After a lifetime seeing LGBT members of the Catholic Church become despondent over a lack of acceptance, acclaimed fashion designer Wendell Rodricks was moved to tears on Wednesday when Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the Archdiocese of Bombay blessed his plans to start a hot-line that will provide support and guidance to queer individuals and their families to keep the faith.
Goa-based Rodricks and Ruby Almeida, who runs the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics, which brings together organisations working for the pastoral care and justice for LGBT individuals living in every continent, met Cardinal Gracias in Mumbai to appraise him of their plans.
“I was moved to tears when Cardinal Gracias not only gave his total approval and support but also agreed to advise his clergy to be more compassionate and less condemning of the LGBTQ community. At the end of our meeting, His Eminence placed his hand on my head and blessed me in a special way that “Christ bless us for the work we are doing for society”. Suffice to say I felt indeed blessed, grateful and immensely joyful. In smog filled Bombay, my heart felt a rainbow in the sky,” wrote Rodricks on his Facebook page a day later describing the meeting.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Rodricks added, “I am doing this and putting myself out there as the face of this platform because of the youth. I do not want them to feel that they are sinners and condemned by their faith. We have had a historic win with the 377 judgement. With the Supreme Court with us, it is now time for our faith to be with us,” he said.
Almeida said that the priority is to have an online presence. “Our immediate need is to have a website which have resources available. It will take some time set up the hot-line. We will also need to create a network of people. We will start in Mumbai and Goa and connect with other groups around the country working on LGBT rights,” she said. With her extensive experience in petitioning Church leaders, Almeida will provide assistance to the group in firming up their plans.
Almeida claimed that this move is the first instance of the LGBT community in India addressing the issue of faith. “We have to support those who have faith. It is wonderful that Wendell has agreed to put his name to this. It raises the profile of what we are doing. We had met many other people who were afraid to take on the issue of faith,” she said.
While the Supreme Court’s decision decriminalisation homosexuality between consenting in September was hailed as a major victory, Almeida is among those field workers who believes that the tougher battle on the ground will only begin now.
Rodricks said that the planned hotline is not aimed solely at LGBT persons but also at providing avenues of communication for their family and friends, “who feel uncomfortable to answer to society.”
His Facebook post garnered a lot of praise with noted LGBT rights activist Ashok Row Kavi commenting that the move “will save a lot of terrible people from what I call ‘self exile'”.
“In the past, the Church wasn’t supportive of our community. In my case, my parents were supportive. There were a lot of others who wanted to be spiritual but left the Church. They took to drugs, alcohol and some even committed suicide,” Rodricks said.
He added that after the Pope Francis told global church leaders at last month’s Synod of Bishops at The Vatican to be compassionate to members of the LGBT members, parish priests now have no choice but to comply.
The Catholic Church, Almeida said, is beginning to understand that change needs to happen. “The Pope has given permission for Bishops to ask what do we need. He is very clear that Bishops have to engage with the LGBT community. We in the congregation have to understand the Church’s needs and the Church has to understand our needs. It has to be a symbiotic relationship,” she said.
She added that the permission granted by Cardinal Gracias could set a template for other religious communities to follow. “Other faith groups should look at who is not coming to the temple, who is not coming to the mosque, and think of ways to address that. A dialogue needs to begin,” she said.
Father Nigel Barrett, spokesperson for the Archdiocese, said that he could not comment on the Church’s involvement in Almeida’s and Rodricks’ plans because he was not privy to the closed door meeting they held with the Cardinal. “The cardinal is in Germany and I will only know details of the meeting once he returns on Tuesday,” he said.
Father Barrett added however, that the social media campaign is not at odds with the Catholic Church’s long-held views on homosexuality. After the court’s verdict, the Catholic Bishops Conference of India had reiterated that homosexuality continues to be morally unacceptable in the Catholic perspective even though it is no longer a crime.
“The Church doesn’t say that we don’t care about you. It is not necessary that we agree with your moral point of view. We have not changed our moral point of view but Pope Francis has changed the way we approach them (the LGBT community),” he said.
Row Kavi said that Rodricks’ involvement is a big step towards reconciling sexuality with religion. “I do not believe that they are such good companions. But if he can convince Catholics that their lives have value as gay people then it is a great initiative. If he is able to remove the feeling of guilt from among LGBT members of the Catholic community then it is a big step forward. He is using the Church to save his own community,” he said.