By Yusimí Rodríguez (Photos Juan Suarez)
HAVANA TIMES — What could surprise me after seeing a Catholic nun with polished fingernails and toenails, who was going to take part in the May 9th Gay Pride Parade of the Cuban Campaign against Homophobia, wearing her habit? Well, I guess only a Catholic Bishop who would also march in the parade with his habit and his… husband.
Sister Silvia and Archbishop, Roger LaRade, belong to the Independent Catholic Churches (independent from the Vatican), specifically to the Eucharistic Church. She told me his story in a few words, just the necessary ones to get me interested: a former Jesuit Priest, Roger LaRade abandoned the Roman Catholic Church and ended up becoming an Independent Catholic priest. Even though her own story is a fascinating one, she arranged this interview with Father Roger before he left Cuba, barely a week after the May campaign.
A spiritual struggling
Father Roger, or just Roger as he insisted I call him, was born on the East coast of Canada 58 years ago. His family was Roman Catholic and went to Mass every Sunday. He remembers his grandparents saying the rosary, but besides from that they were not particularly religious. It was in high school, while wondering what he would do with his life, that he became aware of the call.
Roger: But for me, one of the big issues was celibacy. So I decided I couldn’t be a priest.
HT: Did you already know you were gay?
Roger: I have no memory of not knowing.
HT: How could celibacy be a bigger issue than homosexuality, since the Roman Catholic Church is against homosexuality?
Roger: For the Roman Catholic Church, homosexuality is not a sin in itself, but it is directed towards sin. The only way it can be acceptable is that homosexuals live celibate.
HT: What if I live with a woman, as a couple, without having sex? Love is not only about sex.
Roger: They might say it is OK. Recently, in Ontario, it was discovered that a gay man very active in his Roman Catholic parish lived with his partner. The Bishop said he couldn’t be involved in the Church anymore. He replied: “We live together but we don’t have sex”. I don’t know how they resolved it.
After the first year I realized Astronomy was not for me, the spiritual part inside was not satisfied.
There was a period of spiritual struggling. When I finally said “God, if you want me to be a priest I will do it, and You will give me the grace I need”, I felt liberated.
Not about celibacy
HT: And celibacy?
Roger: I decided to give it over to God.
He began to study Philosophy and became active at the Roman Catholic Church in the university. When the time came to decide what kind of a priest he wanted to be, he decided to become a Jesuit, because they had a clear sense of mission, and were deeply committed with faith and social justice.
After the two year noviciate he took he vows and was sent to a Jesuit university in Washington State, where he studied Education and Theatre and got a master degree. Then, after also getting a master degree in Theology, he was ordained a Priest on May 31, 1986. Afterwards, he did postgraduate studies for a year, in theatre, this time combining it with Theology and Canadian Aboriginal Studies, in Berkeley California.
Roger had been honest to his Jesuit superiors when he applied and during his whole training. After the first year of noviciate he came out to the rest of the group. They were nineteen, nobody else came out.
Roger: It is said, in the Roman Catholic orders that between 30% and 50% are gay, and those might be conservative numbers.
I think there is something about being gay that orients us towards the spiritual. I don’t know if it is sensitivity or a previous experience of discrimination; it can be in very subtle ways. We grew up in heterosexual families, and with time we discovered we were different, and we received the message that being gay is not accepted. We grow up with a sense of being alone. Even if discrimination was not directed at me, I heard my friends use the words: faggot, fag…
So, perhaps, the experience of oppression connects with spirituality, even though the Church itself is an instrument of discrimination. But the Church is not spirituality, and is not God. It is representative of God in many aspects, but I have come to realize that not in all aspects.
Roger: I know a lot of Christians that grow up with a sense of guilt about being homosexual. For me, there was never a contradiction between being gay and being loved by God.
After my ordination and my studies I was assigned to be Priest of a Jesuit University in Canada. I very much enjoyed it. After two years, a prominent Roman Catholic man wrote something very negative about homosexuals and homosexuality in the local paper. Because of my training as a Jesuit: faith connected to social justice, I felt I couldn’t be silent about that.
