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Full of Grace, a Catholic Docudrama

Cast members of Full of Grace on stage
Full of Grace, Philadelphia, 2015. Cast members Terry Gleeson, Rhonda Moore , Russ Widdall, Mark Knight, Maria Wolf, Sarah Gardner, Dwayne Alistair Thomas, David Hutchinson, and James Mercer. Photo by Alex Jacobi.
The poster for Full of Grace. Photo courtesy of Henrik Eger. 

Millions of Americans gave Pope Francis a most enthusiastic welcome during his visit to the United States this past September. But in spite of the great respect for Pope Francis and his visionary new approach, it became clear that the Catholic hierarchy is still keeping many doors shut. According to Religion News Service, “Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput barred LGBT Catholics from holding a workshop at a Catholic parish near the event” (Sept. 25, 2015).

Similarly, the program in the index of the huge World Meeting of Families convention in Philadelphia did not list any films for LGBT Catholics, except Desire of the Everlasting Hills, which promotes an asexual life for gays and lesbians. The Catholic conference featured only one LGBT session, given by Ron Belgau, a celibate gay man and his mother. Thousands of people showed up for this event, but without explanations, several thousand people were told that they had to leave the large hall and, instead, go to “another room capable of seating only about 1,000. Hundreds of others were turned away, the doors shut on them by convention center officials citing fire code regulations” (Religion News Service).

Religion News Service investigated: “When asked about the rejections [of LGBT-oriented meetings and performances], Chaput, a leader of the US hierarchy’s conservative wing, said ‘we don’t want to provide a platform at the meeting for people to lobby for a position contrary to the life of our church.’ Chaput also backed the recent firing of Margie Winters, a much loved lesbian teacher, from a Catholic school run by nuns, saying the move “showed character and common sense.”

Why do I stay in the Catholic Church? Because I have hope. Because I have seen [gay] people wrestle with their faith and die in the arms of their faith… That kind of witness to grace keeps me involved, wanting to help the church be all that it can be.

The power of the Catholic hierarchy, in spite of the new Pope’s progressive stance, is so strong that to this day, Dignity, America’s largest organization for LGBT Catholics, “is still not allowed to meet in Catholic parishes, and LGBT groups have been barred from meeting in parishes this week in Philly, too,” according to Robert Choiniere, producer of Full of Grace, a new interview-based play.

Archbishop Chaput and the organizers of the World Meeting of Families would probably not be thrilled to learn that Full of Grace (created by Robert Choiniere and Scott Barrow and performed by eight Philadelphia actors) September 22–25, 2015, hit like a succession of grenades that went off at Philadelphia’s historic Episcopalian Christ Church.

LGBT Theatre through the Theological Backdoor
In a conversation with Choiniere, I asked whether their play was rejected by Catholic institutions because of its upfront LGBT content, Choiniere explained, “We have never been barred, but we have been very selective about where we go and who we approach about presenting the work. Mostly, in a Catholic setting, this [docudrama] could be staged as an academic offering of theology departments on Catholic campuses without much controversy, I believe. We were hosted by St. Francis College [Brooklyn] and Fordham University [Bronx], so Catholic institutions have sponsored us and others have shown interest.”

On opening night in Philadelphia, a few days before the Pope arrived, quite a few Catholic priests and influential church administrators told the audience in a discussion after the play how unnatural and difficult it is to deny one’s own sexuality. Afterwards, they shared that they now live in happy relationships with their gay life mates.

“Where There is Love There is God”
This docudrama owes its existence to the vision of the late Bishop Joseph Sullivan of Brooklyn, whose mission, he said, was to serve “the hurting people of society.” In 2012 Bishop Sullivan approached producer Robert Choiniere and playwright Scott Barrow to create a docudrama on LGBT Catholics and their families as a way to initiate a dialogue “about inclusion and exclusion, self-acceptance and shame.” They fulfilled that dream and hit a raw nerve with the audience at Philadelphia’s historic Episcopal Christ Church. Bishop Sullivan’s vision of a play based on the experience of LGBT Catholics of all ages and his belief that “where there is love there is God” is rapidly evolving in each new and updated version of this docudrama.

Full of Grace made that love come alive in moving ways, but not without confronting us with the hell that many LGBT Catholics are going through with judgmental employers, who kick highly respected professionals out of their jobs; hostile, self-satisfied parents, who condemn their children; and hypocritical church leaders who claim from the pulpit, week after week, that their way of living is the only way of existing, driving others into despair and even suicide.

Full of Grace made us angry, made us cry. However, we also heard humorous, liberating experiences that made the audience laugh—perhaps making up for tears and devastating experiences that the actors presented with great authenticity.

Catholic Voices: Full of Grace, Full of Disgrace
Below a few examples from the docudrama, based on hundreds of revealing interviews with Catholics from the LGBT community in North America:

  • “Catholics as a whole are generally represented as being very bigoted. I don't think that's the case.”
  • “I came in and confessed that I was in a gay relationship. I didn’t know what the priest would say, and I was afraid he was going to tell me I was going to rot in hell. Instead he said, David, it doesn’t matter to God who you love, it matters to Him that you love. That moment changed my entire understanding of myself, my love, and my God.”
  • “They actually tried to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at my high school and one of my teachers was like: Why do you need a Gay Straight Alliance? We already have a Drama Club!”
  • “He came out to us at 24, late one night, sitting on the edge of my bed. He said, ‘Mom, you have asked about my love life. I think I found someone.’ And I said, ‘What’s his name?’ He said, ‘You knew?’ And I said, ‘You didn’t?’”
  • “Why do I stay in the Catholic Church? Because I have hope. Because I have seen [gay] people wrestle with their faith and die in the arms of their faith, comforted in the knowledge that they have lived the good life, fought the good fight. That kind of witness to grace keeps me involved, wanting to help the church be all that it can be—impacting future generations of young Catholics—trying to live as authentic and grace-filled lives as they can.”
  • “It's ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’ And that was our introduction to how Catholics deal with homosexuality.”
  • “It would be a lot easier in life to be straight. Why would anyone choose to make it difficult?”
  • “I was in the seminary. I wanted to be a priest, and I wanted to be a good priest. I denied it. I struggled with it, but I still felt this attraction. I never acted out in any way. Never did anything. Never even masturbated as a teenager. I was almost asexual.”
  • “I entered the major seminary at the age of 22 [and] fell in love with one of my classmates. With him I had my first sexual experience. That was, that was . . . wonderful, but terrifying . . . I was extremely conflicted. Ran to confession as soon as I could.”
  • “It’s hard to be gay and Catholic—it’s hard to be anything and Catholic.”
  • “The number of times I heard gay, faggot, queer, and homo; and we heard it from teachers and from staff and other students, seventy times in one day. I counted. How can you not think that this is something that's bad? How can you not think that this is something that's sinful?”
  • “I was still studying to be a priest. I went to visit my provincial who was an old Irishman, and I said, ‘I think I am a gay man.’ He said, ‘That’s alright. We have a number of men in the community who are gay, not in itself a problem.’ I said, ‘But I don’t think I can live a celibate life.’ He said, ‘In that case, get the hell outta here’—which I did.”
  • “I am an Eagle Scout and was kicked out the moment I turned 18. My scoutmaster stopped me at the door and asked me to remove myself from the premises. I did, and I have never gone back. To add insult to injury, about a year ago I ran into my scoutmaster at a gay bar. I looked at him, shook my head, and walked away. Then I went to grad school.”
  • “My father had been in the service and he actually owned guns. When I was going to a high school reunion, it came out that [my girlfriend] Dava was coming with me. I said [to my father], ‘You know I am a lesbian. We should've talked about this a lot sooner.’ He hung up and wrote that he was going to kill Dava.”
  • “I dated Andrew, but it started getting difficult about a month or two into the relationship because he started getting really depressed. There was a lot of abuse from his dad. I thought I could like fix it, but I found out about him cutting himself one day. He finally came to the conclusion that there was no way he could tell his family or anyone else who he really was, and he realized that yes, he was gay. And because he had heard that his father had [called him] an abomination, he decided that his only solution was to end his life. He ended up stabbing himself, right in the heart. They took him to the OR, but it was just too late. He passed away that next week.”

Liberating Theatre, or “Just Another Voice in a Relativistic Pageant of Voices”?
At the end of the performance, long and enthusiastic applause greeted the actors and the Catholics whom they represented. Long discussions took place with the audience about the play and how it could become even stronger. Choiniere shared that while many priests in New York have been very supportive, there are also some “priests who questioned the validity of juxtaposing official Church teaching and personal experience.” They feared that “the audience would confuse Church teaching as just another voice in a relativistic pageant of voices.” Choiniere and Barrow believe that “We mitigated this concern by citing official teaching whenever it appears in the play.”

Choiniere affirmed that “Full of Grace provides a forum to engage personal experience, official teaching, as well as more progressive forms of theological discourse.” Strongly believing in the power of theatre, Choiniere concluded, “If the play can help develop the conversation in new ways and help others see the variety of religious experience in the lives of marginalized Catholics as a gift to the Church, then I believe it does serve the Church and the Gospel in a way that no other medium has been able to offer to date.” 

Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan, the spiritual visionary and catalyst behind Full of Grace: Journeys of LGBT Catholics, worked on behalf of the poor and downtrodden for Catholic Charities in Brooklyn and Queens. He served as chairman of the Social Development and World Peace Department of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. His work often brought him in touch with the city’s most frail, neglected and impoverished citizens.

Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan. Photo courtesy of Henrik Eger.

Scott Barrow, playwright of Full of Grace, and a teaching company member of the famous Tectonic Theater Project (TTP) since 2005, is an actor and collaborator on such projects as 33 Variations, the tour of The Laramie Project, and The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later. In his own work, he used the company’s technique of Moment Work to write and develop several pieces, including Outcasts: The Lepers on Penikese Island, Equally Blessed, and Full of Grace. Barrow holds an MFA in Acting, Writing, Directing, and Teaching from Brandeis University. As an actor, Scott has performed extensively in New York and regionally.

Scott in rehearsal
Scott Barrow. Photo courtesy of  Henrik Eger.

Robert Choiniere, the theological driving force and producer of Full of Grace, has worked on the Parish Pastoral Council Development and Pastoral Planning in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, before moving to New York, where he has served as the Director of the Office of Pastoral Planning of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn since 2006. Choiniere holds a BA in Theology and an MA in Pastoral Ministry. In addition to his Diocesan responsibilities, he is also the managing director of Stages on the Sound, a nonprofit Shakespearean theatre company.

A man smiling at the camera
Robert Choiniere. Photo courtesy of  Henrik Eger.



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