A Queer Conversation

A traditional nun and her openly gay cousin discuss sexuality and the Catholic Church

Sr. Bernadette and Paul Mages, Christmas 1989
Sr. Bernadette and Paul Mages, Christmas 1989

BH: How have your perceptions of the Catholic Church changed?

PM: Well, the Catholic Church is so diverse. You have the hierarchy, which to me seems a bit out of touch, but then you have local churches, some of which seem magnificent. And then you have individuals — it’s really hard to generalize.

BH: You mentioned feeling unwelcome in the Catholic Church. Through Bernadette, do you feel a connection that maybe you hadn’t felt — with Catholicism maybe?

PM: No, I guess not profoundly because of my relationship with Bernadette. I don’t think that changed anything.

BH: Sister Bernadette, how have your perceptions of homosexuality changed since getting to know Paul and his partner on a more intimate level, friendship level — personal level?

SB: Well, it was my first close relationship with anyone who is gay, and I began to see that on the level of their feelings for each other, their relationship is similar to the feelings expressed by married couples that I know — my brothers and my sisters-in-law, friends. And I remember when I went home in January and my mother told me that she had heard that Paul had broken up and she obviously wanted more information. And I realized that this is just as sacred a relationship as anyone else and if anything’s been confided in me, it stays with me.

PM: I wrote in my Christmas card to Mary’s parents, you know, just a little bit telling them we were no longer together. But I rarely see them. I don’t have a really deep relationship with them. I mean, they’re family and I have a specific relationship with each one of them and great memories and all that. But it’s just too hard to develop a really deep, continuous relationship. Like when I was coming out, I realized that not all people, including family members, did not need to know the same amount of information.

“It was my first close relationship with anyone who is gay, and I began to see that on the level of their feelings for each other, their relationship is similar to the feelings expressed by married couples that I know… After I said something about how broken up you were, and that I was really concerned — and my Mom looked at me and she said, ‘well, then I guess’ — she said — ‘it’s just the same as if a married couple had broken up, isn’t it?’ with, like, the most 180-degree turn in emotion that I could detect in my Mom.” — Sister Bernadette

SB: And I think I really was able to communicate to my Mom something of what I had developed in my own understanding, and that is that, “what Paul is going through you would understand because you’re married, Mom.” And it actually came out because she then said to me — after I said something about how broken up you were, and that I was really concerned — and my Mom looked at me and she said, “well, then I guess” — she said — “it’s just the same as if a married couple had broken up, isn’t it?” with, like, the most 180-degree turn in emotion that I could detect in my Mom. And I felt really, really proud, I think, that I had been able to convey to her from my own relationship that this sensitivity that we owe to my cousin Paul is really the same that we would offer to a couple who’s going through a separation or a divorce, even though we may not agree with it or condone it or understand it. Their reality is something else, regardless. In the past, my Mom has not been so understanding about people who are homosexual. And I was just very proud that I was able to somehow convey to her, without having to say it, but just in the way I myself was reacting and projecting my emotion of what I was experiencing for you and your partner and how deeply I felt for both of you as you were going through this, that she was able to get the message.

PM: It was probably like that in Jesus’ time, too. He didn’t judge, but he got to know everybody. And then others probably witnessed, “Gee, look how Jesus acts with those people. It’s not so strange after all.” Or, “Gee, that must be what it’s like.”

BH: You’ve talked a little bit about your prayer life, Paul, and how in dealing with your sexuality you prayed. I’d be interested in hearing a little more about your own spirituality.

PM: It’s hard to sum it up. I’ve never tried to put it into words. Well, I mean being Christian is the most important thing in my life. The last ten, twenty years — ever since I really started questioning things, like in college. I just figured God created us and it just seems like it should be the most important focus in my life and everything comes from God, everything’s affected by God. So I just know the way I live is important, for myself and for who witnesses how I live. You know, I believe my soul is going to transform somehow after I die and so I wanted to be in good shape to meet God in whatever state that is — body, soul, both, neither. Just spending more time kind of devoting myself to my spirituality. I just kept reinforcing it and it made more sense, and it’s just taken on a greater percentage of who I am.

BH: Is it important to you that a partner share that faith?

PM: Well I think so. My former partner was brought up Catholic, officially, but they never went to church. I don’t think he had much of a prayer life, and you know, through me I think God reached him, and I was thankful for that. And he became more spiritual, more Christian through our relationship. I think it would be difficult to be with somebody who didn’t even believe in God. I mean, I think there would have to be a kernel of common ground there to build on. But I would never rule somebody out of a relationship just because they didn’t share very, very similar beliefs.

SB: It was obvious to me that it was a priority for you to get to your church on Sunday whenever you are here, so I mean, I could tell right away that that was definitely a commitment that both of them made. They rearranged their Sunday around it. I remember you guys discussing your Sunday plans at times and it was about ‘how we’re going to get to church, and when’.

