“Hell to Burn”: My Story Growing Up a Queer Catholic

Ian Rogers

By Ian Rogers

One morning when I was very young, my mother drove my sister and I to an old brick church to pray for a relative undergoing surgery that day. I remember this decision was on a whim. We didn’t know where we were going until we were half way there. As we drove up, I was perplexed by the tallness of the steeple and the grandness of the church, although the exterior was so plain.

The inside, however, was a sight to see. The church was a gothic monstrosity and darkness fled to every corner of the building. But the windows pounded down onto the rock floors. In each of them were one thousand splendid colors, reflecting scenes of angelic annunciations and improbable miracles. I had not yet grown attuned to the language of these biblical stories, yet I had a sense of the incredible sacredness of the place. It was the most beautiful sanctuary I had ever seen.

Mama guided us over to a small cove at the side of the main altar, where a statue of the Virgin Mary stood before a wide array of votive candles. These candles, she explained, represented many ongoing prayers for people. She told us we were going to light some of our own. Kneeling at the prie-dieu, Mama pulled a taper from a copper plate filled with sand and let the end of our prayer light with the fire of someone else’s intention.

Then, she and my sister lit the wick of a candle and together we made the sign of the cross. We prayed aloud in hushed tones, offering up our hopes like quiet, rising incense. It seemed as if nothing could hurt us there, shrouded in the purpureal light of the windows and in the soft embrace of the Spirit. My heart felt such strange peace. I begged Mama to allow me to light another one for our family. But when she agreed, I took the same taper and began lighting them all.

“And one for Mama. And one for Dad. And one for Kelly. And one for Nana. And one for the other Nana. And one for Papa. And one for Aunt…”

Mama snatched the taper from my hand and snuffed it out into the sand. She began to blow each of my candles out so that only the original two remained.

“Two candles are enough, Ian,” she whispered, which meant she only brought enough change to compensate the church for two. We knelt there for a few minutes more, hands folded together, under the watchful gaze of the Virgin. Our Lady appeared stiff, stoic, and regal–a perfect sign of Irish Catholic compassion. But Mama looked at ease.

From the very beginning of my memories, I loved God. And that love has continued throughout my life, even when my religion was discouraging. My mother might have been instrumental in introducing me to my faith and prayer, but the memories of hearing stories about church corruption were just as vivid. Having been in a rich Catholic family her entire life, Mama collected stories about naughty priests and her rebellious teenage years in the sixties. We would hear these recollections to the clinking of porcelain tea cups during coffee and dessert on holidays. Jesus was pure, good, and God, but the Church was prejudicial, homophobic, misogynistic, and deceitful. The message was to heed God’s word and pray, but to take everything with a grain of salt. We were brought up not to have shame about our bodies or lives. We were critical thinkers.

Then everything began to change. We moved cities when I was six and joined a church that looked more like a Quaker meetinghouse than a lonely spire to God. The framework of our worship changed as well. Our ears were attuned in our old town to the power of an organ, the words of translated Latin, and the solemn voices of a choir. What we received in Naperville were a few local teenagers who plucked electric guitars and sang out of tune. And while the communion of God was much more important than the surroundings we encountered, I have a feeling Mama was struggling a lot more with her faith than she let us see.

On the day of my First Holy Communion, my mother wore a silk scarf and sunglasses inside of the sanctuary. Two nights before she had slipped and hit her head on the side of a table, cutting her forehead open from right to left. Although the stitches had begun to heal, her head swelled into a deep, dark purple bump that embarrassed her. She was left alone, until a young mother, full of self-righteousness and indignant attitude, walked straight up to her and declared, “How dare you wear sunglasses in the House of the Lord!” At this, Mama tore off her disguise and revealed her injury. She replied, “Do you want me to scare the children?”

Mama had been shamed in front of a entire congregation. Afterwards we stopped going to our home parish. Our family shopped for churches, picked one, and attended it irregularly for about a year. It was not the same. Something had changed. Eventually, our family just stopped going.

