FULL OF GRACE, part 2: Oppressed Catholic voices on stage

14. Poster of FULL OF GRACE, Journeys of LGBT Catholics, Philadelphia 2015Last week, I considered Scott Barrow and Robert Choiniere’s FULL OF GRACE, a play based on hundreds of revealing interviews with Catholics from the LGBT community in North America. It could also be subtitled FULL OF DISGRACE, given the harrowing experiences LGBT people, including priests, have to endure. However, the play also presents some of the lighter, even humorous parts of life as queer Catholics. Ultimately, this docudrama gives voice to the voiceless with their experiences of the good, the bad, and the ugly:

The Good:

  • “Catholics as a whole are generally represented as being very bigoted. I don’t think that’s the case.”
  • “I came in and confessed that I was in a gay relationship. I didn’t know what the Priest would say, and I was afraid he was going to tell me I was going to rot in hell. Instead he said, David, it doesn’t matter to God who you love, it matters to Him that you love. That moment changed my entire understanding of myself, my love, and my God.”
  • “I went to see my mother with a friend of hers and a friend of mine for moral support. She was preparing lunch and I broke down sobbing at the table. She came out of the kitchen and with her right hand squeezed my left shoulder and said, ‘Michael, what the hell is the matter?’ And I said, ‘Mama, I’m gay.’ Then my Irish Mama said, ‘If that is what you are, then that is what you are. Now stop trying to be what you are not—and eat your lunch’.”
  • “I became a priest when I was 27-28. [However,] I didn’t fully understand who I was, let alone the implications of celibacy. [Years later,] I recognized that my relationship is a loving relationship. It has helped me to understand what it means to sacrifice, to be loved, to give love. God knows me and loves me. If someone can’t accept it, I am sorry, but this is who I am. I am a good priest. I am a good man.”
  • “They actually tried to start a GAY-Straight Alliance at my high school and one of my teachers was like: Why do you need a Gay Straight Alliance? We already have a Drama Club!”
  • “He came out to us at 24, late one night, sitting on the edge of my bed. He said, ‘Mom, you have asked about my love life. I think I found someone.’ And I said, ‘What’s his name?’ He said, ‘You knew?’ And I said, ‘You didn’t?’”
  • “Don’t break off contact; don’t reject your child. This child, who has always been God’s gift to you, may now be the cause of another gift: your family becoming more honest, respectful, and supportive.”
  • “Why do I stay in the Catholic Church? Because I have hope. Because I have seen [gay] people wrestle with their faith and die in the arms of their faith, comforted in the knowledge that they have lived the good life, fought the good fight. That kind of witness to grace keeps me involved, wanting to help the church being all that it can be—impacting future generations of young Catholics —trying to live as authentic and grace-filled lives as they can.”

The Bad:

  • “It’s ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’ And that was our introduction to how Catholics deal with homosexuality.”
  • “Slavery, torture, usury. The Catholic Church has changed on some very fundamental issues.” [However, when it comes to sexual issues,] “Catholic sexual ethics has a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Absolute norms. You can do this. You can’t do that. Period.”2
  • “If they knew about me, there is no way they would want me here.”
  • “It would be a lot easier in life to be straight. Why would anyone choose to make it difficult?”
  • “I was in the seminary. I wanted to be a priest, and I wanted to be a good priest. I denied it. I struggled with it, but I still felt this attraction. I never acted out in any way. Never did anything. Never even masturbated as a teenager. I was almost asexual.”
  • “I entered the major seminary at the age of 22 [and] fell in love with one of my classmates. With him I had my first sexual experience. That was, that was . . . wonderful, but terrifying . . . I was extremely conflicted. Ran to confession as soon as I could.”
  • “It’s hard to be gay and Catholic—it’s hard to be anything and Catholic.”

The Ugly:

  • “The number of times I heard gay, faggot, queer, and homo; and we heard it from teachers and from staff and other students, SEVENTY times in one day. I counted. How can you not think that this is something that’s bad? How can you not think that this is something that’s sinful?”
  • “I remember crying and being petrified and gnashing my teeth because I was a sinful person, because of something I had no control over that was integral to my being.”
  • “I was still studying to be a priest. I went to visit my provincial who was an old Irishman, and I said, ‘I think I am a gay man.’ He said, ‘That’s alright. We have a number of men in the community who are gay, not in itself a problem.’ I said, ‘But I don’t think I can live a celibate life.’ He said, ‘In that case, get the hell outta here’—which I did.”
  • “I am an Eagle Scout and was kicked out the moment I turned 18. My scoutmaster stopped me at the door and asked me to remove myself from the premises. I did, and I have never gone back. To add insult to injury, about a year ago I ran into my scoutmaster at a gay bar. I looked at him, shook my head, and walked away. Then I went to grad school.”
  • “My father had been in the service and he actually owned guns. When I was going to a high school reunion, it came out that [my girlfriend] Dava was coming with me. I said [to my father], ‘You know I am a lesbian. We should’ve talked about this a lot sooner.’ He hung up and wrote that he was going to kill Dava.”
  • “I dated Andrew, but it started getting difficult about a month or two into the relationship because he started getting really depressed. There was a lot of abuse from his dad. I thought I could like fix it, but I found out about him cutting himself one day. He finally came to the conclusion that there was no way he could tell his family or anyone else who he really was, and he realized that yes, he was gay. And because he had heard that his father had [called him] an abomination, he decided that his only solution was to end his life. He ended up stabbing himself, right in the heart. They took him to the OR, but it was just too late. He passed away that next week.”

FULL OF GRACE: Liberating theater, or “Just another voice in a relativistic pageant of voices”?

At the end of the performance, long and enthusiastic applause greeted the actors1 and the Catholics whom they represented. Long discussions took place with the audience about the play and how it could become even stronger. We learned that many priests in New York have been very supportive, but that there are also some “priests who questioned the validity of juxtaposing official Church teaching and personal experience.” They feared that “the audience would confuse Church teaching as just another voice in a relativistic pageant of voices.” Scott Barrow and Robert Choiniere, the authors of FULL OF GRACE, believe that “We mitigated this concern by citing official teaching whenever it appears in the play.”

Choiniere affirmed that “FULL OF GRACE provides a forum to engage personal experience, official teaching, as well as more progressive forms of theological discourse.” Strongly believing in the power of theater, Choiniere concluded, “If the play can help develop the conversation in new ways and help others see the variety of religious experience in the lives of marginalized Catholics as a gift to the Church, then I believe it does serve the Church and the Gospel in a way that no other medium has been able to offer to date.”

1 Philadelphia actors Sarah Ann Gardner, Terence Gleeson*, David Reece Hutchinson, Mark Knight*, James Mercer, Rhonda Michele Moore, Dwayne Alistair Thomas*, Russ Widdall*, Maria Wolf* (* these actors appeared with permission from AEA).

2 From an interview with Dr. Todd A. Salzman, Professor of Theology, Creighton University, whose book, with Michael G. Lawler, The Sexual Person, “earned a rebuke from the U.S. bishops’ doctrine committee,” Religious News Service, 2011.

[Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street] September 22-25, 2015; fullofgraceplay.com

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About the author

Henrik Eger

HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe. Bilingual playwright, author of Metronome Ticking. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Retired professor of English and Communication who taught in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published in Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; The Jewish Forward, New York; Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Phindie, and Broad Street Review, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com