When I reached the stage of my life that I was ready to come out as gay, I was fortunate in the knowledge that I would not face the remotest risk of rejection by my family. By then into my thirties, I was clearly no longer a child or teenager going through a “phase” that i might grow out of. Having already been through a disastrous marriage, it was unlikely that marrying another woman would cure me of homosexuality. I had also seen, from the family reaction to my siblings who had found themselves in difficulty or trouble, that rejection was something that our family just did not do.
Joseph Gentilini was less fortunate. As the story emerges in “Hounded by God: A Gay Man’s Journey to Self-Acceptance, Love, and Relationship”, it seems that pretty emphatic rejection of his orientation (if not of himself) was for many years a constant part of the ordeal he suffered from his staunchly Catholic parents, acting in terms of their understanding of their Catholic obligation:
“In 1968, my mother and I attended the investiture of my good friend as a Dominican novice. By that time, I was coming out as gay. As I was driving Mom to the church, she told me that she and Dad had prayed about me an my homosexuality, adding that if Dad had a heart attack it would be my fault. Later, in the church, she passed a holy card to me that said that prayer is powerful, and she suggested that I had not prayed hard enough or even at all.
I found a small piece of paper under the statue of St Joseph in my parents’ home several years ago. On it my mother had written, “St Joseph, save Joe. Please!!!”
This rejection of Joseph’s gayness extended, naturally enough, to rejection of his partner. Unable to socialize freely with his partner and his family at the same family gatherings, left Joseph effectively withdrawing from those gatherings, except for occasional very brief visits.
My mother was depressed last week and called. I was also low, and she knew that and wanted to call and see how I was. I was somewhat low and depressed because my sister can bring her twice- divorced boyfriend to Mom and Dad’s, but I can’t bring over my partner, Leo. Mom says it’s her conscience, but I don’t believe that.It is a social embarrassment, and I feel the judgement! I told her it made me angry.
But relationships develop, and can improve. Early in life, it seemed that his father was the more critical, but came to a degree of accommodation and friendship with his son, that his mother seemed unable to achieve. Joseph however, had a regular spiritual director, a religious sister, who formed a personal friendship with his mother. Slowly, she came fully to accept Joseph and his life partner Leo as part of their family.
My spiritual director, who is a religious sister, befriended my mother. She and my mother would talk on the phone every Thursday evening. It became an event that she looked forward to, although she would not say so to me. ….
In October, my mother was having a surprise 80th birthday party for Dad, and Leo was invited! She even kissed Leo! and, wonder of wonders, he was invited that year to our family Christmas! What a wonderful healing! After this, Leo was considered part of the family and invited to everything. With the help of my spiritual director, my mother broke through her barrier to loving me fully as her gay son.
My prayer has been answered. For years, I have prayed for reconciliation with my family. It is a grace, a total gift from God.
(Joseph’s mother is emphatically not the only parent who has prayed for her gay son to be “healed” – and found instead that it was she who needed to be healed, of her rejection).
Later she did even more, and went out of her way to show other mothers of gay sons the importance of maintaining loving relationships with all their extended family, gay and straight, and their partners. Reading this story of family reconciliation and healing, in a profound demonstration of authentic Catholic family values, brought tears to my eyes.
In 1999, I had heard that my mother read an obituary of a woman she knew whose son had died of AIDS. She went to the funeral home and spoke to the woman, who had not been reconciled with her son before his death.. She was able to bring peace to that woman. Mom told my spiritual director, “If God could give me grace, in spite of my stubborn righteousness, I had to be there for that mother.” What I didn’t know was that she went to the hospital and nursing home for other mothers whose sons were dying of AIDS. My spiritual director told me of one story when Mom went to a hospital. The son was dying in the room, but the mother was in the hall, refusing to go in and touch her son. My mother sat with her, comforted her, and asked, “If you, his mother, will not go in and touch your son, how will God touch him?” The mother got up and made peace with her son before he died. My Mother!”
In “Acts of Faith, Acts of Love, McGinley, Dugan describes gay Catholic autobiographies as “sacred texts”, which other gay Catholics can profitably use for reflection and study .Joseph Gentilini’s “Hounded by God: A Gay Man’s Journey to Self-Acceptance, Love, and Relationship” a selection of extracts from the extensive series of spiritual journals he has kept over several decades, interspersed with short excerpts from an unpublished autobiography, certainly qualifies as deserving that descriptor (“sacred text”). I will have intermittent additional posts on thoughts arising from Joseph’s reflections, which raise some important points about what it is to be both gay and Catholic.
Johnson, Fenton: Geography Of The Heart
McGinley, Dugan: “Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies As Sacred Texts“
McNeill, John: Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair
Sullivan, Andrew: Virtually Normal