My love for God had not died but lay dormant. Catholicism became the general experience of life rather than the lived-in expression of God. And as I grew older, my conception of God became cruder. Having noticed that angels don’t fly around the globe on golden wings, my ideas about God became less about the fantastic and more about what I could reasonably rationalize with a second-grade understanding of Him. God was a bright orange ball of Light in some remote pocket of the universe that set Time into motion and occasionally pulled the reigns of existence to help a poor guy out. He heard my nightly prayers when I said them, but it didn’t necessarily mean that He would answer them. In fact, I was afraid to pray for some things, just because the Master of the Universe wouldn’t like to hear about a certain crush or a trouble at school.

And as for Jesus the Nazarene, he was a cool dude who lived in Judea and could have died for our sins. Yes, yes, that sounded about right. A righteous God would send a guy like Jesus to help us out.

All this time, I called myself a Catholic because I did not know what else to call myself. I couldn’t tell you much about the Bible, Mass, or our culture. Unlike every other Catholic kid in town, I didn’t attend classes for Reconciliation or Confirmation. I was about as much of a Catholic as I was straight.

Yet, I remained intrigued with the idea of religion. In Boy Scouts, I once had to attend a Methodist service. The pastor, in vivid tones and with great enthusiasm, spoke of the Exodus and the poor, exhausted people who walked the desert for forty years in search for the Promised Land. Although the Israelite people had sinned against God, I wondered how they could live with such a harshly cast punishment. How did the Israelites keep their hope alive while traversing the wilderness, waiting for one generation to pass away?

Eighth grade happened. As every other boy in school filled out their bodies and graduated into masculinity, I remained the pudgy, effeminate closet-case that passed in elementary school but was easy to pin down in junior high. I don’t remember when the bullying started, but it was worse than the teasing and harassment that I usually encountered. I tried to escape them. I moved tables and tried to make new friends, to no avail. I sounded desperate, and who would befriend the class faggot?  I starved myself so I could spend less time at the lunch tables. Teachers had to come get me as I ducked into bathrooms and attempted to hide. They asked me why I would hide, but I was too afraid to tell them. Once I had the idea of squeezing myself into my locker for a period, but I was too big.

“Faggot, you are going to Hell to burn.”

Some of these people were going to through Confirmation, being blessed by the Holy Spirit, the Guide. No one objected to their cruelty. I pleaded with what friends I had left to defend me. None of them would or even could. I let the bullies continue bullying. My voice suppressed itself under the weight of their violence. Instead of speaking out, I dreamt of older, more experienced boys forcing me out of the closet. That boy would kiss me right in front of everyone during passing period, just to make it clear that I was gay. Then he would vow to protect me. He was stronger than an ox and I hid behind the forceful weight of his body. This savior would not fail me. He would lead me to a better place.

But no one came out for me. It seemed as if no one was there.

One night, in the far-reaches of depression, I flung a wayward prayer up toward heaven while looking into the gleaming light of the streetlamp in my window. Heavy laden with tears, I poured out sorrow onto the only one who would listen. I asked Him to act like a streetlamp and guide me home. I kept asking this until I fell deeply asleep.

I believe God answered.

The next morning, I woke to find that I had been crying through my dreams. Sitting up, I looked up toward the ceiling, pondering what had just happened. These tears were different than before. They expressed a joy I had never felt before, or ever again. It felt as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and onto someone else’s back. But I wasn’t hiding. If anything, I felt exposed. And finally, I believed.

As I sat in my morning bath, I began to rinse shampoo from my hair. It felt good to feel the water slope down the curvature of my head. I hadn’t noticed before how massaging it felt. I pushed the bottle under the water and poured it again and again, washing and washing. I never wanted to stop washing. I left everything in that tub.

The bullying did not end. It got worse. But I had hope enough to push through, even without my voice. Every day time seemed to tick slower. I walked my forty years of wilderness.

