"A new day has dawned here in the United States," says Father Jayme Mathias during a special Saturday mass greeting at Southeast Austin's Holy Family American Catholic Church, where he is pastor. "And a new day is dawning here in Central Texas."
Friends of the groom had just hung the last of the decorations, as friends of the other groom put the finishing touches on the church's modest but cozy gathering room where the beach-themed reception would take place after the service, and Father Jayme and Deacon Roy Gomez donned their vestments.
The new dawn to which the padre referred, of course, is the June 26 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of nationwide recognition of same-sex marriage. The congregation had gathered this past weekend to witness the first Catholic mass celebrating the sacrament of marriage of a same-sex couple in Texas – and likely the U.S. – with a legal, state-supplied marriage certificate: the wedding of Darrell and Andy Cox.
Interestingly, the Coxes were not part of the mad Friday dash to obtain the newly minted marriage licenses at the office of the Travis County Clerk. They had already gotten their license in Florida back in May, and planned on having a service to bless their union at Holy Family. Their ceremony just happened to be on the books for the day after the federal decree came down. "I didn't think it was going to be this exciting when I booked it," said Andy Cox, "but the timing was impeccable."
Another couple and friends of the Coxes, however, did partake in Friday's jubilant sprint to the county clerk's office for a license to get hitched: Mathias and his fiancé Anthony Tang. Since Friday, Mathias and Tang have been cover boys for Austin gay marriage, appearing in the lead photo on the Texas Tribune, in clips on KEYE and KXAN, and on the front page of the Austin American-Statesman. The young couple was among a historic 313 to receive marriage licenses issued to different and same-sex couples in Travis County on June 26, and enjoyed much of the public celebration in town that day.
"The congregation here at Holy Family Catholic Church has been so open and welcoming of Anthony," says Mathias, warmly. Holy Family is part of the independent Catholic movement, a parish within the American Catholic Church, an entity not burdened with the "when in Rome" obligations of churches bound to the Vatican.
The couple got engaged on New Year's Eve, and went down to the county clerk's office this past Friday. "We did think to ourselves, 'Should we just go get married today?' And we thought, 'No, let's wait so that we can celebrate with our family and friends [at Holy Family]'." They have a tentative wedding date set for July.
Mathias came out to his parents in the late Nineties, but says that "here in Austin, as a priest, it was very difficult to live as a gay man in the structures and strictures of the Roman Church."
He worked as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church for over a decade, eventually landing the position of pastor of Cristo Rey Catholic Church in East Austin. And, as it turns out, his sexuality was not what ultimately led to his determination that he needed to make a break. As pastor in 2011, he invited noted immigration expert, Illinois Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, to speak to the parish about comprehensive immigration reform.
"He's a champion for the undocumented. I opened wide the doors of Cristo Rey, believing it would be a shot in the arm for the immigrant community," remembers Mathias. "Three days before he was to come and speak, I get a call from the diocese. Austin Bishop [Joe S.] Vásquez has questions: 'Did you know Congressman Gutiérrez is not pro-life?'"
Despite protest from Mathias that the intention of the Roman Catholic congressman's visit was to discuss immigration reform and not abortion, the bishop asked him to "disinvite" the dignitary. The moment set off a domino tumble of realizations for the young pastor, triggering a memory from his seminary days.
"I was told, 'If you want to be part of the Mickey Mouse Club, you have to sing the Mickey Mouse song. You can't be part of the Mickey Mouse Club and sing the Donald Duck song.' For over 10 years as a Roman Catholic priest, I found myself singing the Mickey Mouse song," Mathias says, "and there came a point where I just said to myself, 'I can no longer in good conscience continue singing the Mickey Mouse song.' So here I find myself in the American Catholic Church as a validly ordained Catholic priest, and I am now able to sing the Donald Duck song."
The history of the Catholic Church is rife with stories of rifts and break-off sects, including the well-known split between Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Church, which, Mathias points out, "excommunicated the Roman church in 1054" – and, of course, the Protestant Reformation 500 years later.
The American Catholic Church is part of the "Old Catholic" tradition. "By the name 'Old Catholic,' they believed that they were being more faithful to the ancient traditions of the church," says Mathias. The church traces its apostolic secession to the late 1800s over the issue of Papal infallibility, when the Union of Utrecht [Netherlands], a federation of "Old Catholic" churches, seceded from what Mathias calls "the Pope-ocracy of Rome."
Fast-forward to over a century later: Archbishop Lawrence Harms, an openly gay man living with his partner (a fellow priest), founded the modern American Catholic Church in 1999. "They dreamed of the day when they would be able to live in a world that celebrated their love," Mathias explained. "From the beginning of the church, they had a rite of blessing for same-sex couples, what they called the 'Sacrament of Holy Union' in those states where same-sex marriage was to become legal."
Mathias first learned of the American Catholic Church in 2011 as his life in the church was taking a profound turn. "After I separated myself [from Cristo Rey], the bishop came out with a very deceptive letter saying that my sacraments may not be valid," said Mathias. "I was validly ordained. Any assault on my sacraments is an assault on [that] consecration. Needless to say, much of that has blown over." Since then, Mathias has not only founded a new parish, the largest American Catholic parish in the U.S., but was also elected to the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees.
Today, Mathias is a pastor again, but at a church which affords him the opportunity to celebrate the sacraments in an open and inclusive environment. "It's beautiful seeing couples who are active in the church now able to celebrate sacraments of the church."
Shortly after the SCOTUS decision, Roman Catholic Diocese of Austin's Bishop Vásquez released a statement that he is "deeply saddened by the Supreme Court's decision to require States to recognize same-sex marriages," and that "Jesus taught that from the beginning marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman."
"For so long," said Mathias, "the Catholic Church has excluded same-sex persons and in various ways told them they are not welcome. If I found myself as a [lay] gay person and heard the bishop's words, the Roman Church would have less appeal to me. According to the Pew Research Center, one out of every three baptized Catholics has left the church. In Mexico, 1,000 Mexicans leave the church every day."
Will this new dawn in America bring the faithful back into the fold? "Once word spreads that there is an inclusive and welcoming Catholic community in Central Texas, willing to celebrate the Catholic sacrament of marriage for same-sex couples," says Mathias, "it will be interesting to see how many of our brothers and sisters – Catholics and/or former Catholics – will want to celebrate their love in a sacramental way.
"I'd love to think that 10, 20, 30 years from now, we'll be looking back at other churches that previously excluded persons from the sacraments, that previously excluded persons because of their sexuality, and who will have joined us in seeing one another as the children of God that we are."
Holy Family American Catholic Church offers same-sex as well as opposite-sex wedding services. For more on the congregation, contact 512/200-2669 or www.HolyFamilyACC.com.
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