HT: Did you react just as a Jesuit priest committed to social justice, not as a homosexual yourself?
Roger: For me, the primary issue of social justice was social justice for LGBT individuals. I decided to write a response letter that challenged the position of the Roman Catholic Church. It was published and it caused problems, because it is an issue of power. Those who have it have the ear of the Bishop. I was told I couldn’t say that because it was against what the Church teaches. I realized that as a Roman Catholic Priest I was primarily an agent of the institution. And for me, the teaching of the Church on homosexuals was not and is not compatible. I decided it was more important for me to be authentic as a gay man than to be a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. It was not about celibacy, but about who I am as a person.
HT: So, a straight priest, also committed to social justice, wouldn’t have felt affected by the discrimination against homosexuals?
Roger: Certainly, at that time, late 198…, I don’t think that would have been the case. Now, in 2015, I think it is much more so, because of what is happening with LGBT rights and visibility in society. It could be about other issues, like the inclusion of women in priesthood and the issue of married clergy. Many Roman Catholics have left priesthood because they wanted to get married.
HT: What’s your opinion about that?
Roger: Celibacy has a long history in the Church, from the very beginnings. After the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, many people decided to follow Him by being celibate, because He was celibate. The first Apostles left their wives and families based on that. At the beginning, the Church had married clergy. Over the centuries, the Church as an Institution said that Clergy should be celibate. Part of it had nothing to do with spirituality but with finances and mobility. The explanation of the Catholic Church for celibacy now is that if you don’t have children and spouse you are more available. But there are other churches with married ministers. I don’t think they are less available than catholic priests.
I also think there is no incompatibility between being a priest and being a woman. The fact that Christ was born a man doesn’t mean that only men can be priests.
Our future as a couple
Back to his life, Roger tells me that in 1990 he left Priesthood and moved to Toronto. He had to find an apartment and a job. As a Jesuit he had been supported by the Church.
Roger: At 34, I began to live the life most people live at 24, but I never regretted my time as a Jesuit priest. It contributed to who I am today.
Both were open to moving to the other one’s city. At the same time, Mark was offered a job that meant the next step in his career. So they kept the long distance relation for three years, until Mark began the process to become a resident of Canada.
Roger: We wanted to be together but the ultimate decision was in the hands of the government. It was a very formal process in which he had to give all his documentation, income statement, etc. My mother wrote a letter he included in his application, together with a letter from me describing our relationship.
I had come out to my family right after ordination, I was still a priest. My siblings reacted very positively. My mother had a little difficulty at the beginning. My father was already dead. It is usually more difficult for gay men to come out to their fathers because of the stereotypes of masculinity, but I didn’t go through any of that.
They were advised to take the application to Detroit, where there were people who were very friendly to homosexual applications.
Roger: Our future as a couple was being determined by someone other than us.
It took four months. On the day Canadians celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday, Mark received his official acceptance. He moved to Toronto in August, 1995.
Same sex marriage became legal in Ontario in June, 2003. They had always said that they would marry when that happened. And they did, in that province, in July 2003. It was also in 2003 when Roger joined the Catholic Independent Churches as a priest.
An independent Catholic Priest
Roger: When I left the Jesuits and moved to Toronto, I went to Church a little but I stopped going because I couldn’t find anything that was compatible for me. I was making friends in the gay lesbian community, so they came to know about my background. One time, a lesbian couple, friends of mine, asked me if I could bless their union. They wanted to have a ceremony. Before marriage was legal, we called them Holy Unions: Unions of same sex couples blessed by God. At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to be seen as a priest again, but eventually, I thought: Well, what’s the harm? I did it, and some six months later someone asked me for the same thing.
I think those experiences made me recover my vocation as a priest. But I didn’t have anywhere to practice. In 2003, I discovered these small churches that were Catholic but were not under the authority of the Vatican.
There was one in Toronto and they had a website. I wrote to the Bishop telling him who I am and giving him all my background. I asked if it was possible for me to be a priest for his church, being married to a same sex partner, and living it openly. It was. That is how I restarted ministry as a Catholic priest.
