Tag Archives: queer saints

Queer “Saint”, Ethiopian Nun Walatta Petros

In a useful report at qspirit of an early African saint with a female partner,  Kittredge Cherry provides material that as well as being an intriguing report of an Ethiopian queer saint,  is also a reminder that:

  • Christianity was well-established in Africa more than a thousand years before the arrival of the colonial missionaries.
  • Same-sex relationships were common in Africa before the colonial period
  • Ethiopia had a literary tradition and written script before the colonial period
  • Ethiopia was never colonised by missionaries
  • “Saints” are not exclusively those formally honoured by the Vatican.

Introducing her post, Cherry writes:

Walatta Petros is a 17th-century Ethiopian nun and saint who had an intense lifelong friendship with another nun and led a successful movement to drive out foreign missionaries. Her feast day is Nov. 23.

Her biography, written by her disciples just 30 years after her death, is the earliest known depiction of same-sex desire among women in sub-Saharan Africa. That section was censored until 2015, when the first English translation was published.

Cherry’s source is a 2015 translation by Wendy Belcher and Michael Kleiner, of a 17th-Century African Biography by by Galawdewos.  Acknowledging that the story is “controversial”, for more background on the story, she includes a link to Belcher’s webpage.




Continue reading Queer “Saint”, Ethiopian Nun Walatta Petros

LGBT Saints: Response to Fr James Martin

A brief  observation in a Facebook comments thread by Fr James attracted widespread media attention. In a follow up post this week, Fr Martin writes that he is surprised by this attention, and expanded on his argument. For LGBT Catholics, there are several points in this expanded observation that deserve comment.

It’s important to note, as Martin acknowledges, that the terms “gay”, “lesbian” “transgender” and “LGBT” are anachronistic when applied to the saints of history. Even the words “homosexual” and “heterosexual” are relatively modern terms, and would have been incomprehensible to people of earlier periods. “Gay” and its associated terms are of even more recent introduction. Nevertheless, it’s possible to accept that when viewed through a modern prism, a certain proportion of the saints could be described with modern terminology – i.e., part of the LGBT spectrum.

The qualification though, is to recognise that “gay” describes an orientation, not necessarily sexual conduct, just as “transgender” is used to refer to a range of non-cisgender variations, not necessarily to surgical transitioning.

It’s also important to note that the two specific examples he quotes, Mychal Judge and Henry Nouwens, are people from the late twentieth century, who have not been formally canonised. The saints of heaven are emphatically not limited to those who have been recognised by formal processes in Vatican offices. Indeed, the complexity (and cost) of the processes required for formal canonization in effect means that a disproportionate number of those approved will be priests (and a smaller number of religious sisters). It is not a co-incidence that Mychal Judge and Henry Nouwens were both priests.  However, there will be many more unrecognized saints who were not clergy – including some who might reasonably describe as lesbian, gay or trans.

Finally, a quibble. In his insistence that accepting that some of the saints will have been attracted to the same sex, does not imply that they necessarily acted on it, Fr Martin is suggesting that any such sexual activity would disqualify them from sainthood. Many respected theologians would disagree. Just as sainthood is not reserved to the priesthood, it is also not reserved to the Catholic faith. Both the Episcopal and Lutheran denominations have their own declared saints recognised in their liturgical calendars. Both now include amongst their clergy, openly gay or lesbian and partnered priests and bishops. These and other denominations will surely accept that loving, sexual partnerships are no barrier to holiness – or to sainthood.

I’m surprised that a comment I made a few days ago on this FB page was deemed news. (Google it if you doubt me.) In response to another comment, I noted that most likely some of the saints were probably LGBT. Yes, I know that the term “LGBT” wasn’t used until very recently, and that even the concept of homosexuality is a relatively late cultural construct, but if a certain (small) percentage of human beings are gay, then it stands to reason that a certain (small) percentage of the thousands of saints were, because they are, of course, human beings. And holiness makes it home in humanity.

In other words, among the saints there were probably some who were attracted to people of the same sex. That’s not to say that they acted on it, but if you consider, to take one example, all the priests, monks, brothers and sisters who were ordained or entered religious orders, it’s certainly conceivable that some of them, even as they lived celibacy and chastity, experienced attractions to people of the same sex. In fact, the priesthood and religious orders have always been places for people who have felt those inclinations to live chaste and holy lives.

