PETER FROST looks into an interesting story buried for so long in Catholic history.
Despite the Vatican’s rabid homophobia today, with persecution of gay priests and bishops as well as its campaigning against same-sex unions and marriage, the church actually has a rich history of gay players in its colourful history.
As it’s Christmas let’s start with Good King Wenceslas, who as everyone knows went out on the Feast of Stephen when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
This Czech saint was declared king of Bohemia after a domestic coup.
He didn’t rule for long before he was killed by his jealous brother Boleslas. Wenceslas asked for forgiveness for his murderer as his dying wish. A saintly act indeed.
So what’s the story in the famous carol? The king went out on a frosty night with his page to collect logs.
His page Podiven had no shoes but the saintly king simply commanded him to walk in his royal footprints.
Miraculously the footprints proved hot and the page’s feet stayed warm and toasty “where the saint had treaded”.
Podiven, church history relates, was the most trustworthy and closest of all the king’s many young pages. But it seems he was bit special in the king’s affections.
The earliest accounts of Wenceslas’s life mention this close relationship with the page, who is described as a chamber valet to the king.
Wenceslas, it seems, used to wake his page in the middle of the night to join him in doing ‘charitable works.’
After the king’s murder Podiven was certainly overcome by grief.
Eventually Wenceslas’s brother had Podiven killed to stop him from spreading stories of the saintly Wenceslas and the page’s undying love for him.
Podiven’s slaughtered body, legend has it, remained incorrupt despite being hung outdoors on a gibbet for over three years.
Both Wenceslas and his beloved Podiven are buried side by side at St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague.
Now meet Sergius_and_Bacchus one of the best-known gay couples in Christian history. They were third-century Roman soldiers who are commemorated as martyrs by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churchs.
Church history tells us the two were officers in Galerius’s army, and were held high in his favour until they were exposed as secret Christians. They were tortured and beheaded.
The close friendship between the two was legendary in church records, making them one of the best-known examples of paired saints.
This closeness has led many historians to suggest that their relationship was a romantic homosexual one – common and totally acceptable in the Roman army – making Sergius and Bacchus great heroes in today’s gay Christian community.
Lastly let’s look at a more modern and more tragic story.
In 2010 Pope Benedict honoured the 19th-century English theologian cardinal John Henry Newman with beatification – the first step to eventual sainthood.
Newman was a good signing, as they say in the Premier League.
He was a leading Church of England cleric and writer who, in the ferment of discontent with the established church in 1845, jumped the Anglican ship and joined the Church of Rome.
His lifelong partner Ambrose St John went with him.
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has made a study of Newman’s homosexual orientation.
"Newman and St John were mentally and spiritually in love, sharing a long-term same-sex relationship.
"They were inseparable. They lived together for over 30 years, like a married husband and wife,” says Tatchell.
“Newman wrote in his diary about Ambrose’s love for him: ‘From the first he loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable.’ He later added: ‘As far as this world was concerned, I was his first and last’,” added Tatchell.
Reflecting on St John’s death, Newman stated: “This is the greatest affliction I have had in my life … he was my earthly light.”
Cardinal Newman and Ambrose St John were buried side-by-side in the same grave when Newman died in 1890.
It was what Newman wanted. He wrote to his executors shortly before his death, stating emphatically: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St John’s grave – and I give this as my last, my imperative will.”
Prior to making Newman a saint and to clean up his image in its eyes, the Vatican sought to suppress knowledge of Newman’s relationship with St John.
In 2011 – against Newman’s direct instructions – it ordered that his grave be dug up to separate the two men and to turn Newman’s bones into holy relics.
However, the grave was empty. His remains had fully decomposed. The Vatican’s heartless plans were defeated by worms and decay.
The Vatican propaganda machine has gone out of its way to rubbish claims that Newman was gay. As a cardinal and deeply devout Catholic, they say he would never have a gay relationship.
This is nonsense. Thousands of Catholics including priests, bishops, cardinals and even saints are or were gay.
The Catholic hierarchy denies Newman’s homosexuality in the same way that it denies the existence of thousands of gay clerics.
The Vatican has form for lying and suppressing the truth. It lied, for example, when it claimed that condoms had tiny holes through which the HIV virus could pass.
Down the ages, lots of clergy have had gay relationships.
Many are in long-term gay relationships. Why should anyone be surprised by the suggestion that Cardinal Newman too was gay?
Perhaps we should look to Newman’s memorial stone at Birmingham Oratory for clues.
It has this Latin inscription.
“Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem” – from shadow and images into truth.
Was this Newman and Ambrose St John finally “coming out”?
This article first appeared in the Christmas Eve edition of the Morning Star in 2012.