Here is one of those strange confluences in the spiritual life: Last night, I read that Jeanne Manford, the founder of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), died at the age of 92. In 1972, after her son was beaten at a gay demonstration and the police failed to intervene, she wrote a letter to the New York Post saying, "I have a homosexual son and I love him." Imagine the courage that must have taken in 1972.
No matter what you think about the hot-button issue of same-sex marriage, no matter what religion you are, no matter what political party you favor, I hope that you say a prayer for Mrs. Manford. For she loved prophetically. That is, she publicly expressed her love for a group of marginalized people before it was safe to do so. That kind of love might remind you of another person who worked in and around Galilee, publicly loving all sorts of people--lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, Gentiles, Roman centurions--when it was not safe to do so, at all.
When I read about Mrs. Manford's death (I hadn't known about her story at all until last night) I thought of yesterday's first reading, from the First Letter of St. John, which begins this way: "Beloved let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten of God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love."
There is a lot of talk about gays and lesbians these days. But in every thing we say and do, particularly for Christians, love must come first. And not the love that condemns first, or judges first, or labels first. But the love that loves first. Because God is love.
It is all the more important that Catholics lead with love precisely because we belong to a church that adheres to traditional teachings about sexuality and marriage. No one can ever mistake a respect for church teaching for a lack of charity toward our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, sometimes that happens and, just as unfortunately, sometimes we are the cause of that. That's why it's so important to remember Mrs. Manford's message--and Jesus'.
Fifteen years after Mrs. Manford's prophetic act of love, the US Catholic Bishops published their pastoral letter "Always Our Children," addressed to parents of homosexual children. "Love, too," wrote the bishops, "is the continuing story of every family's life. Love can be shared, nurtured, rejected, and sometimes lost. To follow Christ's way of love is the challenge before every family today. Your family now has an added opportunity to share love and to accept love. Our church communities are likewise called to an exemplary standard of love and justice."
May Jeanne Manford rest in peace, and may we always love prophetically, recklessly, prodigally, dangerously, eternally.