Thursday 7 October 2010

The Rosary for October: Subversive, Queer. (Repost)

May is Mary's month and I
Muse at that and wonder why?
Her feasts follow reason
Dated due to season:
Candlemas, Lady Day
But the Lady Month, May
Why fasten that upon her
With a feasting in her honour?

-Hopkins, the May Magnificat


Why, indeed?  For reasons I have never clearly understood, this is one of my favourite poems by the gay English Jesuit GM Hopkins,  which has stuck firmly in my memory since my school days.  ( It was note even one that I studied in school, but one I found in my own exploration of Hopkins work, inspired by those poems we did study. Apologies to GMH if my memory has failed me and I have misquoted him).

October too is a Marian month, and a time to be thinking particularly of the rosary.

The extract above, and that which follows, are taken from a post I wrote for October last year. The original post drew some encouraging comment, October is still the rosary month, and it is still useful to consider how we pray the rosary.  That alone makes it worth re-posting. However there is another reason to consider this afresh.

Last month, some weeks in advance of October and its rosary devotions, the original post drew a comment from the original developer of the Relational Mysteries, which raises some important questions, which I think are worth thinking about. Read the opening of the original post for a sense of the original, cross to the original if you like for the full original, read the comment after this excerpt,  read my response – and then consider your own reaction.



I enjoyed reading a reflection on his experience of the rosary by Michael J Iafrate at Catholic Anarchist.  Michael tells how the rosary was very much part of his schooling, but as an adult he moved away from praying the rosary - except at times of desperate need. My experience has been similar.  Marian devotions were very much a part of my education in Catholic schools - but less so, oddly, in high school, where I was taught by OMI priests (Oblates of Mary Immaculate) .  But as an adult, I have been less interested in the rosary, or other forms of fixed, verbal  prayer, than with different forms of spirituality, or more cerebral explorations of faith and its implications for living. But like Michael, I too have found myself praying the rosary at times of desperate need, even when I thought of myself as agnostic rather than Catholic.  It was at precisely at such a time, catching myself praying through the rosary to a God I thought I didn't believe in, that I began the process of returning to the Church.

I also appreciated Michael's observations of his experience studying theology:

As most Catholics who study theology will tell you, there is a certain crisis of faith that occurs somewhere along the line, a crisis of faith that comes from exposing one’s beliefs to new kinds of scrutiny and where it feels as though the floor has dropped out beneath you. The de/reconstruction process that often occurs in the course of theological study is somewhat terrifying at times, but can also be a profoundly liberating process, as it gives more opportunities to rediscover and reappropriate the faith of the Church as one’s own. It doesn’t take entrance into a theology program to experience this. All it takes is a serious commitment to enter into the reflectiveness of faith seeking understanding, a reflectiveness that all Christians are called to: all Christians should be, and are, theologians.

Of the Rosary, he describes his journey away from it as "a type of theological elitism that looks down on popular devotions."  (This was my attitude too, until that was rather shaken by experience of the stations of the cross while on retreat).  But he goes on to note he is rethinking his views of the Rosary, as his theology too is taking a new turn:

Some of it might have to do with another theological turn that I am  making — toward a recognition of the importance of popular religious practices as a source for theology, as Latino/a theologians and others are making increasingly clear. My interest in the theologies of marginalized peoples, for example, has impressed upon me that Our Lady of the Poor is also Our Lady of the Rosary.

(One of those Latina theologians is Marcella Althaus-Read, whose "Queer  God"  currently has me simultaneously fascinated, stimulated and perplexed .)

Reflecting further on his relationship with the rosary, he describes his continuing difficulties with the traditional form of the rosary, then presents the surprising observation that praying the rosary is "counter cultural" (because it is so out of step with the prevailing values and aspirations of American (or other Western) culture, then leads to discuss a new "subversive" rosary developed by the social activist Capuchin, Bro Vito.

His solution was to rethink the mysteries of the rosary in a way analogous to John Paul II’s introduction of a new set of christologically-focused mysteries to the rosary a few years back......In a similar way, and noting the Pope’s emphasis on the “freedom of individuals and communities” and respect for their needs, Br. Vito has developed a set of mysteries called the “Subversive Mysteries,” five events in the life of Christ that he finds particularly fruitful for reflection from the perspective of a Catholic engaged in social justice work. Each mystery includes a “fruit” for which one could pray for that mystery, as well as a prayerful reflection question.

(Read the rest of the original post, and the comments that it produced. )

Now read the comment by Eugene McMullan, the originator of the relational mysteries, who describes himself as “perplexed” at the response to them:

Hi everyone,
Here it is a year since the “queering the rosary” controversy erupted; I haven’t said much publicly in response, as I have been busy with marriage equality activism, and honestly, didn’t quite know how to respond. I was disturbed for two reasons, one being that the right used “queering the rosary” to effectively deflect attention from our criticism of the bishop and his anti-gay, anti-marriage activism [the demonstration the California Catholic reported on did not even involve praying the rosary, much less "queering" it]; and two, that our work has always been about social justice more broadly. I do not object to the use of “queering the rosary” to describe the Relational Mysteries for a particular audience (I used the term when co-teaching a course at MCC, and have never used it in my own RC context), but that is not my usual language. I began to develop the Relational Mysteries a few years ago when, as a practicing Roman Catholic layperson, I would pray with the rosary group on Sunday mornings at Most Holy Redeemer parish in San Francisco. Since then I have developed a Peace and Justice Rosary which includes Relational, Prophetic, and Incarnational Mysteries. To learn more  see my updated post at

McMullan says that he “didn’t quite know” how to respond, and nor do I. I think he and I share some common aims, but actions frequently have unintended consequences. In his case, these were that an approach that was designed for a broad reflection on social justice (hence the name, “relational”) was appropriated by another group for a specific focus on gay  / lesbian reflection, and conservative groups reacted in anger to the public expressions of this as “queering the rosary” (their expression, not mine, although it clearly fits well with my own blog title. What does this mean for me here at QTC, and my own use of words?

I believe that misappropriation and angry reaction to provocative new thinking are important – but should not discourage us from producing fresh thinking in the first place. We cannot be held responsible for the abuses and distortions of others.  I have myself seen some outraged reaction in some rule-book Catholic blogs to my own words, here and on my satellite sites, to the whole concept of “queering the church”, “queering scripture”, “queering theology” and “queering spirituality”. Is this entire process a useful one, or an offensive misappropriation?

McCallum says in his comment that he does not “object to the use of “queering the rosary” to describe the Relational Mysteries for a particular audience”, and also takes the opportunity to thank me for my support, so I take this as a sign that we are indeed on the same wavelength. My purpose in taking possession of the term “queering” here, is that I am writing for a specific audience, and attempting to take the several aspects of faith that can too easily be seen as unsympathetic and hostile to queer Christians, and present them in ways to counteract the poison – not by distorting the truth, but by correcting some existing distortions, offering alternative but valid interpretations, and by considering new approaches that are theologically sound and and also sympathetic to the many people who too easily feel themselves marginalized in the Church.

In focussing on a specific application of the relational mysteries, I was quite specifically addressing a clearly defined, particular audience, and also did try to make clear that the origin of the relational mysteries was the broader context of social justice generally. I was also thinking (but may not have made this clear) that I saw their value in the realm of personal prayer. I certainly do not endorse the appropriation of the rosary for political purposes as political demonstration.

I thank Eugene McCallum for his comment here, and welcome the opportunity it has given me to rethink and clarify for my readers precisely what I mean by “queering” the rosary, and the church, and the rest.

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