Category Archives: Queer Saints and Martyrs

The (Gay) Roman Centurion and his "Boy"

In Catholic tradition, March 15th is the feast day of “Longinus”,  the name given to the Roman centurion at the crucifixion who pierced Christ’s side with his spear.  Some writers, like Paul Halsall of the LGBT Catholic Handbook, also identify him with the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his “beloved boy”, who was ill. It is this second person that I am interested in here.  In this persona, he is one of my personal favourites, as his story shows clearly how the Lord himself is completely not hostile to a clearly gay relationship, and also because we hear a clear reminder of this every time we attend Mass – if only we have ears to hear.
It may be that you do not recall any Gospel stories about a gay centurion and his male lover, but that is because cautious or prudish translators have softened the words of the text, and because the word “gay” is not really appropriate for the historical context. You are more likely to know as the story as the familiar one of the Roman centurion and his “servant” – But this is a poor translation. Matthew uses the word “doulos“, which means slave, not a mere servant.  Luke uses quite a different word, “pais“, which can mean servant boy – but more usually has the sense of a man’s younger male lover – or “boyfriend”.Whichever of the two words or their senses was intended by the authors, the conclusions we should draw are the same. If “pais”  was intended here to indicate a lover, the conclusion is obvious.  If the intended meaning was either “slave ” or “servant” – the conclusion does not significantly change. To see this, let us consider the cultural context. For three centuries before Christ, the Jews had been under foreign military occupation, first by the Greeks (which is why demotic Greek had become lingua franca across the region, and was the language of the New Testament), then by Romans. These military overlords were about as well liked as any other military invaders anywhere – which is not at all.  The Jews hated them – but will have been quite familiar with Greek and Roman cultural (and sexual) practices.

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"Eternal Bliss" – SS Felicity and Perpetua, March 7th

Felicitas Perpetua” = eternal bliss – and also the names of the two saints the Catholic Church remembers and celebrates every year on March 7, SS Felicity and Perpetua, who were martyred together in Carthage in 203. Their story is not well known, but their names are familiar to Catholics as one of many same sex couples listed in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass. These paired names are an echo of their place in the ancient rite of adelphopoeisis (literally, “making of brothers”), the liturgical rite once used to bless same sex unions in Church.

As two women martyred together, and from the kiss of peace which they exchanged at the end, they are frequently described as a lesbian counterpart to Sergius and Bacchus. This is inaccurate. Their relationship was not primarily one of lovers in the modern sense, but of mistress and slave. But that description is also inaccurate to modern ears, as it overlooks the very different status of women,and the very different nature of marriage relationships, in Roman times. In the journal kept by Perpetua (from which we know the story), she never once even mentions her husband. It is entirely possible (even probable?) that whatever the nature of her sexual life, Perpetua’s emotional involvement with Felicity may have been more important than her relationship with her husband.

This relationship was certainly an intense and devoted one. As such, we can recognize it as queer – and on hearing their names during the Mass, reflect on the place of same sex unions over many centuries of church history.

 For more on the biographical details, see the excellent post at Jesus in Love. Here is an extract:

The details of their imprisonment are known because Perpetua kept a journal, the first known written document by a woman in Christian history. In fact, her “Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions” was so revered in North Africa that St. Augustine warned people not to treat it like the Bible. People loved the story of the two women comforting each other in jail and giving each other the kiss of peace as they met their end.
Perpetua was a 22-year-old noblewoman and a nursing mother. Felicity, her slave, gave birth to a daughter while they were in prison. Although she was married, Perpetua does not mention having a husband in the narrative.
They were arrested for their Christian faith, imprisoned together, and held onto each other in the amphitheater at Carthage shortly before their execution on March 7, 203.
The icon of Perpetua and Felicity at the top of this post was painted by Brother Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar and world-class iconographer known for his progressive icons. It is rare to see an icon about the love between women, especially two African women. The rich reds and heart-shaped double-halo make it look like a holy Valentine.
Read more at Jesus in Love
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Feb 25th: Saint Walburga, Abbess (710 – 779)

Today is the feast of the early English saint, Walburga, who entered the abbey of Wimbourne aged just eleven, then as a young sister was sent to accompany her uncle St Boniface to Germany, where they founded the “double monastery” of Heidenheim.
Read the full report , “Feb 25th, St Walburga, Missionary, Abbess,” at National Catholic Reporter. As you do so, pay close attention:  the text reminds us of so much that we have forgotten about the real history of women in the Church.

