Bishop Robert McElroy supported outreach program for gay Catholics. CNS photo/David Maung

Robert Brehl: Persecution hits close to home

By 
  • January 15, 2019

Over the Christmas season, one story after another that I read or watched seemed to indicate Christianity is under siege around the world.

In China, the government stepped up its crackdown and shut down churches, confiscated Bibles and arrested hundreds of Christians, including Wang Yi, a legal scholar and pastor at the Early Rain Covenant Church.

In India, Hindu extremists highjacked buses carrying 200 school children to Christmas services claiming the youngsters were being forcefully converted and abused by pastors, the religious watchdog International Christian Concern (ICC) reported.

In Africa, Christians are being targeted and brutalized from Algeria to Cameroon, Tanzania to Nigeria and beyond. 

In the Middle East, Egypt inaugurated one of the largest cathedrals in the region on Jan. 6, just a day after a deadly bomb blast targeted a church in Cairo. Christians across the entire Middle East have been persecuted for decades.

We could go on and on about the persecution of Christians around the world. But a story from The New York Times between Christmas and New Year’s jumped out at me for a couple of reasons.

First, it occurred in Western society, specifically the United States, where religious freedoms are guaranteed and protected, unlike so many other parts of the world. Second, instead of others attacking Christians, it highlights a growing schism within the Catholic Church.

It is a story about a man named Aaron Bianco, who studied to become a priest, but chose another path ultimately. Bianco is a layman who was the office manager of St. John the Evangelist Church in San Diego, California.

According to The Times, not long ago St. John the Evangelist was a dwindling church with typically only 40 people at Sunday Mass, no weddings or baptisms scheduled and no Catholic education classes. But with the blessing of then pastor John P. Dolan, now an auxiliary bishop in San Diego, and Bishop Robert McElroy, Bianco began an outreach program to revive the church in 2016.

He and Dolan met with community leaders, left fliers at homes and apartments and preached openness and inclusivity for anyone who wished to join the congregation. New parishioners were urged to form choirs and sing at Mass. More and more people were checking the church out.

Within six months, the pews were filling up, including many young families, especially Hispanics. And since St. John the Evangelist is located in the heart of San Diego’s largest gay neighbourhood, many new congregants came from the LGBT community, too.

“St. John the Evangelist is one of about 300 Catholic parishes around the country that quietly welcome gay Catholics,” according to The Times, adding that the Church teaches same-sex relationships are sinful, but growing pockets around the U.S. have accepted openly gay parishioners and staff members.

The problems began when it became known that Bianco is gay, and they intensified last summer with the U.S. sex abuse revelations within the Church — although credible experts are convinced rates of child molestation are no higher among homosexuals than heterosexuals.

St. John the Evangelist was broken into and in large yellow letters in the conference room was spray-painted “No Fags.” 

Two weeks before, someone tried to set the sanctuary doors ablaze. Someone took a swing at Bianco and he routinely received threatening anonymous phone calls. He’d find angry notes under his car’s windshield wipers and came out one day to see all four tires punctured.

“They keep on saying that I have an agenda, but the only agenda I had was to bring people to Christ,” Bianco told The Times

“I know that sounds kind of hokey, but that’s why I started this work. I do believe that everyone is welcome.”

To quote a Christ-loving, holy man who famously commented on homosexuality: “Who am I to judge?” The same can be said about these belligerent and threatening acts against Bianco by these so-called traditionalist Catholics: who am I to judge? 

Fearing for his safety, Bianco resigned before Christmas. Bishop McElroy printed this on the front of the church bulletin after reluctantly accepting Bianco’s resignation: “There is nothing Christian or Catholic about the hateful and vile people whose persecution of Aaron Bianco drove him from his ministry.”

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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