Which ones? Hard to say. Really impossible to say, given how little homosexuality would have been understood, admitted and discussed in the past. To my mind, though, there are some saints who, at least based on their writings, seem to have been what we would today call gay. But again, it’s hard to know for sure.

This shouldn’t be surprising. In fact the Catechism says, in a rather overlooked passage, that LGBT people can, through a variety of means, including through prayer and the sacraments, “approach Christian perfection,” that is, become holy men and women (#2359).

In our own time, we can look to holy persons who were gay. I’ve certainly known many holy LGBT people in my own life. Or, to be more specific, think of someone like Mychal Judge, OFM, the Franciscan fire chaplain and hero of 9/11, who was also a gay man. Or Henri Nouwen, the Dutch spiritual writer, who fell in love quite suddenly, and turbulently, with a man towards the end of his life. Were these men saints? Also hard to say, but I’d argue that they were certainly holy and, therefore, they can show us how one can be an LGBT person and saintly.

As I said, I was surprised that this would surprise people. A few people were even offended. But those who were offended may be surprised to be greeted in heaven by more than a few LGBT saints, who will surely forgive them for being offended by their holiness.

Related Posts

James Martin SJ: “Some Catholic Saints Were ‘Probably Gay’ 

At The Advocate, Daniel Reynolds described Fr. James Martin’s response to an antigay Facebook comment as “an open-minded history lesson.”

Fr. James Martin said some Catholic saints were “probably gay.”The Jesuit priest — who was appointed in April by Pope Francis as a consultant to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications — gave this history lesson in tolerance on May 5 to an antigay Facebook commenter.

Martin had posted a link to an article about a prayer led by Bishop John Stowe at an LGBT Catholic gathering coordinated by New Ways Ministry. An offended social-media follow responded, “Any cannonized​ Saints would not be impressed.” To which Martin replied, “Some of them were probably gay.

“A certain percentage of humanity is gay, and so were most likely some of the saints,” Martin added. “You may be surprised when you get to heaven to be greeted by LGBT men and women.”

Source: Advocate.com

For LGBT Catholics, it should be no surprise that some saints were “LGBT” in modern, anachronistic terminology. I discussed some of them in a brief address to Quest conference in Chichester, a few years ago, under the heading “Some Very Queer Saints and Martyrs“. I’ve also written much more extensively on the subject at my companion blog, “Queer Saints and Martyrs“. (Kittredge Cherry is another who has written at length, in a gay saints series at QSpirit (previously “Jesus in Love” blog). More important to me, is the source of the observation – the Jesuit priest, Fr James Martin SJ.

Martin is highly respected for his work as journalist covering the Catholic Church – so highly regarded, that as The Advocate notes, he was recently appointed to an advisory position in the Vatican communications department. As a journalist, he has covered the full range of Catholic issues. Among these, he has frequently written sympathetically about LGBT people in the Catholic Church – for example, in November 2009 he posed an important question in the Jesuit magazine America: “What should a gay Catholic do?” In the years since, the question has received ever increasing attention – and with it, sympathy for the very real dilemma in which we find ourselves. Initially, his writing was particularly concerned with “gay” Catholics – gay men, and by extension, lesbians. Trans issues originally were not covered. In this incident however, it is notable that his language has shifted to the more inclusive descriptor, “LGBT”

Related Posts

Some Very Queer Saints and Martyrs

What is a gay Catholic to do? A Question Comes Out of the Closet (Queering the Church)

The Story of the Queer Saints and Martyrs: Synopsis (Queer Saints and Martyrs)

LGBT Saints Series (QSpirit)

More ‘Cross-Dressing Saints’

Today and tomorrow the church commemorates two more of the band of ‘transvestite saints’ – women who disguised themseves as men to live out their lives in male monasteries.  Wednesday 11th February is the feast of  St Euphrosyne ( later known as Saint Smaragdus), who died in 470.   Tomorrow, Thursday 12th February, is the turn of St Mary (later, Marinos) of Alexandria.