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Gay Popes: Paul II (r 1464 -1471) and His Embarrassing Death

b. 23 February 1417
r. 30 August 1464
d. 26 July 1471

Martin Duberman’s anthology, “Hidden From History”, includes an essay by James Saslow on “Homosexuality in the Renaissance”. One of Saslow’s key points is that at this time, men who had sex with men were not exclusive – in modern terms, they would more likely be described as “bisexual”. In a passage about how the rich and powerful freely made sexual use of their subordinates, I came across this throwaway reference:
Similar patterns prevailed among the clergy and educated humanists. Charges against Paul II and Julius II centred around their seduction of much younger men; Cellini’s autobiography records a beautiful and talented youth, Luigi Pulci, who made a career out of service to Roman bishops.
Now, I knew about Julius II  – and for that matter, Julius III – but this was the first sexual gossip I have come across concerning Paul II, so I explored further.  This is what I found: it seems he died while being sodomized by  a page boy.
Paul II died, on July 26, 1471 of a stroke, allegedly whilst being sodomized by a page boy. After his death, one of his successors suggested that he should rather have been called Maria Pietissima, “Our Lady of Pity”, because he was inclined to break into tears at times of crisis. Some historians have suggested the nickname was rather due either to Paul propensity to enjoy dressing up in sumptuous ecclesiastical finery, or his likely homosexuality.
Nor was he the only cleric who enjoyed some male company.  Here’s Saslow again:
The intimate living arrangements of the all-male clerical world and the opportunities that educational and religious duties afforded for privacy and empiotional intimacy, while not themselves “causes” of of homosexuality, may have contributed circumstantially to their expression.  Priests in fifteenth century Venice and Stuart Sussex were convicted of sex with young parishioners, unpublished records of church trials in Loreto, Italy, in the 1570’s detail the activities of a choirboy who slept successively with various older monks……
Remember, while Paul II was enjoying his adventures with co-operative pages, elsewhere in Italy and the rest of Europe, “sodomites” were being burned at the stake for their “sin”.Nor was it only Paul’s interest in boys that got my attention.  On his election as pope back 1464, the cardinals tried to rein in papal power (and thus to increase their own), by imposing a range of tight conditions, which:
  • bound the future pope to continue the Turkish war;
  • forbade him to journey outside Rome without the consent of the cardinals;
  • limited the number of cardinals to a maximum of twenty-four,
  • all creations of new cardinals were to be made only with the consent of the College of Cardinals.
  • Upon taking office, Paul II was to convene an ecumenical council within three years.
Alas, for the best laid plans of mice and men……Paul II simply ignored these requirements, declaring  that election “capitulations”, which cardinals had long been in the habit of affirming as rules of conduct for future popes, could affect a new pope only as counsels, not as binding obligations. He then created a whole slew of new cardinals from his own loyalists.
Now, a half a millenium and more later, why does all this sound so familiar?
(Among his achievements, he was friendly to Christian scholars; he restored many ancient monuments; made a magnificent collection of antiquities and works of art; built the Palazzo di St. Marco, now the Palazzo di Venezia; and probably first introduced printing into Rome. Paul embellished the costume of the cardinals, and collected jewels for his own adornment.)
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Related posts:

Let Us Remember, for Feb 14th, Queer Lovers in Church History

SS Sergius & Bacchus, Gay lovers, Roman soldires, martyrs and saints.
SS Sergius & Bacchus: Gay lovers, Roman soldiers, martyrs and saints.

