Why Can't This Mister Be A Sister?

My relationship with the Catholic Church has been a tricky one, to say the least.

It has been joyous, uplifting and sometimes even humorous. It has also been intimidating, unwelcoming and downright scary. But through it all, being Catholic has always meant something very special to me. Yet when I came out thirty years ago, things changed. 

I felt that I needed to leave the church even though I loved it. The decision to leave came not because I was gay—I never doubted God’s love for me as a gay man.

I left because the Catholic Church, like so many other Christians at that time, used an unknown virus that was killing gay men as a weapon to preach hate, fear and shame.  

It has taken me decades to say this but I’m finally ready to forgive and go back to the church that I once loved. In order to do that, I need to first reflect on why I would even want to re-enter a church that has, for the most part since I left, only shown mere glimpses of Jesus’ love not only to myself but to the rest of the LGBT community as well.

That might sound like a tough question to answer, but for me it was quite simple. I honestly loved going to mass! 

Growing up, my family didn’t attend church, but my maternal grandmother did. She was Catholic and didn’t just go to church on Sunday. She went to mass every single day. Whenever I would visit her for the weekend, she would always bring me to church with her.

Those moments were very special to me because my grandmother’s faith was so strong you couldn’t help but feel it too. What a gift that was!

I didn’t learn what it meant to be a ‘Jesus following Catholic’ just from reading the Bible. I learned it from one of the best teachers around—my grandmother. 

She wasn’t my only teacher though.  I also learned about what it meant to be Catholic from a very unlikely source. A flying nun! I guess it should really come as no surprise that at the age of four, when The Flying Nun first appeared on television, that I would decide that I too wanted to become a nun. From 1967 to 1970 a young Sally Field played the role of Sister Bertrille, a forward thinking nun from the Convent San Tanco, who flew through the skies of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Imagine a 1960’s version of Nuns on the Bus, only this nun didn’t ride the bus—she flew. 

For me it wasn’t just a show about a nun who could fly, even though that was pretty cool. It was more than that. Sister Bertrille’s character was compassionate, funny and just filled with love. That’s how I saw her anyway, and I wanted to be just like her. To give you a few examples of just how radical this Sister was, in the first episode alone, we learn that Sister Bertrille had recently been arrested at a free speech rally—my kind of nun!

Upon arriving in San Juan the first person she met and befriended was a casino owner and playboy named Carlos Ramirez. His “lifetime pursuit of pleasure” was nothing to judge for this nun. She embraced him with the same unconditional love she embraced the kindergarten class she taught. Carlos’ questionable lifestyle would have been material for any judgmental sermon on a Sunday morning but was of no concern to Sister Bertrille. She always saw the good in this flawed man. And she did that with everyone she encountered.

I saw both loud and quiet examples of Jesus’ love every time I watched this show, and for this impressionable young boy, I couldn’t have asked for a better role model. 

I didn’t care when people told me I was a boy and couldn’t be a nun. Fortunately, my grandmother didn’t care that I was a boy either. That wasn’t the important part. What was important was my wish to be a nun. And for one brief moment, I was.

During one of my weekend visits with my grandmother I had one of the greatest surprises of my life when she presented me with my very own flying nun outfit. She sewed the whole thing herself. I can even remember her fitting me in it so it would look perfect. I have no pictures to prove it but I know I looked both holy and fabulous! 

Unfortunately though my mom felt it was best to hide all of this from my father so I only got to wear it for one special weekend forty-four years ago.  But what a life-changing weekend that turned out to be.  

The unconditional love my grandmother showed me by making that gift is one of the happiest memories I have.

Reality would eventually set in and by the time I was seven I began to accept the fact that I would never be able to become a nun. But for a little while I believed it—and so did my grandmother—and I was happy.

Never one to give up on my dreams, I decided not to let my inability to become a nun prevent me from becoming Catholic. I received all of the Catholic sacraments, went to church every Sunday for 13 years and for several years I even played guitar at my churches guitar mass.

Had my wish come true, I’m confident I would have been one of those trouble-making, flying nuns or even one of the compassionate sisters riding the bus for equality!

I can’t help but smile to think it was a flying nun who first inspired me to go to church, and decades later, it was a busload of nuns who would move me to return.

And as I prepare to re-enter the church I once loved, I realize some things have changed. I no longer have my grandmother to hold my hand or a flying nun to show me the way—all I have now is a love for God, forgiveness in my heart and some true Christian sisters who could use my support.

That may not be enough for some, but for this Catholic, it is all that I need. 

Photo courtesy of James Rowe, pictured with his Aunt Noreen

Comments (4)

I don't understand the Catholic church whatsoever. If God is the center of the church, then why all the discrimination and hate. I can't understand why a mister can't become a sister, a nun, and I can't understand why a sister can't become an ordained priest. It just don't make sense to me.

Thank you, James. This is so beautifully, humorously and compassionately written, both to those many Catholics who are God & People-Loving, including yourself. What a wonderful topic to explore; I love this idea of Genderqueer Nuns - and why not?! Bravo & Brava, "Mister Sister!"

James, I am so glad you emailed me this. Your grandmother's love is truly an example of the love of Jesus. I'm so grateful to work with you. Welcome home to your tradition. I pray you feel the love of God in your house of worship. Bless you.

Thank you for sharing this with me, it was so beautifully written and so sincere that it even brought tears to my eyes. Faith and hope is a beautiful thing! My only wish is that every living and creating being be happy, wild, and free! :)

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