Father Tony

The Pastor of Saint Cecilia's in Boston Is Not a Pro-LGBT Hero

Filed By Father Tony | June 14, 2011 8:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Boston, Catholic church, gay Catholics, John Unni

There was snow in June at Saint Cecilia's Church in Boston, but the miracle was a contrived hoax.

stceciliabanner.jpgFather John Unni, pastor of St. Cecilia's Roman Catholic Church in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood, planned an "All Are Welcome" mass and announced it in the church bulletin. That mass coincided with Boston Pride. Very nice of him to do that. More pastors should do that. Homophobic Paul Revereular parishioners did the math and alarmed the archbishop, claiming that Unni was supporting gay rights. The archdiocese stepped in and cancelled ("indefinitely postponed") the mass. On Sunday, with an auxiliary bishop watching and listening, Unni preached a fiery sermon reiterating the the basic teaching of Jesus that all are loved by God. There was thunderous applause (which is rare in a Catholic church.) The smiling bishop recessed down the main aisle directly behind Unni who received the embraces and tearful thanks of parishioners gay and straight.

Everyone was joyful, but no one more than the archbishop, who can now report to the pope that he had squelched the pro-gay priest without losing face. You see, the "All are welcome" Mass is still not happening. My pal Joe Jervis is claiming that Unni defied the bishop. I am sorry to say that he didn't defy anybody. I am sorry to say that Father Unni is not our hero. He was part of a careful and successful snow job.

The only real act of defiance available to the pastor of Saint Cecilia's would have been to go ahead with the scheduled mass of inclusion. He did not do this. He knuckled under. I suspect the archbishop made it clear to him that any defiance would result in his removal from the parish. The archbishop of Boston is no fool. He does not simply swat flies. He coaxes them to sip the sweet Kool Aid and that is what happened here.

In a very clever spin, he managed to ally the pastor, the parish, the "Rainbow" group of gays, and the spokesman of the archdiocese behind a sweet but entirely bleached message of welcome and inclusion. In his sermon, Father Unni decried bigoted conservative parishioners who somehow came to the conclusion that the planned mass would be about gay rights and gay pride.

Check that pastor's heels for bruises from heroic backpedaling! I wonder if any reporter has asked Father Unni if his sermon was vetted by the archdiocese. I bet it was.

Also, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the work of auxiliary bishops, they basically ride the Confirmation circuit, delivering that sacrament at various parishes as a stand-in for the archbishop. Very rarely would an auxiliary bishop "sit in" on a pastor's Mass and listen to his sermon. With spectacular bold faced deception, the archdiocese claimed that the auxiliary bishop was simply there because of Confirmation. Sorry, he was in the sanctuary of the church to offer first-hand witness to the content of Father Unni's sermon so that he could verify its contents in his report to the archbishop. (Confirmation was scheduled for the 11am Mass but the auxiliary bishop did not deliver the usual Confirmation sermon. Fr. Unni delivered his bleached sermon under the watchful eye of the auxiliary bishop.)

It is very easy to come to the naive conclusion that the pastor of St. Cecilia's is a pro-LGBT hero. I suspect that in his heart he is pro-LGBT and I suspect that he would like to be heroic. I suspect that he is in favor of gay rights and that he would love to perform gay marriages in St. Cecilia's and that he would love to come out of the closet and that he would love all priests, bishops, cardinals and popes to come out of their closets. I suspect he would be in favor of the ordination of women and a married Catholic clergy. I can hear this in his voice, but I did not hear this in his words. He passed on the opportunity to be heroic. He remains a company man, and for this he will be rewarded.

Do we need more priests like Father Unni? No and yes. His plans for the inclusive/welcoming mass highlighted the struggle for LGBT rights in the Catholic Church and also highlighted the startling fact that most Catholics in the pews are in favor of LGBT rights. For this, I would give him props. But he lit a fire that got out of control, and rather than let it blaze, he joined the archdiocesan bucket brigade that put it out. Real heroism and real defiance demand otherwise. His actions were ultimately not in line with what I suspect his heart tells him is the real message of Jesus. He wasted his fifteen minutes.

I know it's hard not to get the impression that I am writing with bitterness because of my own experience of Catholicism. I am actually not bitter about those years. I rather enjoyed my time inside the institutional church but I saw the duplicity from the inside and at the highest levels of the hierarchy. I had to make a choice to continue soldiering for a hateful hierarchy or to leave it. Father Unni faces that choice and I think he is pushing himself toward the door but he can't quite bring himself to walk through it. My guess is that he daily decides that the good he can accomplish for his parishioners outweighs the evil that he perpetuates as part of the current gay-hating hierarchy of misguided Catholicism.

This story isn't yet over. Father Unni still has opportunities for greatness, but if he wants to be heroic and if he wants to be a true advocate for the LGBT Catholics of St. Cecilia's, and if he wants to be true to the message of Jesus, he will sooner or later be at odds with the archbishop, the auxiliary bishop and the archdiocesan spokesman. I don't much pray for anything anymore, but if I did, I'd pray for that day.