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As LGBT Catholics, it is important to recognize that our counterparts have featured strongly in Church history, although modern bowdlerized versions thereof have airbrushed us out.  To redevelop a sense of our rightful place in the church, it is important that we recover and take ownership of this history.From a range of sources, I am assembling a partial roll call of same sex lovers (not necessarily genital, but certainly intimate) in the history of the Catholic Church.  There are many others. These are some that I have come across:

Biblical Lovers:

David the prophet and Jonathan, his lover (10th /11th Cent BC)

The story of David and Jonathan is well known from the Hebrew bible.  It is not explicitly stated that there was a sexual relationship between them but the passionate language  is certainly that of lovers.

“And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soulof Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day, and would let him go no more home to his father’s house. Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. “

Asher & Caleh.

Asher was a son of Solomon, Caleh a shepherd.  By some accounts these were the two lovers in the frankly erotic love poem, the “Song of Songs”, widely used as a metaphor for the love between God and humanity.   Usually presented as conventional heterosexual love, there is increasing recognition that the lovers were probably both men.

A translation by Dr Paul R Johnson directly from early texts includes the frankly homoerotic

“How delightful you are Caleh,My lover-man, my other half.Your pleasing masculine love is better than wine.The smell of your body is better than perfume.Your moustache is waxed with honeycomb.Honey and milk are under your tongue.The scent of your clothing is like the smell of Lebanon.”

A review of this book, posted on the Wild Reed, notes that:

“It gets to the heart of the question of whether the Hebrews and early Christians were fundamentally homophobic, or whether, as John Boswell has maintained, homophobia was a later addition. Johnson has consulted with many Hebrew scholars, who reluctantly concede the validity of his revolutionary word-for-word translation.”

The “Song of Songs” was recommended to me by a retreat director early in  the most important, totally profound, retreat I have ever undertaken.  She made no mention of gender in the recommendation, but I immediately interpreted the texts in same -sex terms.  I believe that such reflections on this book contributed  significantly to the powerful  retreat experience that followed.  I strongly urge my male readers in particular to read and pray over this marvelous homoerotic love poem.

Ruth & Naomi

Naomi was Ruth’s mother-in-law. Some people argue that there was also a lesbian relationship between them (which is not necessarily contradicted by the legal relationship).  What really matters though, is the sheer quality of the devotion. Whether this was in any way physical, or purely emotional, is no the point. Theirs is an inspirational story of devotion and loyalty overcoming enormous difficulties fro women, which many women in our day still find helpful.

Jesus John, the Beloved Disciple:

We cannot know precisely the nature of this relationship, but it was clearly a close one.  some people find the mere suggestion that this was a sexually intimate one positively offensive; at least one reputable biblical scholar (Kevin Jennings, in “The Man Jesus Loved” argues that it was indeed so).  I find the idea certainly plausible without being offensive, but also irrelevant.  There are other reasons for accepting that Jesus was at least gay – affirming, and that John represents a good role model.

-for more, continue reading at Queer Saints and Martyrs

 

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Some Divine Patrons of Queer Love

In Christian theology, we are told that we are made “in God’s image and likeness.” Taking a broader view across all religions, it is more accurate to say that humans make gods & goddesses in our image and likeness – even where they are visualized in non-human form, their reported behaviour is frequently anthropomorphic.

This is especially obvious outside of the monotheistic religions. In these, the necessity for imagining gods & goddesses in relationships and interactions with other gods produces tales of jealousy, rivalry, and amorous adventures that look remarkably human.   Reflecting what each culture sees in itself, the deities also reflect a range of interests, temperaments – and sexual preferences. Many pantheons, especially those from Classical Greece and Rome, China, India, South America and Oceania, feature prominent gods and goddesses who had homosexual relationships or adventures. (Hindu deities are especially notable for the ease with which many of them change gender from time to time).

This much I knew. But the biggest surprise for me yesterday, when I was reading some more about LGBT themes in mythology, was the discovery that in some mythologies, there are gods who are specifically designated not just as practitioners, but even as patrons of male homosexuality.

