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Fr. Edward Salmon.
The stories of Easter and Passover are stories of triumphing over adversity, of overcoming hatred and contempt. As such, they speak in powerful ways to glbtq people, whether they are religious or not. In observance of these holidays, we want to call attention to a powerful composition by Stephen Schwartz inspired by the "It Gets Better" project and performed by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. In addition, the recent decision by Father Edward Salmon, a priest who oversees a Jesuit High School in Rochester, New York, to permit a male couple to attend their prom signals that there is possibility for a renewal within the Roman Catholic Church, especially since the priest explains his decision in terms of the call to light issued by the newly elected Pope Francis.
Father Edward Salmon, president of McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, was faced with a dilemma: two openly gay teens requested permission to attend their junior prom as a couple and launched an online petition asking for support. The petition apparently attracted a lot of attention and elicited a great deal of heated discussion.
Shortly after the petition went online, Father Salmon sent a long note to the parents of his students saying, "If our two brothers who have asked to attend the Junior Ball wish to do so, they will be welcomed."
Interestingly, Father Salmon justified his decision by reference to Pope Francis. His letter, appropriately for Easter Week, is peppered with allusions to hope and light and love and tenderness and renewal.
He wrote, "Our new Holy Father, Pope Francis, in the homily for his Inaugural Mass, had encouraging and inviting words: 'Today amid so much darkness we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others. To protect creation and to protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope, it is to let a ray of light break through heavy clouds.'"
He continued, "Darkness and heavy clouds have gathered here at McQuaid recently because of misinformation, fear, misunderstanding, and even anger. That misinformation, fear, misunderstanding, and even anger came about after two of our brothers asked whether they could attend the Junior Ball together. Into the darkness of misinformation, fear, misunderstanding and anger, together with Pope Francis, I invite and encourage each and every one of us in the McQuaid family to be men and women who bring hope to one another. I invite and encourage each and every one of us in the McQuaid family to be men and women who look upon one another with tenderness and love. I invite and encourage each and every one of us in the McQuaid family to open up a horizon of hope, to let a ray of light break through heavy clouds."
Father Salmon also quoted the 1997 pastoral letter from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops addressed to the parents of gay men and lesbians, entitled "Always Our Children," a document that has been mostly ignored as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has become ever more strident in opposition to same-sex marriage and to the civil rights of glbtq people.
"I, together with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops . . . call on all Christians and citizens of good will to confront their own fears about homosexuality and to curb the humor and discrimination that offend homosexual persons. We understand that having a homosexual orientation brings with it enough anxiety, pain and issues related to self-acceptance without society bringing additional prejudicial treatment," he wrote.
He added, "the Bishops are clear--'Nothing in the Bible or in Catholic teaching can be used to justify prejudicial or discriminatory attitudes and behaviors.' . . . The teachings of the Church make it clear that the fundamental human rights of homosexual persons must be defended and that all of us must strive to eliminate any forms of injustice, oppression, or violence against them."
He goes on to clarify that in permitting the openly gay students to attend the prom as a couple he is not "contradicting the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church with regard to human sexuality; I am not encouraging nor am I condoning homosexual activity just as I do not encourage or condone heterosexual activity at a dance."
He concludes, "We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness.'"
Although Father Salmon's remarkable letter, which may be accessed here does not represent any revision of Catholic doctrine, its tone is altogether different from that so frequently used by the hierarchy of the Church. One can only hope that the new Pope will inspire a renewed commitment to a compassionate embrace of the Catholic social justice tradition.
Stephen Schwartz's composition, like many Passover and Easter narratives, features the voices of individuals in pain, while also envisioning triumph over pain as suffering individuals come to find solace in communion with others. It fully acknowledges the heartbreaking anguish many gay people feel in a homophobic society, but it also joyfully celebrates the rewards of self-acceptance and the happiness that can be found by living life honestly. If you just "hang in" and "hang on" and accept yourself, the song advises, you can experience "the joy of living with authenticity."
Schwartz's beautiful song honestly captures the spirit of Dan Savage's It Gets Better project.
Schwartz, who has written such hit musicals as Godspell (1971), Pippin (1972), and Wicked (2003), collaborated with Savage as he set to music the heartfelt testimony of contributors to the "It Gets Better" project. The result is an extraordinarily moving work that is beautifully performed by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.
Videographer Sean Chapin has assembled a brief documentary about the making of the "Testimony" video. He presents the testimonies of members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus about their own journeys and about the experience of performing "Testimony" and how the song speaks to them.
The stories of triumph over adversity in "Testimony" and in the testimonies of the contributors to the "It Gets Better" project and of the members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus remind us that it does get better when one escapes oppression. The message is especially appropriate for Easter and Passover.