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I once stole a cross from the Vatican.
My sister and I were on a trip through the eternal city. Late August in Rome is always too warm — sweltering, sultry heat, the kind that creeps up your back dampening it the minute you leave the shower. We’d waited outside the Vatican museums for almost an hour, eager to see the chaotic crypt of priceless art. But when we got to the front of the queue she wasn’t allowed in — her shorts were, well, too short for the place of worship. After an infuriating 20-minute conversation in botched Italian and the purchase of an overpriced shawl, we got in, just to stumble upon a huge, equally overpriced shop within the presumably holy site. Rosaries, bracelets, icons — all up for sale. Not that there’s anything in the Bible against that, you know.
As we left, we realized that we’d both dealt with our pent-up frustration in the same way — by pickpocketing a small cross pendant out of spite.
The petty theft made for a great story at pretentious Harvard socials. It also captured my general attitude towards organized religion; one largely defined by scorn and annoyance. Sure, the blatant hypocrisy and sexism of the specific situation bothered me. But it wasn’t the first time I’d dealt with it, and my reaction wasn’t exclusively motivated by having to cash out fifteen euro for a misanthropist piece of cloth. Spain is, after all, a very Catholic country by European standards. Even before my Vatican mini-heist, I’d grown used to dealing with the values that such a religious background creates, particularly when it came to queer issues. And I’d grown used to reacting accordingly.
My high school, like most high schools, sucked in a variety of different ways. Trapped in a neighborhood that overwhelmingly supports right-wing parties, our students were not exactly paralyzed by woke culture. I remember some depressing highlights, a collection of amusing homophobic vignettes. The “moderate” friendly acquaintances praising me personally but adding that, should they have a gay son, they’d immediately contact a psychiatrist. A Saturday night break-in into the school by a junior prankster who hung a rainbow flag from the building, and the avalanche of angry calls that led to its removal on a Sunday morning. (Their reasoning? The school seeks to “avoid educating the children to form any specific opinions in topics such as … sexual orientation.”)
I recall how some staff tried to do better, attempting to get my class to watch Stephen Fry’s “Wilde,” only to give up a few minutes in amid loud, homophobic complaints (if twinkish Jude Law doesn’t make you sympathize with gay men you’re beyond redemption). These views were based on a twisted understanding of the Catholic faith, one that saw queer people as, to quote a former classmate, “morally unhealthy.” And while I like to think that their effect on me was minimal — I spent the weekend of the flag incident with a remarkably cute Brit I met at Oxford (a university I may or may not have seriously considered attending just because of its latent homoeroticism) — they eroded my faith in the Vatican. I learned to expect nothing from the Catholic Church.
So when Pope Francis announced his support for same-sex civil unions last week I was shocked.
Shocked about the announcement, for sure — even under his leadership, the Catholic church has hardly been a BGLTQ ally. But more so, I was shocked by how happy I was. I found myself almost giddy bordering on ecstatic, reading and re-reading articles on the subject, texting friends and family. A smile spread across my face, one of those annoying ones that you can barely contain, the kind of grin that twists your features and makes it difficult to even speak without giggling. I looked back at my petty rebellion and, for the first time, I felt a twinge of sadness, a sliver of (certainly unwarranted) remorse.
I know I shouldn’t have reacted that way — not rationally, at least. Civil unions seem like the bare minimum in 2020, and the Church’s official position on so many other issues (chiefly abortion and contraceptives) is still terrible. I don’t have a connection to the institution or a religious family to stress about — I'm not even baptized, a relative rarity in Spain. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, I could barely rub the smile off my face or hide my glee. I was incredibly, irrationally happy.
Sometimes we find ourselves trying to grow up too quickly; to graduate from the value systems and institutions that messed us up. Many queer people are burnt young, marked by an iron of rejection, loneliness, and fear. And then, for the most part, we flee. To a bigger city, to a place where we can reinvent ourselves. I moved an ocean, a culture, a language away; I got myself drunk and allowed friends to put makeup on me and found mascara remarkably flattering; I watched every queer film out there (yes, all three of them).
But we never evolve as fast as we wish, and we never stop caring about what we leave behind. We still retrace the ridges of our scars, waiting for them to burst open and tear our flesh apart. We still crave the acceptance and the validation of the ideologies that we banish from our lives, of the institutions we attack, insult, and (at times) steal from.
I shouldn’t care what the Pope says. But I do. I really do.
He is the highest representative of a faith that underlies the pain and aggressiveness that helped define my upbringing — the same pain that shapes queer self-hatred and haunts our mental health. And so even if I reject the validity and legitimacy of the Church, I still feel vindicated by its sudden warming up to my existence; I’m still moved by the proclamation that “nobody should be thrown out, or made miserable” because of their sexuality. I feel vindicated by a moral framework that I was convinced I’d put behind me.
The episode reminded me of the importance of symbols; of the crucial power of having those we proclaim to hate tell us they love us. Of why something as seemingly inconsequential as changing a building’s name or removing a statue can have a tangible impact on our community. It lets some of us know that we’re seen.
I’ve lived in Rome for a few months now, having moved here when the pandemic halted my American ambitions. My friends have been pushing me to go watch the Pope speak, more out of cultural curiosity than faith. I’ve avoided doing so so far — but I might just go.
Guillermo S. Hava ’23, a Crimson Editorial comp director, lives in Winthrop House.
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