During the Easter season in 2013, the Lord gave me and many of the Catholic students at GW University an experience similar to that of the early Christians. It stemmed from a hot-button social issue: whether persons of the same sex could enter into marriage. This had been an intense issue on campus since I arrived as a chaplain in 2009, and the gay rights movement had been picking up serious steam nationally in a short amount of time, as you know. While we at the Newman Catholic Student Center had been inclusive and welcoming to persons of all orientations, we also represented the teachings of Christ and the Church. By the time April ’13 rolled around, we were well known on campus for defending traditional marriage.
When cases regarding same-sex “marriage” were going to the US Supreme Court, the school’s newspaper interviewed me. I said that marriage is between a man and a woman, and it’s not just the Church that says that, but nature, too. There was some push back in social media among GW students, but they were familiar with me and my positions by that point, so they weren’t surprised. A week later, on Easter Thursday, the same newspaper had a new story with the headline, “Two gay students mobilize to oust priest from campus.” Unbelievably, within a few hours, it went viral, and became a national story. I was actually invited to go on the Fox News “O’Reilly Factor” but declined. I had more than one chuckle at what was happening: it was like, “Catholic priest defends Church teaching…news at 11!”
For our students, it was a major dilemma. Would they stand with Christ or would they stand with the world? They defended their faith in Christ, their Catholic faith, and their chaplain in a very strong and beautiful way. It was actually amazing. But, as you can well imagine, they were persecuted and took some heat for it from their family (even Catholic parents) and friends. They chose Christ over the secular world, and stepped into His shoes for a time. “If the world hates you, realize it hated me first.”
At the same time, though, there was tremendous joy in our community. We had been close as a community before this, but we were even more united as a family of believers. And, the timing on the liturgical calendar (Easter season) meant that we heard about the early Christians in the Acts of the Apostles when we came together for daily Mass. They were persecuted immensely – many to the point of death – because they stood up for their faith in Christ. And yet, Acts repeatedly comments on the joy of first century Christians. “There broke out a severe persecution of the Church…there was great joy.” (Acts 8:1,8). We were right there with them!
Two footnotes to the story. First, Cardinal Wuerl came directly from the election of Pope Francis in Rome to celebrate Mass with our community to show his support. That was huge! Second, one of the two gay students apologized to me a year later, and we have gotten together a few times in the past two years. I knew both of the students well, and still love them like spiritual sons. I thank Almighty God who gave the Church at GW truly paschal joy, an experience of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.
May you know the peace of the risen Christ,