Cardinal’s Clear Welcome & Support to Westminster LGBT Catholics.

Celebrating Mass at the Jesuit parish of Farm Street London last night, Cardinal Vincent Nichols made abundantly and explicitly clear, his message of welcome and support for the inclusion of the LGBT Catholic group in the parish life.

Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street (London)

Advance information about the Cardinal’s visit had been decidedly mixed. The LGBT group at the parish, which has been meeting regularly at the parish since the group was moved by the Cardinal from their previous base at Warwick Street two years ago, was enthusiastic, and actively promoted the event as a Mass which Cardinal Nichols would celebrate with the LGBT Catholic group in the parish.  The usual suspects of hostile rule – book Catholic bloggers and other commentators interpreted it in similar fashion, but in tones of horror, not delight. Meanwhile, the diocesan office tried to be more neutral, presenting it as simply a conventional “pastoral visit”, such as the cardinal regularly makes to parishes around the diocese.

So it was with great interest and anticipation that I made the trip up to London, to experience the Mass for myself, and to see what he would say of relevance to us. What I heard was superb, leaving me exhilarated and emotional for the clear message of support and encouragement. This message was explicit in the opening remarks by the parish priest, Fr Andrew Cameron – Mowat SJ. as well as the cardinal, in Cardinal Nichols’ homily, and also in his less formal words after Mass, over  refreshments in the parish hall.

   There is much that could be said about the detail of the homily, but that will have to wait until I have the full text in front of me (now accessible at the diocesan website), and time to digest it fully. For now, I offer just some top-line impressions. I’ll have more, later.

The Opening Welcome

At the start of Mass, Fr Andrew as parish priest welcomed Cardinal Nichols to the parish – as is customary for a visiting dignitary. He then went on, as is also customary at that Mass on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of the month, to similarly extend a direct welcome to the “LGBT Catholic group” of the parish.

Replying to the parish priest’s welcome, Cardinal Nichols in turn thanked him for structuring the Mass as one of “welcome”, and he too directly welcomed the “LGBT group” of the parish. Note the terminology – “LGBT”, not the offensive “same – sex attracted”, as the usual Vatican vocabulary, and a report in the Catholic Herald would have it. Right up front, there was no room at all for doubt. This Mass was one of direct and explicit welcome for the LGBT Catholics, and their contribution to the parish, in our own language.

The Homily: Inclusion and Mercy.

 In his homily, Nichols opened with a reflection on the words from the first reading which had most struck me, when the lesson was proclaimed from the pulpit:

‘The truth I have now come to realise’ he said ‘is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.’

– Acts 10:26 (emphasis added)

As I read it, the text refers to “nationality”, but in modern times, could equally apply to sexual orientation. In other words, God does not discriminate. Cardinal Nichols did not make this analogy explicit, but this message appeared to me to be clearly implied in the subtext. This was clear from his elaboration of the theme, noting how revolutionary the idea was to the Jews of his day. He went on to point out that in later times, there are other groups who have been excluded from society, just as the Gentiles were in Jesus’ Jewish community. (For a fuller assessment of Nichols’ own reflection on the text, I wait until I have the full homily in front of me. This should be available on – line later, today).

He then went on to interpret the second reading as carrying a message of God’s mercy, reminding us that this has become an important theme in the life of the Church under Francis – and will be the eponymous theme of the forthcoming Jubilee Year – of Mercy.

From the Gospel for the day, he emphasised the importance of a strong focus on Christ and his love, and reminding us (if I recall correctly), of the lines

You did not choose me:
no, I chose you;
and I commissioned you
to go out and to bear fruit,
fruit that will last;
In quoting these words to a congregation that included a high proportion of LGBT Catholics, he seemed to me to be reminding us that we too have been chosen and “commissioned to go out and bear fruit”.
Tying it all together, he warned against a too simplistic focus on either mercy or commandments. Mercy is not a simple carte blanche to do as we pleased, but then the commandments, as Pope Francis has reminded us, should not be interpreted just as a set of rigid rules.

