Tanisha Jackson and Kristin Heinichen
Contributor: Diamond Bey
Within the last two years, the Catholic Church has witnessed a growing trend of Catholic leaders speaking out in support of same-gender relationships, civil unions and marriage equality. And one church leader is going so far as to say that the sanctity of marriage isn’t under attack, rather those who have chosen a same-sex partner are.
“Lesbians and gays are a blessing to the community…But they really have to struggle to stay here,” Father Dominic Grassi of St. Gertrude’s said. “I believe they (hierarchy as well as church leaders who oppose same-sex relations) are homophobic.”
Catholic teaching condemns homosexual acts as “gravely immoral,” but advises that homosexual persons deserve respect, justice and pastoral care. This is in accordance with the traditional saying: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” While Father Grassi might get the saying, he believes that applying it to same-sex couples is gravely misguided.
“We are not talking about what’s right or wrong, we are talking about human beings,” he insisted.
Father Grassi, now in his eighth year at St Gertrude’s, knew prior to presiding there that the congregation as a whole was forward-thinking. He is a strong advocate of the church’s reputation, and has worked to preserve it.
“Who am I to say, ‘You are not welcome?’ Everyone is welcome. Gays and lesbians are just as part of the community as anyone else,” he explained. “And not just that you can come and we will ignore you, but that we have something for you.”
St. Gertrude Catholic Perish is located in Chicago’s Edgewater area. Their website touts a commitment to community, family, work and spiritual nourishment. It goes on to confess aspects of the human condition as a way to offer understanding and acceptance.
“We also struggle with such things as crime, racism, family stress, underemployment and materialism, all of which make it more difficult to live peaceful lives. If you share our values or our struggles, then join us at one of our weekend services,” the site concludes.
Earlier this year, the Administrative Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged a constitutional amendment to protect marriage. The Catholic faith does not involve the gay community because they don’t believe that these couples “express full human complementarity” as they are inherently “nonprocreative,” explained the Committee. But for Father Grassi, he doesn’t believe Church doctrine is in accord with God’s word.
“To exclude people is not the gospel I’ve read,” he said. “I take offense to those saying that gays and lesbians cannot be parents. Who else are you going to put on that list?”
Father Grassi grew up in an Italian home with a strong Catholic faith. His earliest spiritual teacher was his father, who owned and operated a grocery store in an all-white neighborhood. Racism was prevalent at the time and many of the African American shoppers were not welcomed by other customers.
“There were a few bigoted white customers who complained about the black folks shopping there. I listened to what my dad would say, he was not a man of many words. He explained that ‘money isn’t white or black, it’s green,’” he recalled.
He went on to say that his father was not only practical but “generous” and often times would accept “I owe yous” from those who could not pay their bill in full.
“He said, ‘What am I suppose to do? People need food,” Father Grassi said.
Faith was very real in the Grassi home. The Italians had a tradition of gathering around the dinner table every Sunday. There, the tenets of Father Grassi’s pastoral teachings were born.
“What I believe is rooted in the peasant faith of my parents. Mealtime was sacred. Everybody was welcome. It became a part of who I am,” he said.
He sees Catholics gathering around the alter much in the same way.
“Church is like spiritual food,” he said. “We are all welcome”.
There is a significant gay and lesbian community in the parish. And though the congregation is well aware of Father Grassi’s openness, the writers of this piece were unable to secure an interview with any same-sex couples attending St. Gertrude’s Church. Some declined an interview, reasoning that it was poor timing. Others declined to speak on the record due to it being a sensitive topic. The overall sentiment of those couples who displayed reluctance was that they feel welcomed at St. Gertrude’s, and that members of the LGBT community attending any Catholic church should be a non-issue.
“As a straight Catholic and a mother, I am so grateful for their presence at the church where I bring my children to worship,” Laurie Hasbrook, a member of St Gertrude’s said.
Hasbrook joined St. Gertrude’s 12 years ago and currently works once per week at the front reception of the church. She was raised Catholic, and at the time if you were devoted to your religion, you were also expected to dedicate your time to a cause. These formative years shaped her spiritual life. For two years she walked across parts of Europe and the Middle East as part of a Peace Pilgrimage. She then worked for nearly a decade at the Palestine Human Rights Information Center. Hasbrook is an adjunct faculty member at City Colleges, but continues to assist Iraqi refugees.
“If you were a part of the church it would almost be your duty to be involved in social issues,” she explained.
Hasbrook delights in the Catholic mass and its traditions. She adores Mary, the Saints, the music and the sense of community.
“There’s a formality to the church that I love,” she said. “I visited other faith traditions, but in the end it’s what felt familiar.”
Unfortunately, she’s at an impasse when it comes to Church doctrine, specifically regarding their views on homosexuality.
“It’s a sin that gays and lesbians are made to feel less than other people,” she said. “It’s such a cruel policy. What a horrible world that they can’t have a choice in who they love.”
And while she’s explored other religions, it comes down to something perhaps greater than God.
“God or no God, it has to be about love,” she said. “We all look for a community to support us in hard times.”
Hasbrook has found that fellowship at St. Gertrude. And Father Grassi is a big part of it.
“I think he’s wonderful. We are lucky to have him. It’s hard to be a priest and progressive. To be true to what they are and not lose their ministry,” she said.
Though Hasbrook is not confident that Father Grassi’s opinions will be openly shared by high ranking church officials any time soon.
“The church isn’t a democracy. You can’t get all the people together and vote. There are only a small group of people making the decisions,” she concluded.
In response to the Catholic Church being forced to consider the contemporary family, a week-long conference was held by Pope Francis and attended by 200 Bishops. This past October, Pope Francis called on the church to recognize the “gifts and qualities” that homosexuals can contribute and suggested that it is possible for the Catholics to make a “fraternal space” for gays without necessarily compromising on basic doctrine. The result was a statement, called “Relatio.”
“There are world-wide issues that we have to deal with and all of this is taking energy,” Father Grassi said in response to the church continuing to deny the validity of same-sex marriage.
But according to Father Grassi, there is one thing the Catholic community can all agree upon.
“All Christians believe that God created each one of us. God loves us even though we’re not perfect,” he said.
And while LGBT Catholics are still marginalized in the Church, Father Grassi takes comfort in the mini triumphs that are gradually taking place on their behalf.
“Our lives are like a pearl necklace, the more pearls on the necklace, the more beautiful the necklace is,” he concluded.