From the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia:

” Euphrosyne was the only daughter of Paphnutius, a rich man of Alexandria, who desired to marry her to a wealthy youth. But having consecrated her life to God and apparently seeing no other means of keeping this vow, she clothed herself as a man and under the name of Smaragdus gained admittance into a monastery of men nearAlexandria, where she lived for thirty-eight years after. She soon attracted the attention of the abbot by the rapid strides which she made toward a perfect ascetic life, and whenPaphnutius appealed to him for comfort in his sorrow, the abbot committed the latter to the care of the alleged young man Smaragdus. The father received from his own daughter, whom he failed to recognize, helpful advice and comforting exhortation. Not until she was dying did shereveal herself to him as his lost daughter Euphrosyne. After her death Paphnutius also entered the monastery. Her feast  is celebrated in the Greek Church on 25 September, in the Roman Church on 16 January (by the Carmelites on 11 February).”

St Mary of Alexandria is said to have been brought to the monastery originally by her father.  She is sometimes known as a  “Desert  Father in Disguise”,

Unfortunately, it is also claimed by some that her story,  like others of the transvestite saints, is a fiction.

Gay Saints: Do they exist? Do they matter?

Lovers & Martyrs?

The recognition of saints is an important part of Catholic history and tradition.  Growing up in a Catholic school, I was frequently urged to read the lives of the saints, of which our small school library had a copious supply, for my spiritual well-being.  Many adult Catholics retain a special affection, even devotion, to particular favoured saints.

For some of us, this makes us a little uncomfortable. Partly, this is because the more demonstrative forms of veneration may come dangerously close to the Protestant perception of a cult of idolatrous  ‘worship’ of the saints;  for others , the problem is simply that of the remoteness of most of the saints:  remote in time, overwhelmingly limited in geography to Europe, and particularly certain regiosn of Europe.

There is also the problem that the recognised saints were, if not ordained clergy and religious sisters, at least celibate lay people – creating a perception that saintliness is reserved to the asexual, even unsexed, among us, leading lives devoid of intimate personal relationships.  (This creates the further problem of a simplistic association of healthy emotional and sexual lives with ‘sin’.)

Pope John Paul II, during his long pontificate, set about creating an unprecedented number of new saints for the modern age, deliberately seeking to undo this sense of remoteness.  We now have many more saints, and beatified saints-in-waiting, from recent history and from beyond Europe.  There were even reports that he was actively looking for a suitable married couple for elevation, to counter the perception that sainthood applied only to the celibate.

But we in the LGBT community remain excluded – or think we are. “How great it would be”, we think, if we too could have saints of our own.  It is in this spirit that a number of modern scholars (most notably John Boswell, followed by others) have dug into history and produced evidence of recognised ‘gay saints’ in church history. The LGBT Catholic Handbook has an extensive listing of the best known of these.

Is it realistic to think of these as ‘gay saints’?  Is it helpful?

I suggest that the answer to the first question is probably “No”, at least not as narrowly defined.  But to the second question, I would answer, most certainly, “Yes, helpful indeed, if interpreted more broadly.”

The problem with the term, narrowly interpreted is that it is so fluid, imprecise and anachronistic.

For St Jerome and St Alcuin, where the status of sainthood is uncontested, there is a different problem.  Although there is clear evidence that these two, and others, experienced strong, even intimate emotional relationships with other men, it is not absolutely agreed that these relationships were sexual. And so, it is argued, these men cannot be understood as ‘gay’. (Others would suggest that the naysayers are deliberately ignoring the plain evidence infront of their eyes, but no matter, the dispute is plainly there.

So where are the gay saints, narrowly defined?  I do not know of any who unambiguously meet both criteria:  agreed to be saints, agreed to be gay.

Nevertheless, I don’t think this is important.

It is not only the canonised saints who are important: I was taught that we are all potentially saints, even if not recognised.  The “communion of saints” includes many more than the limited number who have been publicly acknowledged. It is also of no consequence whether particular individuals expressed their emotional intimacy in genital acts to be considered in some snese ‘gay’.  (We do not require that other saints show evidence of genital activity with the opposite sex to be considered ‘heterosexual’).

By applying a looser, broader definition, then I suggest that there will be many ‘gay saints’ that have gone before us, and many who still live among us.  This not to suggest that praying to them is likely to produce miracles in support of official canonisation – but it is important that we recognise and offer respect to role models in our history.

It is in this spirit that I commend a closer examination of the many figures who have been suggested as supposed ‘gay saints’.