BH: It doesn’t sound like coming to terms with your sexuality was even a bump in the road in your relationship with God.

“I just thought… how could God create all the people in the world if some of them aren’t intended and they’re mistakes and they should be corrected or have surgery or be converted? That just didn’t seem like what a loving God would do.” — Paul

PM: Well, it was. I mean, I was hoping I wasn’t doing something wrong, and I had to come to terms with it over time. It wasn’t just one moment where I just prayed about it, got the answer, and then it was taken care of. But over time, like I was saying earlier, I just thought that if you’re with somebody in a meaningful relationship, how can God frown upon it. And how could God create all the people in the world if some of them aren’t intended and they’re mistakes and they should be corrected or have surgery or be converted? That just didn’t seem like what a loving God would do. It just kind of made sense to me that I am supposed to be this way and these relationships are approved by God.

BH: Has getting to know Sister Bernadette again sparked any different thinking in your own sexuality, in your own behavior at all? Has it changed you at all? Reconnecting to a religious sister?

PM: I’m proud to have her as a close friend and member of my extended family. My relationship with her has reinforced my belief that in the Church there are capable, purposeful human beings trying to act in as holy a way as possible.

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BH: Has it changed you, Sister Bernadette, in regards to Paul?

SB: It’s changed me in the sense that what had been an issue that was very clear for me, is not so clear anymore — not in terms of what the Church teaches but in terms of my own understanding, I guess, just because of how murky and messy — ‘messy’ is not really the right word — how mysterious, I think is the better word to use. I don’t have access to all of the experience for me to even figure it out, I guess. So I’m willing to just let it go. I’m willing to really believe, like I said, that God is a father. And He’s working out with each one of us our salvation. And going back to the fact that each of us is extremely wounded and broken, you know, regardless of the life that we profess or live. And I think I’m a lot more ready to leave it in His hands rather than try to correct someone.

BH: Paul, some people reading this might find this pairing — a gay man and a traditional religious sister — somewhat odd, although you clearly don’t. Is there anything you think people need to understand?

PM: Well, one thing might be: once you’ve been judged I think it’s a lot easier to not judge in the future.

BH: Really? So you don’t feel judgment toward family members who judge you? Your feeling is not anger, necessarily?

“My relationship with her has reinforced my belief that in the Church there are capable, purposeful human beings trying to act in as holy a way as possible.”
— Paul

“What had been an issue that was very clear for me, is not so clear anymore… I’m willing to really believe… that God is a father. And He’s working out with each one of us our salvation. And… each of us is extremely wounded and broken, you know, regardless of the life that we profess or live. And I think I’m a lot more ready to leave it in His hands rather than try to correct someone.”
— Sister Bernadette

PM: No, I think they just don’t understand. Maybe they have no first-hand experience with being judged. I just know I’m very careful now, and when you, Sister Bernadette, were speaking earlier about your reactions I thought maybe you were referring to what I think of when I — somebody does something and I, you know, I think a racist comment or, you know, anything against some person because of what they look like, what they say or what they do, and I have to quickly correct myself and say, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t like when people do that to me.’

BH: Well you must make judgments in life.

PM: Well, I make judgments but I don’t want to judge people. I mean, certain actions seem to me to be appropriate/inappropriate. But I’m not God, I’m not the judger.

BH: So once you’ve been judged in your life —

PM: I think it gives you a different insight. If you’ve never had any kind of difficulty in that way to deal with — you know, it’s easy to just sit and say, “You’re wrong. You’re not white. You’re not male. You’re not rich. You’re not this. But once you’ve had to be on the other side and feel like somebody’s judging you; I don’t know, it just made me more humble.

BH: Has that changed your relationship to the rest of the world?

PM: Well, I guess a bit. Sure. I want to be of service to others. Yeah, I look for opportunities to get involved that way. I have a new attitude toward the homeless. It’s one group that I just really, I just really feel like I really want to help them in some profound way, somehow, sometime.

BH: Sister Bernadette? One thing you’d like to let people know?

SB: I guess the message I would like to give is that our main concern should be the person. And getting to know a person — allowing a person to reveal who he or she is rather than forcing my own revelation onto a person. And in that way, I think, in a relationship of openness and acceptance, I think we have the greatest ability to grow. And if there are ways that we need to be able to grow, I think that because of the love that a person has for another person, that it creates the ground for growth to be able to take place. And to allow myself to be challenged, too. I mean, because Paul and his partner, the gift that they’ve given me, has really challenged my understanding and has left me a lot like — I thrive on being sure — and I’m a lot less thriving on that.

PM: I would just hope, you know, the Church — again, that huge entity — would be able to slowly think a little bit more like Bernadette. Trying to just assess before reacting and get to know the people you’re dealing with before judging.

Originally published on June 3, 2009.


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