As I have always felt this love for San Francisco, since adolescence. I wanted to have a Franciscan community within Church. That happened in 2006.
Sister Silvia, who’s remained silent all the time, ready to help with translation if necessary, speaks for the first time to tell Roger he is forgetting to say something about himself: he has studied to be an analyst.
Roger says that is just how he makes his living and Sister Silvia remarks that is an interesting part of their church.
Sister Silvia: Unlike the Roman Church, we all have jobs.
I think that the philosophical theological learning together with this other background make Archbishop Roger unique in the way he writes homilies. In all the years I was a Roman Catholic, I never experienced that love of God, and I know I have experienced this inclusive love of God through his modelling. Not so much because of talking, but because of doing.
What God wants
HT: What do the Independent Catholic Churches have in common with the Roman Catholic Church?
Roger: A lot. As a Catholic Church, we come from the same sources. In the Roman Catholic Church, the concept of faith, the ordination of bishops comes from the very beginning and has continued through the centuries. It is called Apostolic Succession; in the Roman and Orthodox churches, it is what makes the ordination, the Eucharist, the Mass and everything valid. The Independent Catholic Churches have made sure to maintain that. But more important, we, as a progressive, inclusive catholic church, root ourselves in catholic traditions. We believe in God the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. We have the same understanding of the Church of God, the need for Bishops, for the Eucharist, for a vocation for religious life. We have the same understanding, in many areas, of social justice and human rights.
We differ primarily in issues of full and equal inclusion of all people disrespected of sexual orientation, gender and gender identity. For us, married clergy and women can be ordained. The inclusion of LGBT people at all levels of the church; marriage for gays and lesbians in the church, not just supporting it as civil marriage, but supporting and celebrating it as the sacrament of matrimony. We allow divorced people to remarry in the church, and we also support artificial contraception for family planning. To use artificial means to avoid pregnancy is not sinful. The Theological Commission that worked to give this proposal to Pope Paul VI came up with the same conclusion, but he later affirmed the belief of the Roman Catholic Church that the use of these means was sinful. We are not doing this because we think that the Roman Catholic Church is wrong, but because it is possible and it is what God wants. We are just witness of the infinite love of God for all people.
We are talking about human life
HT: What is the position about abortion?
Roger: Similar to the Roman Church. We believe the human life and the soul of the human person occur at conception. So, we can not agree or teach that abortion is a moral choice that can be made. It is hopeful that the reasons leading to abortion: poverty, social situation or even selfishness, will end.
HT: What about a woman who has been raped?
Roger: That’s a very difficult situation. What I know is that there are women who decide to abort and women who decide not to. To say that there are extreme situations where a woman has to make such a decision is to assert a reality that exists, but it is not to say that it is a morally correct decision. What we are really talking about is human life.
HT: What about sex change operation? God made you a man, no matter if you like women or men. Going through surgery to change your sex doesn’t go against God’s design?
Roger: I don’t think so. Gender identity has never been my personal issue. From my reading and my speaking to transgender people, my understanding is that these people feel a disconnection between their internal sense of a person and their physical appearance. So, in order to bring those in line, they feel they need a physical change. It seems legitimate to me. We make physical changes to our bodies for all kinds of reasons.
HT: What about open marriages, which I have seen mainly in gay couples?
Roger: I don’t know if it still happens in heterosexual marriages. In the late sixties and the seventies, with the sexual liberation, at least in North America, many heterosexual couples opened up their marriages. We still believe, as a church that marriage is between two individuals and that part of the vocation of marriage is chastity within the marriage. That includes same sex marriages.
HT: Have you ever thought about adopting children?
Roger: Mark and I are very happy uncles to our nieces and nephews. But it is OK within our church for gay people to adopt children. Parents do not need to be of opposite genders to love, nurture and teach their children.
HT: Thank you so much.
La Eucharistic Catholic Church is present in Canada, Camerun, and soon, God willing, in Cuba. For any further information write to [email protected]