets, John McNeill, writes about the importance of the Ascension for the Christian community in what I believe is his most significant, and undervalued, book Freedom, Glorious Freedom. John’s thesis is that, aside from Easter, the Ascension is THE pivotal moment for Christians. By returning to Heaven, Jesus shifts the locus of authority from himself to the people and the community that remain on Earth. Authority is no longer external or centralized, but now resides in those who seek to live out his teachings in love and fidelity. The truth must come from the Spirit within.
We LGBT Catholics and allies know something about the challenge, and the power, of trusting that inner authority. For many of us, coming out was a process of learning to hear and believe that quiet voice within ourselves that constantly whispered truth. Whether the external authorities were social structures that said we were sick, sinful, or criminal, or bullies who threatened our physical or emotional safety, almost all of us had to overcome toxic negative messages. We came to accept our true selves, developed a sense of pride in our identities, and grew to honor ourselves as whole, as blessed, as worthy.
As a community, Dignity/Chicago has, at times by necessity and at times by choice, been living led by the Spirit of Truth for decades. To say that lesbian and gay people had a claim on the Church’s care and had the right and responsibility to live the sacramental life of the Church was enormously courageous back in the day when people truly believed one could not be both homosexual and Catholic. But you made that claim, and have continued to make it for 40 years. When the official Church did not respond in love, you ministered to one another, and became Church for each other.
When AIDS was considered divine punishment for evil-doing, you insisted that the people affected needed tending, compassion, companioning, and justice. You provided all of that to those who were part of this fellowship, and to the larger community. In doing so, you became both Church and movement.
In 1986, the Vatican tried to tell the world that Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons meant condemning us as “objectively disordered” and “intrinsically evil,” denying us use of Church facilities if we dared question official teaching, and perpetuating the malicious characterization of us as child molesters. Less than a year later, nearly everyone both within and outside of Dignity was advising that we look like we complied with these directives while quietly continuing to maintain our sexually intimate relationships and loving commitments. But, under the leadership of Jim Bussen, a Dignity/Chicago member, DignityUSA gathered in national convention said “No” to this duplicity, recognizing that it would continue to destroy peoples’ lives and spirits. We spoke our truth clearly, affirming that sexually intimate relationships between people of the same gender can be loving, life-giving, and life-affirming, and absolutely consistent with the teachings of Christ. As Jamie Manson said last night, we became the first large Catholic group NOT to surrender to hierarchical bullying. Our belief in the truth we discerned in community was not without consequences, but our commitment to speaking this truth in love and fidelity has been so strong that for 25 years not a single Dignity Chapter faced with a bishop’s demand to renounce this statement has done so.
And as this community has looked at how it ministers to and serves the needs of a changing population, you have found that the model of liturgical leadership we have been handed is inadequate, unjust, and oppressive. Rather than continuing to live within such a structure, you have identified those within and beyond the community who have ministerial vocations and gifts. You have affirmed these gifts in men whose priesthood is no longer recognized by the hierarchy, in lay members of Dignity/Chicago, and in women ordained in what some call heretical rituals. These are all acts of courage and integrity founded on discerning God’s call in love.
There are countless more examples of your embrace of the Voice of God, discerned in community, but the question of this Ascension/40th Anniversary moment is, what is the radical transformation to which this community is called?
To put it simply, the call that I hear over and over for Dignity is to move from a focus on ministry to LGBT Catholics and our families, friends, and allies to becoming a witness to the many who have been alienated by the institutional Church; to those, who, like us in our early days, find that the hierarchy’s focus on strict obedience to themselves rather than to the Gospel profoundly damages their souls and spirits, and leaves them without spiritual home. It is a call to move beyond providing sanctuary and safe space to being that light on the hill that helps people find a way in the darkness. It is about taking the experience we have had as LGBT Catholics and finding common purpose with others by listening to their stories, asking what they need, and saying, “Yes, we can work with you to achieve that.” It involves recognizing that the expulsion from Catholic space, so wrenching for so many of us, brought us into Communion with people of other denominations and faiths who can help us learn what it means to be Church together. It is about building a Church that is once again known for miraculous intervention in the lives of the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, those whom society overlooks or abuses.
For many of us who are part of the Dignity community, our Chapters have provided loving, affirming community, healing, and a place of rest from the assaults that still come our way, from Church leaders, from family members who cannot yet be fully supportive, and from society. They are places of nurture and sustenance. We may fear losing these wonderful qualities if we become more visible, more outreach-focused, more evangelizing. Those who gathered with Jesus during the 40 days following his Resurrection were anxious as he tried to prepare them for his departure. But he promised them, and he promises us that we will receive power through the Spirit to do what we are called to do. Jesus reminds us that we abide with God in love, and that we will be protected from evil.
We have found abundant grace in exile, and have had the opportunity, not afforded to many in our Church, to take profound responsibility for our faith lives, and to integrate them with the rest of our lives. Now it is time for the members of this community to share this grace beyond our traditional borders. You can transform what “Church” means, and restore the joy, open embrace, and sense of responsibility for the rest of the community that is missing from many lives. What an amazing mission for the next forty years of Dignity/Chicago!