Sunday, October 5, 2008

I'll Fly Away: Newman's Exhumation and the Saint's Miracle

So, they’ve dug up Cardinal John Henry Newman.

And nothing’s there—a few tidbits of brass, wood, and cloth, but no body (, thanks to Whispers in the Loggia blog at Nada. Zilch.

As readers know, I’ve been following this story with interest, because of Newman’s express written request that he be buried beside his lifelong companion Ambrose St. John (,,,,

As I’ve noted in previous postings, Rome requested the exhumation of Newman’s body to facilitate his veneration at a new shrine in the Birmingham oratory. The decision to violate Newman’s burial wishes and remove him from his resting place beside St. John has struck some commentators as explicitly homophobic.

The removal of Newman’s body is in preparation for his canonization. In the view of commentators such as human rights activist Peter Tatchell, in separating Newman from St. John, Rome hopes to deflect attention from their relationship, and from Newman’s gay sexual orientation.

Because I share Tatchell’s suspicion that the decision to exhume Newman’s body depends on more than a little ugly homophobia, I’m astonished—and, I confess, delighted—at the unexpected discovery that the body is gone. Vanished. Totally decomposed, it seems.

I see rich significance here. The church will not leave us alone in life. When it can do so, it makes life hellacious for us—defining our personhood and our relationships as intrinsically disordered, making us the exclusive focus of attempts to bar “public sinners” from communion, cooperating with diabolical social forces that try to violate our fundamental human rights (as in the attempt, supported by the Knights of Columbus and Catholic bishops of California, to remove the right to marry from gay couples in California), etc.

In a world in which the institution that claims to be a sacramental sign of God’s redemptive love for the entire world signifies hellacious torment to many gay persons, it is a comfort to know that in death, at least, we are beyond the reach of those who profess to embody the love of God.

That is, it was a comfort to know this, until the church announced oh so cavalierly (and oh so callously) that it intended to violate Newman’s final wishes and dig up his body. That decision seemed to many of us to signify that the church will not leave us alone even in death—that the church will not respect us even after we draw our last breaths, and will continue to violate our humanity even when we lie in our graves, as it violates our humanity while we try simply to make our way through life with dignity and self-respect as the carriers of the Christian message of God’s salvific love for all make our lives living hell.

So Newman has vanished. He is beyond the reach of the church and its ministers. He will not yield his body to be enshrined at the Birmingham oratory. Its atoms have dissolved into the same earth that presumably has absorbed the atoms of St. John’s body. They lie mingled in the cemetery at Rednal in which Newman asked that he be buried beside St. John.

Surely there is a lesson here. And a strong one.

It is most of all a lesson to the church to stop the torment. I imagine Newman speaking now from the grave—speaking as the powerful spirit released by the dissolution of his mortal remains—and saying to the church in which he held high office: Stop. Stop preaching love when you practice hate. Stop calling the world to justice when you yourself practice egregious injustice.

Stop telling people to respect and defend human rights when you refuse to defend the rights of a persecuted minority. Stop trampling on gay people and gay love. Turn yourself around—be converted—and begin celebrating authentic love wherever it is to be found.

Hear the Spirit that lives within the Christian community and learn to discern real love when it stares you in the face: love that is patient and kind; love that is self-giving and generous; love that builds up the Christian community and human communities. That love is present in many gay relationships and in millions of gay lives. In stigmatizing it, in trampling it into the ground, the church stigmatizes and tramples into the ground divine gifts. In rejecting gay love, the church rejects the God who is the author of all love.

These are some of the messages I hear Newman speaking from his empty grave. I wonder if the church will be listening, too?

Perhaps the miracle Newman can now work to justify his canonization is to call the church to repentance for its ugly sins of homophobia. Starting from the top down, from the pope to the cardinals and bishops to the people of God.

What a miracle that would be, a miracle worthy of a real saint. A miracle worthy of a gay saint whose exhumation demonstrates to the world that not even the church can succeed in thwarting his final wish to remain united in death as in life to the man he loved throughout his life.

That's the miracle I'll celebrate if God gives me the grace to go to Rednal and venerate this saint at the final resting place of his human remains.