I wrote an article a few weeks ago about my experience as a queer Catholic given the turmoil in the news of Cardinal George’s comments about the LGBTQA community. My editor asked me to write a follow-up in response to some of the criticisms that came up from its publishing. At first, I didn’t want to write the follow-up. For one, I think everyone in the world has a right to their own opinion, even if I disagree fervently. And secondly, how is one supposed to write more on a topic that they imprinted their heart upon? I felt as if I wrote everything that needed to be said. LGBTQ Catholics need to be legitimized, both by the queer community and the Catholic Church. So I avoided writing this piece like the plague, much to my editor’s demise. To this person, mea culpa.

But what irked me into writing was not so much the fact that people had negative criticisms of my work, but that many people got into contact with me and said they wanted to hear more. Now, I’m not trying to boost my ego here, but I think that it says something about queer Catholics. We need to be heard by people. There has been so much silence and restraining within both communities that a rupture of that lull inspires delight. We wish to break out and be heard, and not just by our clergy.

Queers, one of our goals as a community is to disestablish a culture of negativity around sexuality and gender. But true progress is not going to be made by disestablishing the Catholic Church. The “clobber” passages in the Bible such as Leviticus 18:22 will always have an aura of hurt around it because it has been used to perpetrate such evil in the world. If you turn to Matthew 4:6 you will also find that the devil has the ability to quote scripture for his own wicked use.

Jesus never told me my sexuality was evil. Instead, he helped save prostitutes that were going to be heartlessly stoned to death. He taught against prevalent racism through his parable of the Good Samaritan. He healed the sick, the wounded, and the maimed. He gave an oppressed people hope when all things seemed lost. He exhorted hypocrites and people who placed theological burdens on the masses. He spoke of a God of infinite mercy and compassion. Jesus even forgave sins, and by my belief, negated death upon a cross. What part of Jesus needs to be disestablished?

Or, what of my Church? Surely we should eradicate the corruption, the hypocrisy, and dishonesty from within. But does that mean we have to destroy an entire belief system?

I feel most skeptical when people come up with these utopian solutions to the problems of humanity. The other day, a friend of mind proposed that we sell the Vatican in order to cure world hunger. I told him that the Vatican is the second most holy place for Catholics, so he pointed to the many corruptions that have streamed from that papal palace. He thinks that ground, however beautiful, is tainted. But sometimes the holiness of a place isn’t determined by how pure and untouchable it is. The war between good and evil is waged in Saint Peter’s every day. That is what I think makes it holy.

Besides, the church is a community of believers instituted by Jesus Christ. Again, what part of Jesus needs to be disestablished?

Catholics, you might call me a Cafeteria Catholic, but by that you only further divide our universal church into factions and degrade my experience as your brother. I do not pick what I like of Jesus’ message and discard the rest as biblical waste. I study my Bible and struggle. I admit I am a sinner in need of God, like the rest of us. Yet at the end of the day I see no justification for the celibacy of all homosexuals. My conscience tells me that imposing celibacy only seems like a Pharisaic regulation that Jesus would have been against.

I, too, follow the narrow path of the Christ; a path made much narrower by the oppression the Church inflicts on my people. Our desires for love are called inherently disordered and disconnected from God. We are told our sex is worthless because it is fecund; to speak out against this means dirty glares, shaming, and silence.

I am sick of bullies. I am so tired of bullies, bully culture, the extinguishing of voices, and the suppression of the Spirit. He howls at our doors with a marvelous Wind. My soul spreads out to answer His call. It resounds: “My God is rich in compassion and understanding. He has called me from the beginning and has saved me from my own hand. Heaven and Earth are full of His glory. Hosanna! I shall no longer fear Wilderness.”

Find the voice that resides within you and do not forsake it for the world.  Hold it close to your heart so that you are reminded God is with you. And, above all, do not be afraid. God answers.

Ian Rogers is currently a student at Loyola University Chicago studying Creative Writing and Theology with an emphasis on Catholic Studies.

Source: http://inourwordsblog.com. Used with permission