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Jan 20th: Not Dead Yet: St Sebastian as Role Model

Writing about St Joan of Arc, I observed that she carries a particular importance for us as gay men, lesbians and transsexuals in the church, as her martyrdom at the hands of church authorities can be seen as a powerful metaphor for the persecution we receive from parts of the church, just for being honest about ourselves, for refusing to renounce our God-given identity. I’ve been thinking further along these lines, and in fact all the Christian martyrs can similarly seen as role models – although the others were not typically executed by the church itself. One martyr in particular has been closely identified as a gay (male) icon – St Sebastian.

This is strictly speaking inappropriate, because there is not anything about Sebastian or his martyrdom that is particularly gay . The main reason quite frankly, that he has acquired this cult status is that painters for centuries have made striking images of his martyrdom, featuring half naked, desirable young men pierced with arrows: soft porn masquerading as inspirational religious art. ( The Independent newspaper has an excellent analysis, still available on-line, on just how this association developed through the art works.) Now, I have no problem with gay men enjoying pictures of St Sebastian, but have had some trouble seeing him as a specifically gay saint. However, I have come across one particular painting, quite different from the original, which immediately put me in mind of a concept I have written about before as a possible model for us in negotiating a proper relationship with the church. Here’s the picture:
“St Sebastian and the Emperor Maximien Hercules 

This is how I wrote about his death, in an earlier post:

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St Aelred of Rievaulx, Abbot and Patron of Same Sex Spiritual Love

St Aelred,  whose feast we celebrate today, is recognised in all sources as an important English saint, who lived in the north of England in the 12 C. As a young man, he joined the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, later returning there as Abbott.  He is remembered especially for his writings on friendship, some of which have led gay writers such as John Boswell to claim him as ‘homosexual’. For instances, Integrity USA, an Anglican LGBT organisation, have designated him as their patron. From the website of Integrity, this Collect for the feast of Aelred:

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SS Polyeuct and Nearchos, Roman Soldiers, Lovers and Martyrs

The Roman soldiers, lovers and martyrs Sergius and Bacchus are well known examples of early queer saints. Polyeuct and Nearchos are not as familiar- but should be.  John Boswell (“Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe“) names the two as one of the three primary pairs of same sex lovers in the early church, their martyrdom coming about half a century after Felicity and Perpetua, and about another half century before  Sergius & Bacchus .

Like the later pair, Polyeuct and Nearchos were friends in the Roman army in Armenia. Nearchos was a Christian, Polyeuct was not. Polyeuct was married, to a woman whose father was a Roman official. When the father-in-law undertook as part of his duties to enforce a general persecution of the local Christians, he realized that this would endanger Polyeuct, whose close friendship with Nearchos could tempt him to side with the Christians.  The concern was fully justified: although Polyeuct was not himself a Christian, he refused to prove his loyalty to Rome by sacrificing to pagan gods. In terms of the regulations being enforced, this meant that he would sacrifice his chances of promotion, but (as a non-Christian) not his life. Christians who refused to sacrifice faced beheading. When Nearchos learned of this, he was distraught, not at the prospect of death in itself, but because in dying, he would enter Paradise without the company of his beloved Polyeuct. When Polyeuct learned the reasons for his friends anguish, he decided to become a Christian himself, so that he too could be killed, and enter eternity together with Nearchos.

St Venantius Fortunatus, Italian Bishop and Homoerotic Poet

c.530-c.603
Venantius Fortunatus was a poet, born c. 530 in Treviso, near Ravenna in Italy. He spent his time as court poet to the Merovingians. After visiting the tomb of St. Martin of Tours at St. Hilary at Poitiers, he decided to enter a monastery. He continued to write poetry, some of which have a permanent place in Catholic hymnody, for instance the Easter season hymns “Vexilla Regis” and the “Pange Lingua” (Sing, O my tongue, of the battle). Three or four years before he died he was made bishop of Poitiers. Although never canonized, he was venerated as a saint in the medieval church, and his feast day is still recognized on 14th December each year.
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