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This recalls to me a blog post by Father Geoff Farrow explaining how the church basically makes priests dependent on them and the consequences for breaking away catastrophic. Non-marketable degrees, and hardly anything to include of use in a resume unless they choose to teach theology (not a most profitable career anyways unless you become a college professor, and even then...).

So while I resent such cowardice, I can understand where the man comes from, because he may very well be joining the cold streets should the church withdraw him from financial support.

I immediately thought of Father Geoff too, Lucrece.

Could this be a case of living to fight another day, Tony?

Yes, Bil, as I said in the post, "My guess is that he daily decides that the good he can accomplish for his parishioners outweighs the evil that he perpetuates as part of the current gay-hating hierarchy of misguided Catholicism."

This is where gay activism (and voices of the Larry Kramer variety) come into their best and highest deployment.The Boston gay activists can and should push this priest to make the authentic decisions that he knows in his heart he should make. They should insist that he get off the fence. They should demand space in the church and a regular "Rainbow" presence in the bulletin and the weekly schedule. They should demand that there be not just the wiggle room of using words like "all are welcome" but that the word gay or queer or LGBT appear clearly and specifically to let the bigots know that the gay parishioners will not be satisfied with being catered to only if they disguise their sexuality.

Bil, you know I am not much of an activist, but this church stuff is my terrain. I know the players and their minds. We are so close to radical changes in Catholicism, changes that will happen within two generations, but I want to live to see them happen and gay activism can speed it along. Otherwise, I'd simply be snoozing at the beach. Anyway, to your point, I suspect we will see and hear more from Fr. Unni and I hope we will someday read about a real act of heroic defiance from him. (Eager to hear what Fr. Geoff will have to say.)

This priest is in his 40s. He is not yet up to his neck in the quicksand to which you refer, but you are correct. A priest worries about what he will do and how he will deal with not being a community leader. It is very humbling. I got out at 30. It was like a prolonged surgery with no painkillers. I knew I had to endure it and that the resultant good health was worth it.

I am very glad you mentioned Geoff because that was exactly my point. I kept it between the lines to see if anyone would pick up on the comparison. What Geoff did is what I was hoping Fr. Unni would do, but Unni fell in line with hateful authority.

Father Tony,
I appreciate your words of wisdom concerning Fr. Unni and the current LGBT sort-of rebellion at St. Cecilia's in Boston. I know that observant LGBT Catholics in Boston (of which I am not one; recovering and proud!) take both pride and heart in Fr. Unni's responses to the Archbishop and all his minion. I understand your points about Fr. Unni's precarious status with his bosses and agree that he is probably trying to balance on a very fine and shakey wire right now. At the same time, he has not equivocated on his basic message that all are welcome in his church. Given the shutdown of the Jesuit Urban Center, at the time the only welcoming congregation in the Boston Metro area, Fr. Unni's firm commitment to welcome and inclusion stands apart from all other RC congregations in this very Roman Catholic city. I would ask that you cut Fr. Unni a little bit of a break. And for those in Boston, there will be a special mass at 6 PM on Saturday June 19 outside St. Cecilia's just behind the Berkelee College of Music Performance Center at Mass. Ave and Boylston Streets. Please attend and stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers...and with Fr. Unni, who surely has earned a measure of support from all of us.

Hello Sue,
I agree with your sentiment, and I wanted to cut him a break (I thought I rather did, in parts of the post) but the Larry Kramer in me wouldn't stay quiet. I love this story because it is all about conscience and authenticity and truth and the sometimes painful process of self-sacrifice and self-respect. To use the biblical terms, the crumbs from the table that fall to the gay Catholic have gone stale and inedible. This is the season for grabbing the loaf and cutting our own slice. Those who know me would tell you that I am mostly sybaritic but I've always thought that the reason I was ordained was to be in some small way a thorn in the side of the homophobic hierarchy, so I am forced to natter away at even the good guys like Father Unni who need the pestering to stay on course. I'll try to attend the June 19th mass.

Dear Fr. Tony et al,

I cannot speak for anyone else, their motives or situation. I have found the following words to be both accurate and inspiring,

“You do not become a ''dissident'' just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.”

-Vaclav Havel Czech Playwright & President of Czechoslovakia

A wise and gracious comment, Geoff.
And you have earned the right to say it.

I highly respect Fr Tony's thoughts on this,he makes some good points. My own view, however, is a bit different. Based on my work in the healthcare system (talk about hierarchy, duplicity, abuse, politics, & corruption!), I have learned that it is important to choose one's battles carefully. Sometimes it is better to avoid a specific battle that will take you out of the war entirely and forever (rendering you useless to "the cause"), and wait til another opportunity presents itself where you can be victorious. (Bil's "live to fight another day").

Whether a hero or not, Fr Unni has moved the conversation (and seriously needed changes) forward.