It started out like any other Sunday at St. James Cathedral: Churchgoers streamed up First Hill, navigating the steep stone steps into the century-old building. In came the elderly women in their pearls, the young couples in jeans, the Filipino families with toddlers in tow, who all settled solemnly into unforgiving wooden chairs and pews arranged in the shape of a cross. Even the date on the Catholic calendar was unremarkable: the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time. No longer Christmas and not yet Lent. Just an ordinary Sunday in February.
All eyes looked to the raised marble altar at the center of the cathedral, where Father Michael G. Ryan would bless the hosts and wine as priests had done long before him. He would lead the faithful in prayer in English with a hint of Latin, a language that’s not dead yet after all. And he would give a sermon—a homily—following the Gospel reading, just like he always did. But this time, this homily, this Mass, would be different.
Father Ryan strode to the podium with a spring in his step that belies his 71 years. He’s not a giant of a man—let’s just say he’d probably play guard on the basketball court—but he’s a leader in the community. As head of the city’s largest Catholic church for the past 24 years, Father Ryan has seen his parish triple in size in so-called unchurched Seattle and led an extensive restoration of the cathedral in 1994. One of the most striking renovations was the addition of a new circular skylight in the central dome—an oculus dei, or “eye of God”—that filters beams of natural light down into the church. Father Ryan took his spot at the podium in that fading daylight, under the watchful eye, and addressed the congregation.
“Gospel stories like today’s can be so familiar that we’re apt to tune them out—not purposefully, of course, but almost automatically,” he said. “If we do, we lose out on a lot because there’s always something new, even surprising, in the Gospels if we take a closer look.”
The day’s Gospel told the story of Jesus healing a leper with the touch of a hand, a simple but powerful act that was both a miracle and an outrage. Since leprosy was considered punishment for sins—and highly contagious—the afflicted were supposed to avoid society and vice versa. Both Jesus and the leper were lawbreakers, said Father Ryan; Jesus had prioritized the person over the law.
“Lepers are still coming to Jesus,” Father Ryan continued. “I’m thinking, too, of those whom society or even the Church have treated like lepers by marginalizing them, or stigmatizing them, misunderstanding them, or even treating them as outcasts.”
Then came the kicker: “Think, for instance, of gay and lesbian people who struggle so hard for acceptance and understanding, struggle to be respected and loved for who they are. Or think of people who are in marriages that the Church does not recognize. … In responding to them, the Church can do no better than to look to the Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus of today’s Gospel, and to find there the one for whom there are no outcasts whatever: only fellow humans in need of love, human warmth, healing, acceptance.”
The congregation then did something that was new to me in my three decades of churchgoing: It applauded. Long and heartily. For on the same day that Father Ryan was calling on the Church to extend an olive branch to the gay and lesbian community, a letter from the Most Reverend J. Peter Sartain, archbishop of Seattle, ran in the cathedral’s weekly bulletin condemning new and proposed laws that posed an “unprecedented threat” to religious liberty. Among them were a federal health-insurance mandate to cover contraception, and Washington State’s marriage equality bill, which the governor signed into law the following day.
Weeks later, the archdiocese ran another letter, in church bulletins across the city, asking the flock to support a petition drive for Referendum 74. The initiative would keep the state’s new marriage equality law from going into effect June 7 and instead put it to a statewide vote in November. To get on the ballot, supporters would need to gather 120,577 signatures by June 6; if they failed to do so, Washington would become the seventh state in the nation to legalize gay marriage. “Marriage between a man and a woman is the foundation of our society,” wrote the archbishop. “Treating different things differently is not unjust discrimination.”
Beg to differ? In an email to the St. James parish, Father Ryan replied: “While the Archbishop has given his support to the effort, he has wisely left it up to each pastor to decide whether to allow the collection of signatures in his own parish. After discussing the matter with the members of the Cathedral’s pastoral ministry, I have decided that we will not participate.… Doing so would, I believe, prove hurtful and divisive in our community.” St. Joseph Parish on Capitol Hill and St. Mary’s in the Central District quickly followed suit.
As of May 7, the Preserve Marriage Washington coalition had tallied 66,109 signatures for Referendum 74. Just 54,468 to go.