“We became priests to bless people, not to curse them”, a Spanish priest has explained of his LGBTQ outreach.
– “If I met a priest who refuses to bless two people of the same sex, I would tell him to go to the bishop and resign”
Preferring to get around in a suit and a red tie with unbuttoned shirt – a look that has made him instantly recognisable in Spain – the “cassock” part of the film title might not perfectly fit ‘Padre Ángel’, but the “renegade” part certainly does.
Padre Ángel has turned San Antón into one of Spain’s most well-known churches, with its comfortable chairs instead of pews, free coffee and meals for the needy, internet and mobile phone charging, televisions, a social service hotline staffed by an army of volunteers and its 24/7 ministry to the poor, homeless and marginalised.
San Antón, also known as the “Church of the Poor”, is situated in the heart of Madrid’s Chueca LGBTQ district. As such, and given Padre Ángel’s conviction that nobody can be excluded from God’s love on the basis of social status, wealth, race, or sexuality, the church also enjoys a positive relationship with the local rainbow community.
That relationship includes Padre Ángel’s willingness to accompany and even to bless gay couples, should they request it. As the priest explained to DW:
“Our church is vibrant. It is more about life than death. We became priests to bless people, not to curse them. And if I met a priest who refuses to bless two people of the same sex who are in love, I would tell him to go to the bishop and resign. Because that same person would be prepared to bless medals, cars or even buildings”.
– A lesbian decries Catholic exclusion: “Many people suffer because of the Church”
Although Padre Ángel reneged on permission he initially gave DW to film him blessing a gay couple coinciding with Christopher Street Day, a European pride celebration, the documentary did tell the story of friends and lesbians Bea and María, and of their impressions of San Antón.
Bea is a devout Catholic, but María has left the Church, convinced that being a lesbian rules out being a Catholic.
“My stepfather is very religious. He would never accept my liking women”, María told DW.
She added: “Many people suffer because of the Church, because it is not a place for coming together, a place of faith. It excludes people. Kind of along the lines of: If you don’t follow our rules, we don’t want you in our club”.
“I think the church plays a very important role in maintaining the status quo”, María continued.
“It’s always the men who occupy positions of power in the Church. The women are always in the second row. Even the Bible states that menstruation was a punishment because Eve had persuaded Adam to eat the forbidden fruit in Paradise. In the Bible everyone is always massacring each other. But who’s the evil one? It’s Eve!”
On the other hand, devout Catholic Bea said she is “proud of being a Christian and of helping others”.
“I like that. When you’re lonely, or feeling bad, or if you have a health problem, you can find support and relief in the Church. You can be free here. It’s liberating”, Bea continued.
– Another finds a new place to volunteer: “My faith is about helping your neighbour”
After visiting San Antón to watch a football match, Bea and María swapped opinions on the parish and the Church’s role in society.
Bea didn’t appreciate the informal atmosphere in the parish during the game, and said it was “disrespectful” that people were eating and drinking in the church. “A church is a place for prayer, for contemplation — and for nothing else”, she insisted.
Nonetheless, Bea expressed her desire to return to San Antón to volunteer there, since, as she explained, “my faith is about helping your neighbour – regardless of sexual orientation”.
María, on the other hand, was not convinced, and said she wouldn’t go back.
“Because you can be a good person without doing good in the Catholic church’s sense”, she explained. “I am good – but not because I’m afraid of ending up in hell if I weren’t. I have empathy for my fellow humans. That’s why I am a good person. I don’t need faith for that”.
Even if María wasn’t persuaded, at least she and Bea, like many other LGBTQ people in Chueca, felt welcome in San Antón.
And as DW noted, that unconditional welcome for all is a big reason why Padre Ángel’s idea of an open church “could be a promising model for other places”.