“He had AIDS, you know.” I heard this from the funeral director as soon as I came into the funeral home to conduct the memorial service. Of course, I knew that. I had visited this man numerous times in the hospital, listened to his confessions, and brought him the Holy Eucharist. During those visits, we spoke at length about his illness, his misgivings, his love/hate relationship with the Orthodox Church and we spoke about his funeral.
Many years had passed since he had formally belonged to a parish and was not sure that his body could be brought into the church for the funeral services – or if he even wanted it there. “They were not too happy with me while I was alive, would they want me there when I’m dead?” I wish I would have thought, at that time, of a great line from a movie, and answered him – “probably, it is easy to love the dead, they make so few mistakes”.
He was not buried from the church. He did not have the money to make a donation to the Church – something required for non-parishioner funerals – and I did not want to ask the parish board for a reprieve from this usual requirement. So, I served the funeral from the funeral home with few people in attendance; some friends, some hospital workers and a Roman Catholic nun who took great daily care of him in hospice. Four of us would gather weeks later to distribute his ashes in a local park – where he wanted them scattered. That day I probably violated several canonical and local ordinances – but I was at peace with my decisions and prayed that Robert (baptized Basil) would also be rewarded with the gift of eternal life.
“He had AIDS, you know” was also whispered by the clergy who came to bury one of their own – a priest. I have known three Orthodox priests that have died from AIDS related causes and have ministered to an additional priest who is still living with HIV. At one funeral the partner – husband of the priest, was not only present for the funeral services, but stood in the first pew, with the rest of the priest’s family and accepted the condolences of parishioners and fellow clergy in the church as well as at the memorial dinner. These are examples of the Orthodox Church showing mercy to the dead as well as the living, the family and friends of the deceased. The elaborate and meaningful prayers of the funeral services – the “last kiss”, the condolences, the repast meal, the cards and requests for memorial services to be celebrated are all acts of faith, hope and love. People knew and people know! Some were not bothered by the fact that "Father" had a husband or had died of AIDS, and some chose to ignore the fact. Why is the Church, both the institutional church and the Church of the faithful, able to be full of grace for the dead priest who died of AIDS and not the gay man who wanted to serve Christ and His Church honestly and openly?
Why is it that the Church continues to deny the truth? There are gay men who are called to the priesthood by Christ. They may not be called to a life of celibacy – the Orthodox Church has always known that these are two different callings. And so the Church continues to entertain the charade without facing up to reality. There have been, are and will always be gay, non-celibate men called by Christ to serve as priests. AXIOS! WORTHY!