(All the above is based on memory, which can be faulty. I will correct any false recall, and expand with more detail, after I’ve had a chance to read the full text on-line. Cardinal Nichols confirmed to me that the text will be published on the diocesan website, on the page Cardinal / Homilies – but at the time of writing has not yet appeared).

The Eucharist

Part of the advance reaction to Cardinal Nichols’ celebration of this Mass, had included a number of angry and worried telephone calls to the parish office. I was told that one caller (whether worried or angry I do not know) had even wanted to know if participants would be able to take communion.

The question need not have been asked. During Pope Benedict’s visit to London a few years ago, with some accompanying furore over the then “Soho Masses” for LGBT Catholics, their friends and families at their previous home in Warwick Street, Archbishop Nichols (as he then was) went on record on this issue. When a person presents him/herself before him for communion, he said firmly, he does not enquire into the state of the person’s conscience. That is a matter for the communicant to reflect on, personally.

That is how it was last night. The church was full, a high proportion of the congregation were there precisely they are gay, lesbian or trans, and Nichols will have known that many of those are in loving (possibly sexual) relationships, civil partnerships, or legal marriages.  A long line formed before him for communion, and all received the sacrament – exactly as it should be.

The “After – party”.

After Mass, we moved across as usual to the parish hall for refreshments. Also as usual, the invitation to refreshments was announced by the parish priest in precisely the customary words, which were (as I recall) “The LGBT group in the parish invites you to join with them for refreshments”. Then, turning to Cardinal Nichols, he added, “Of course, that invitation is also extended to Cardinal Vincent”. So, having welcomed the LGBT group in the life of the Church, the LGBT Catholics of the parish were able in turn, to welcome ++ Vincent to tea.

What was markedly different to the usual refreshment time, was the sheer numbers in attendance. The hall was packed. In his short address, Nichols referred back to his previous meeting with the congregation and its LGBT group after the first such Mass in the Farm Street parish, just over two years ago.  He spoke of this joy on that occasion, recalled that he had attended a meeting of the parish LGBT group committee (the “Westminster LGBT Catholics Pastoral Council”), and said how delighted he was to see how the group was contributing to the life of the parish.

In addition to the actual words spoken, the mood was important. Many of those present had travelled long distances, geographically or emotionally, to get there. I knew too people who had travelled from Somerset and from Manchester respectively, one person who has not attended at Farm Street for many months because his sense of disappointment and betrayal after the move from Warwick Street, and another who has transferred from the Catholic Church to the Anglican parish of St Martin’s in the Field, for much the same reason. All were buoyed by the experience of the Mass, as were the regulars I spoke to. Refreshments served were no more than the usual tea, coffee and biscuits, but the general mood was euphoric – resembling not so much a conventional perfunctory parish gathering after Mass , as an after – party to follow a major celebration – as indeed it was. We speak freely of the Mass as “celebration”. Last night, the word was more than usually appropriate.

Conclusion

In just two years, so much has changed. Two years ago, we knew that Cardinal Nichols would be attending  the inaugural Farm St Mass with an explicit welcome for LGBT Catholics – but he did not want that fact to be publicised. (Correction: I’ve been told that he attended the gathering for refreshments. .  in the hall, but not the Mass itself).

There is much more about this Mass and its importance that could be said. The homily needs more careful reflection and analysis, with the text before me. Two years on, it’s time for an assessment of the move from Farm Street – how well it’s working for those who continue to attend, but also why it has so badly let down those who for one reason or another cannot. To balance the celebration of what has been achieved in those two years, we should consider what still needs to be done. (Clue: It’s a lot).

However, for now I’m content to leave it at that, with a simple statement that this was indeed a night to remember, a cause for LGBT Catholic celebration, and a reminder (as it was, after all in a Jesuit parish)

Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam.

(The full text of the Cardinal’s homily may be read on-line at the diocesan website)

 

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