Growing up, I attended a lovely Catholic grade school named for the man called “Hitler’s pope.” To be fair not all—or even most—historians refer to the controversial pontiff Pius XII by this provocative moniker. But it is telling that in the sacred bubble of my school I had no idea its namesake was reviled by anyone.
For some, Pius is hailed as the hero who secretly saved the lives of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. For others, he is the cowardly politician who failed to speak out due to fear. In many ways, Eugenio Pacelli embodies the tension I feel about my Catholic faith. It is both the saving grace and the greatest challenge of my life. It is this constant internal tension that led me to write “The Chalice.”
I wrote this play because I was—I am—struggling with my faith.
“The Chalice” is the story of Alex, a formerly Catholic gay man, and his deeply religious sister, Angela, who inherit a relic of Pope Pius XII. Because of their contrasting relationships with the church and their vastly different interpretations of Pius’s legacy, they are thrown into a struggle over the object’s fate. Should the chalice be enshrined in a place of honor or should it be discarded and sold? Ultimately, Angela and Alex have to decide if and how they can heal their fractured relationship. And they have to decide what role, if any, their religion will play in that healing.
I wrote this play because I was—I am—struggling with my faith. The question is not whether I ought to be Catholic but rather: How ought I to be Catholic? What kind of Catholic am I to be? How can I continue to nurture my relationship with God, a relationship anchored in the church, but also acknowledge that I want change?
This is what I planned to write about: what happens when we, as Catholics, isolate, shame and abuse our L.G.B.T. brothers and sisters.
This friction created a spark, and that spark was art.
I do not wish to delve into an analysis of the church’s teaching on homosexuality. Suffice it to say that I have witnessed the pain of my gay and lesbian loved ones, and it troubles me deeply. I have also seen the trauma caused to gays by individual Catholics who have misunderstood the language of the catechism—who have taken it to read that gays and lesbians are defective. Many parishes do little to clarify the true meaning of the church’s teaching, allowing blatant homophobia to persist.
This is what I planned to write about: what happens when we, as Catholics, isolate, shame and abuse our L.G.B.T. brothers and sisters. I thought this, combined with the complex history of Pope Pius, was enough material for a play.
Apparently, God thought differently. An image came to me after I finished the first draft: a woman, prostrate on the ground, licking wine off the floor. I knew in an instant that the wine must be sacred. More important, I knew who the woman was: a close family friend and mother figure who also happened to be profoundly deaf. I wrote her into the play as Alex and Angela’s aunt, Janice. Suddenly, there was a new type of isolation being explored: that of a devoutly Catholic deaf woman.
If we want to heal the division between the church and the gay community, we have to meet them, humbly, where they are.
Then, during casting for the original production at The New School for Drama, we cast an African-American man as Alex. In a play where the characters consistently reference the Holocaust, race was not something I wanted to ignore. With the guidance of the actor, I rewrote the role of Alex specifically for a black actor. Once again, new dimensions of isolation and judgment seeped into the play. The issues of faith, race, sexuality and ability are intimately connected in ways that I barely understood at the beginning of this journey.
As a person of faith, I know that all of my accomplishments ought to be attributed to God. The irony is that most of my accomplishments are in some way a critique of God’s church. What I learned from this process is that God can handle this. God wants to be in the world. Catholic plays need not be performed in churches.
In this case, we have brought a play about God and Catholicism to The Stonewall Inn. This place, considered the historical birthplace of the gay rights movement, is a sacred space for the gay community. It is a sort of Mecca: a place you must see once. By producing the play here, in collaboration with their incredible staff, we are having the kind of dialogue the church ought to be having. If we want to heal the division between the church and the gay community, we have to meet them, humbly, where they are. We have to acknowledge our sins and ask for forgiveness. We have to listen and love.
The Catholic Church, as the name indicates, is diverse. So, too, is the world.