Sunday, June 24, 2012

Working Faith

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Italy with a group of my high school students. We had spent months preparing for the trip and in every way it lived up to our hopes and expectations. We visited Roman ruins dating back thousands of years, the vastness of St Peter’s Square, medieval towns with narrow stone streets, and small family artisans whose work beguiled us.

We spent a few days exploring Florence, a city famous for its architectural beauty, its leather works, and its intellectual and artistic history. On Sunday night we decided to attend Mass at the Basilica di Santa Croce, the burial place of both Galileo and Michelangelo. We knew the mass would be in Italian, which none of us knew well, but thought that too would broaden our horizons.

Our footsteps echoed on worn tiles as we entered through a darkened side door just before the service was supposed to begin. To our surprise, the beautiful old Church was nearly empty, and our group of twenty almost doubled the congregation. A few chairs had been set up in front of the main altar, which we could now see was under construction.

Despite our weak language skills, the mass embraced us in its familiar rhythm, and I found myself sinking into prayer, surrounded by walls and sculptures that had greeted faith-seekers for centuries. But the construction scaffolding and empty Church reminded me that faith is not indestructible. It requires care, acknowledgement, even work.

Faith is lived in the real world. We build it with our hands reaching out toward each other. We strengthen it with every work done out of love, whether of stone, or speech or outstretched hand. Church buildings are metaphors, gathering places that help us remember who we are and where we come from, but even a beautiful basilica like Santa Croce will only last for so long.

The real church lives in the hearts of millions of people, each testifying to faith with actions large and small, living in compassion, forgiving in love, and building a kingdom of peace. Although I loved Italy, we will not be returning. Next year we visit an orphanage in Guatemala, a place full of living faith, equally under construction, but in no danger sadly of being empty soon. I can’t wait.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Ontario Catholic Schools and GSAs

I have never been prouder to be a member of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA). This week my union took a public stand in support of new legislation that decrees that students have the right to have Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in their schools, and, just as importantly, to actually call them Gay-Straight Alliances.

Previously, and under pressure, the Bishops of Ontario in conjunction with the Ontario Catholic Trustees Association allowed for ‘Respecting Differences’ Clubs to address general bullying, but forbade the use of the word ‘Gay’. Teachers were instructed to address their LGBTQ students as ‘persons of same-sex orientation’. (Now there’s a mouthful.) For many teachers, disowning the students’ right to name themselves as Gay felt like disowning the students themselves.

Naming matters. The issue of naming is biblical, ancient, fundamental. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, and Saul becomes Paul, transformed in the experience of encountering the Divine. During the sacrament of Confirmation we invite the newly confirmed to choose a new name if they wish. We recognize their maturity, and their right to define themselves before God in the full dignity of their humanity.

History recognizes the importance of naming as well. “What’s my name?” Muhammed Ali cries. Those who name hold power, as every slave master knew when they bestowed names on their slaves’ children. To remove the right to name is to exercise control of the highest degree.

The new legislation also makes clear that the word ‘Gay’ refers to a person, created in the image of God. It cannot be used as an insult. The legislation supports teachers who refuse to allow their students to use statements like ‘that’s so gay’ as a put-down. GSAs proclaim that there are people here who will stand up against homophobia. They make it clear that our schools welcome and celebrate all their students in all their diversity.

GSAs will not provide an overnight cure for bullying and discrimination, but they allow us to publicly address the problem. Whatever the bishops may fear, they are not ‘hook up’ clubs, nor will they ‘convert’ our poor straight kids to a different kind of sexuality. Instead they provide support, solidarity and hospitality, just as Catholic schools should. LGBTQ students suffer discrimination and bullying far more frequently than any other group, extreme enough to lead to suicide in some cases. Like Christ, we must strive to walk with these, our most marginalized, and offer them dignity and recognition.

Surely the bishops recognize the affront against the dignity of life that has arisen in our refusal to name the sin of homophobia and address it in its specificity. GSAs provide one more tool we can employ to create Christian community and a discipleship of equals in the footsteps and example of Christ.