Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan, the spiritual visionary and catalyst behind FULL OF GRACE: Journeys of LGBT Catholics, worked on behalf of the poor and downtrodden for Catholic Charities in Brooklyn and Queens. He served as chairman of the Social Development and World Peace Department of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. His work often brought him in touch with the city’s most frail, neglected and impoverished citizens. As whole neighborhoods were being ravaged by AIDS, Bishop Sullivan went to Washington to testify before Congress about the plight many people were facing.
As the executive director for Catholic Charities in Brooklyn and Queens, his organization became the largest Roman Catholic human-services agency in the country. In 1980, when Pope John Paul II named him an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Brooklyn, he said his mission was to serve “the hurting people of society.” Bishop Sullivan died as a result of injuries from a car accident in 2013. He was 83.
—(Excerpted and paraphrased from the New York Times, June 8, 2013.)
Scott Barrow, playwright of FULL OF GRACE, and a teaching company member of the famous Tectonic Theater Project (TTP) since 2005, is an actor and collaborator on such projects as 33 Variations, the tour of The Laramie Project, and The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later. In his own work, he used the company’s technique of Moment Work to write and develop several pieces, including Outcasts: The Lepers on Penikese Island, Equally Blessed, and Full of Grace. Barrow holds an MFA in Acting, Writing, Directing, and Teaching from Brandeis University. As an actor, Scott has performed extensively in New York and regionally.
Robert Choiniere, the theological driving force and producer of FULL OF GRACE, has worked on the Parish Pastoral Council Development and Pastoral Planning in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, before moving to New York, where he has served as the Director of the Office of Pastoral Planning of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn since 2006. Choiniere holds a BA in Theology and an MA in Pastoral Ministry. In addition to his Diocesan responsibilities, he is also the managing director of Stages on the Sound, a non-profit Shakespearean theatre company.
Rolling out the red carpet for the world’s most popular living Catholic
Millions of Americans gave Pope Francis a most enthusiastic welcome. The Philadelphia Inquirer printed pages of ads from companies and organizations that jumped onto the Pope mobile, including the Pennsylvania Catholic Daughters of the Americas. Given the Pope’s Italian heritage, Philadelphia’s Italian companies lined up to greet him, including Sam’s Italian Market, squeezing the Pope’s name between their special offers—cannoli, Italiano antipasto, lasagna, and to make him feel truly welcome in Philly, their hoagie trays.
Put bluntly, some businesses were hoping for big, holy windfall profits. However, not every organization was thinking on how to cash in on the world’s most popular living Catholic arriving in the US, for example, the Gift of Life took out an ad with a quote by the Pope: “Organ donation is a testimony of love for our neighbor.” Even non-Catholics, like the Episcopalians, offered the Pope a “heartfelt welcome to the City of Brotherly Love.” Perhaps the most serious welcome came from the Armenian community of greater Philadelphia who took out a whole page ad with a “Thank you Pope Francis for recognizing the Armenian genocide.”
Philadelphia Archbishop blocks LGBT events during the Pope’s visit
In spite of the great respect for Pope Francis and his visionary new approach, it became clear that the Catholic hierarchy is still keeping many doors shut. According to Religion News Service, “Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput barred LGBT Catholics from holding a workshop at a Catholic parish near the event” (Sept. 25, 2015).
Similarly, the program in the index of the huge World Meeting of Families convention in Philadelphia did not list any films for LGBT Catholics, except Desire of the Everlasting Hills, which promotes an asexual life for gays and lesbians. The Catholic conference featured only one LGBT session, given by Ron Belgau, a celibate gay man and his mother.Thousands of people showed up for this event, but without explanations, several thousand people were told that they had to leave the large hall and, instead, go to “another room capable of seating only about 1,000. Hundreds of others were turned away, the doors shut on them by convention center officials citing fire code regulations” (Religion News Service). So far, the organizers of The World Meeting of Families have not provided an explanation for the sudden change of venue that blocked many hundreds of visitors.
Religion News Service investigated: “When asked about the rejections [of LGBT-oriented meetings and performances], Chaput, a leader of the U.S. hierarchy’s conservative wing, said ‘we don’t want to provide a platform at the meeting for people to lobby for a position contrary to the life of our church.’ Chaput also backed the recent firing of Margie Winters, a much loved lesbian teacher, from a Catholic school run by nuns, saying the move “showed character and common sense.”
The power of the Catholic hierarchy, in spite of the new Pope’s progressive stance, is so strong that to this day, Dignity, America’s largest organization for LGBT Catholics, “is still not allowed to meet in Catholic parishes, and LGBT groups have been barred from meeting in parishes this week in Philly, too,” according to Robert Choiniere, producer of FULL OF GRACE, a new interview-based play.
Archbishop Chaput and the organizers of the World Meeting of Families will probably not be thrilled when they learn that FULL OF GRACE (created by Robert Choiniere and Scott Barrow and performed by eight Philadelphia actors) hit like a succession of grenades that went off at Philadelphia’s historic Christ Church.
LGBT theater through the theological backdoor
Asked whether their play was rejected by Catholic institutions because of its upfront LGBT content, Choiniere, aware that he has to be careful during these times of ruptures in the Catholic church, explained, “We have never been barred, but we have been very selective about where we go and who we approach about presenting the work. Mostly, in a Catholic setting, this [docudrama] could be staged as an academic offering of theology departments on Catholic campuses without much controversy, I believe. We were hosted by St. Francis College [Brooklyn] and Fordham University [Bronx], so Catholic institutions have sponsored us and others have shown interest.”
On opening night in Philadelphia, a few days before the Pope arrived, quite a few Catholic priests and influential church administrators sat in the audience who told us how unnatural and difficult it is to deny one’s own sexuality. Afterwards, they shared with some of us that they now live in happy relationships with their gay life mates.
I sat next to two elderly ladies from the Carolinas, former nuns of many decades. Once they saw the actors—representing nuns and teachers, priests and lay people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, talking openly about the struggles of faith and sexuality—the ex-nuns felt so secure that they openly held hands at the theater. Before leaving, they told me how important and enlightening FULL OF GRACE had been for them.
“Where there is love there is God”
This docudrama owes its existence to the vision of the late Bishop Joseph Sullivan of Brooklyn, whose mission was to serve “the hurting people of society.” He wanted to initiate a dialogue “about inclusion and exclusion, self-acceptance and shame.” He therefore asked Choiniere and Barrow to develop a play to be performed and discussed at the university level. They fulfilled that dream and hit a raw nerve with the audience at Philadelphia’s historic Episcopal Christ Church. Ultimately, “The issues of exclusion and inclusion, the sacred and profane, the struggle to reconcile sexuality and spirituality, are issues that affect people of all ages,” Choiniere pointed out. Bishop Sullivan’s vision of a play based on the experience of LGBT Catholics of all ages and his belief that “where there is love there is God” is rapidly evolving in each new and updated version of this docudrama.
FULL OF GRACE made that love come alive in moving ways, but not without confronting us with the hell that many LGBT Catholics are going through with judgmental employers, who kick highly respected professionals out of their jobs; hostile, self-satisfied parents, who condemn their children; and hypocritical church leaders who claim from the pulpit, week after week, that their way of living is the only way of existing, driving others into despair and even suicide.
FULL OF GRACE made us angry, made us cry. However, we also heard humorous, liberating experiences that made the audience laugh—perhaps making up for tears and devastating experiences that the actors presented with great authenticity.
[Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street] September 22-25, 2015; fullofgraceplay.com.