(Edmonton Journal) - My Ukrainian Catholic faith has been a significant cornerstone in the life of me and my family, but I had been pulling away from my faith over the past few years, mostly out of fear I would not feel welcome expressing my authentic self.
Greek Catholic Bp. David (Motiuk)
I am a transgender woman. Weeks before I came out last year to the rest of the world, I met the bishop — at his invitation — for another in a long line of very important conversations. I later talked to our priest. From my personal journal dated Jan. 29, 2014, this is how part of that conversation went.
“Will we still be welcome to practise our faith as we always have in the church?” I asked.
The bishop replied: “My answer is an overwhelming yes. As a church, we need to be welcoming to all. We are taught to show kindness and compassion for each other. The church is not a ‘what,’ but a ‘who.’ As humans, we don’t always get it right. You may experience some resistance and negativity, whether in church or anywhere in your life, for many reasons besides even being transgender — as I’m sure you already very well know. But you should feel welcome in your church. You are welcome.”
Asked if I would be denied Holy Communion, he responded with this quote from Pope Francis, of whom he’s obviously a huge fan: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, it is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” It is not intended to be a reward for the perfect, and no person is, but it is a means to bring us closer to God. Much like the popular reception to Vatican II, the current Pope's words are being repurposed to match an agenda that I don't think was the original intent. This thinking is an open door to popular reception of the Eucharist by anyone who wants it no matter what spiritual state they may be in. Denying someone communion is not an easy thing to do, but sometimes the doctor administering the "powerful medicine" knows that the communicant is not prepared to receive It.
In the Ukrainian church, the funeral is very gender-specific. When I asked how I will be referred to during my burial, I was told: “Well, after March 21, you will be Marni and we will call you a she.” Feel free to reread that line. I did.
Finally, it was his turn to ask a question. “How can we, the church, support you and your family?”
I didn’t have an answer as I honestly didn’t expect the question. I paused, then cried. When I could, I said: “By you even asking the question, you are already supporting me in a most meaningful way.”
He asked if I would send him any information about being transgender so he could learn more himself and support other clergy or church members who might come to him with questions or concerns. Then he walked us out the door, offered a prayer for us and we hugged.
We spent just over an hour together in a conversation that was insightful, respectful and enjoyable. He was most kind, considerate and compassionate. He showed great leadership, considerable wisdom, humility and even humour. He modelled humanity in the way I believe it should be. Read: he agreed with me so he's great.
There is still much work to be done. I’m reminded that no one person speaks for the entire church. Some may disagree with the bishop, some may not. This is true anywhere in my life and I have come to accept this. I understand that not everyone has had or will have such an experience in their own church, and that makes me sad. So it reminds me how important these conversations are, and how we must continue to have them. For the first time in a long time, my faith grew. There are quite a few situations I'd spare my flock if I could. Not ever experience needs experiencing.
As we sat in our vehicle, reflecting on the conversation, I wiped away tears. Since this journey began, I finally allowed myself to believe that I will be OK. We will be OK. We are OK.
Soon after, our priest visited our home. We discussed many things, but when it came to my being a transgender woman, he left us with the words: “I do not understand this, but we will walk this journey together.” And he has.
By my priest and bishop modelling what my Catholic faith has taught me, our parish has been overwhelmingly kind, accepting and welcoming of our entire family. Our son recently completed his first communion. During his first Holy Communion class, his instructor said, “OK, boys and girls, bring your moms and dads — or your moms — up to pray.” We are active members of our church community. We go regularly, and are made to feel welcome. I often say that we do not need our spiritual leaders to give us permission to be kind and compassionate to each other, but it sure helps when they model it.
I pray that others of our faith, the leaders in our church and those elected to govern our children’s education have their hearts and minds touched by God, and that they find the same kindness, love and compassion that the part of the Catholic Church I’m able to call home has for me and my family.
Marni Panas is from a small town in Alberta and was designated male at birth, named Marcel. On International Human Rights Day, she won a humanitarian award from Edmonton’s John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights.