What can a 70-year-old priest learn from a sex worker?


O’ happy spring — which, in old English, means Lent.

In the eight-day news cycle, I have seen five different articles on the spectacle that was the funeral and desperdida at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in New York of Cecelia Gentile.

She was an Argentinean sparkplug and public activist for transgender persons and their rights in the United States. This raucous celebration occurred on the day after Ash Wednesday — known for its austere shock value in a different way.

It is eerily ironical that “religion” — and its sideshows — only seem to get noticed when there is controversy. This is not healthy, as by any definition, both religion and sexuality are multi-layered, and they do take time to understand.

As an ordained diocesan priest ordained at Saint Pat’s 44 years ago, these are my personal reflections. Hopefully, they may even lead to nuanced conversations online — or even, preferably, in-person.

First of all, deaths cry out for compassion and some kind of expressive release through ritual. To be clear, there seemed to have been a snafu in the inner workings of the cathedral. The change to the Liturgy of the Word — which can be both important and welcoming — was announced only an hour before the service was to begin. This was not to be a Mass, which has more solemn expectations.

Usually, in all parishes that I have served, there is a sincere attempt to gather as much information on the life of the deceased and their loved ones. Most ministers value the time with the bereaved, as the preparatory conversations touch upon the sharings of memories. Which are the ones to be shared — or not — and which  are the preferred Scripture readings and songs? 

This sacred conversation centers on the needs of the hurting family and friends, and how their life touches’ intertwines, or keeps a distance from the larger mega-faith traditions of their journeys.

Of course, folks are spread out nowadays. Even with Zoom, it more difficult to get a “good read” on “who is the deceased, really?” let alone, “Who is the Higher Power that the survivors are dealing with — or keeping a distance from?”

Obviously, there is even more opaqueness involved when the deceased is a larger-than-life figure, which Cecelia clearly was.

In the background, or with a very real emotional urgency, a religious celebration of any kind stirs up the mud that “there is something greater than Solomon here … or Queen Sheba … or Cleopatra!”

We in the receiving church are serving as a religious reminder. We are often dealing with folks who have not been in church or synagogue since their confirmation, or bar/bat mitzvah.

This is where song and testimony come in. 

Songs do stir up the emotions, and we all come to wakes, celebrations of life, and funerals with a many feelings, including guilt as part of the stew. What then does it mean “to pay respects?”

With all that going on, we really do have a huge gap between the traditional morality of the mainstream religions and the so-called sexual minorities, which are clearly more aggressively vocal now than when we were growing up. Certainly, the ubiquitous nature of the media has acerbated this significant and painful division.

My own prayer that this latest explosion around such a sexually charged and explosive spiritual event like the burial of a trans person could be a blessing in disguise.

Fundamentally, religion — and society — can and does evolve!

Back in the 1990s, there was a real shaking up of church decorum at Saint Patrick’s itself, which is proud of its iconic status among Catholic churches. An aggressive branch of homosexuals in Act-Up threw condoms at Cardinal John O’Connor in the cathedral. This protest group was very angry at the perceived rejection by the diocese and the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade Committee of the LGBTQ+ participation in the parade.

The committee for the parade is distinct from the cathedral, and just as only one night of collections go to the parish associated with the San Genaro festival in Little Italy, there are many layers of the church world that get conflated.

Sad to say, anger and resentment abounds in and around the Body of Christ — and other religions.

However, change happens.

While doctrine may not seem to change, habits and blessings do.

Now, we all know that the LGBTQ+ group is well represented as it marches past Saint Patrick’s Cathedral with its doors open. Historically, they are doing what has always been full participation in the Dublin version of the parade, where their Float of Fairies often wins the best-decorated display.

This March — and this has been done only in the last few years — families with  LGBTQ+ members proudly march in the Saint Barnabas parade in a still-Irish enclave and working-class parish in the north Bronx.

The times are a-changing, and the church need not act like a traffic cop shouting out rules and standing for rigidity to an uninterested world! What’s the good in doing that?

So, the often loud, brusque music of the physically deceased sex-worker, Cecilia, still is heard, and cajoles the institutional church to go beyond its liturgical smugness and reach out to the unwashed.

We, who often did not even hear of her or her many friends in the past, cannot avoid her anymore. She is in our face this Lent — and beyond.

What do we do to create a new future for her, and with her?

The author is an ordained priest for 44 years, serving in campus ministry with CUNY

James Sheehan Jr.