The Personal Is Political

By Kate Henley Averett

My sister got married two weeks ago. I thought I knew how the preceding weeks would play out, as my brother had gotten married eight weeks earlier. But there was one conversation leading up to this wedding (which, unlike the last one, would be a full nuptial Mass) that really did surprise me. It began rather casually: “So, are you going to take communion at your sister’s wedding?”

Almost everyone in my extended family claims “Catholic” as part of their religious identity, most with qualifiers: lapsed, progressive, recovering, conflicted, faithful, or (my personal qualifier) faithfully conflicted. We all knew the “rules” around receiving communion, and knew everyone else at the wedding would, too. In this conversation, it became evident that we all had reasons why we thought that taking communion might seem improper: not having attended Mass in weeks/months/years, lacking belief but not respect for the sacred act, or having one of those markers that may or may not disqualify you, like divorced and remarried or (me again) in same-sex relationship.

What was causing so much hesitation, I gathered, was the very public nature of this particular Eucharistic celebration. Unlike at regular parish Masses, almost everyone in the congregation at this wedding would know us in contexts outside the Church. Being seen taking, or abstaining from, communion, could be placed by anyone observing in the context of our individual histories, opinions, and commitments. What would normally be considered a personal, spiritual matter suddenly felt public and even political. If most of those present were aware of one’s opposition to the hierarchy on certain fundamental matters, not taking communion could become a political act, a way of silently but boldly registering that complaint in the minds of those present. On the other hand, taking communion in that same circumstance could be just as political – a way of saying that one’s personal faith experience need not be dictated by the hierarchy’s rules.

This was a poignant question for me, I realized, as it would really be the first time I would take communion – or not – in a setting where almost all present knew I was gay. Not taking communion could draw attention to the Church’s unjust and exclusionary practices toward LGBT people. Taking communion could be a way of standing up to these practices, of publicly stating that this is my Church, my faith, too, and I won’t let anybody decide for me whether I am worthy of it.

I’d always thought that social action belonged in the realm of faith-between-Sundays. Mass was what we did to nourish ourselves for work in the world, not itself an arena for social action. But this conversation made me rethink this division, and helped me for the first time to integrate my strongly held feminist/activist convictions with my deeply personal experience of the Eucharist, making it evident that, as always, the personal is political. Even a small and silent act has the power to make people think and question, to reorient people in unexpected ways toward injustice in the world and injustice in our Church.

Kate Henley Averett is a choreographer, writer, nanny, queer activist, and avid watcher of crime shows. She and her partner live in Cambridge, MA, and will not be having a full nuptial Mass when they get married.

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7 Responses

  1. Awesome, Kate. And I’m so glad you took communion at the wedding! It’s so good to read your thoughts. You go, girl!! 🙂

  2. Kate: I am so proud to have you as my daughter! For your courage, your grace and your insight. And it’s always a pleasure to read your work. Keep it up. Ma

  3. Amazing piece, Kate. I’m in awe of the person you’ve become over the years and proud to call you my lifelong friend.
    -Jen

  4. Kate, this is awesome. You are such a talented writer and your mind is amazing. I love you and am so proud of you!! -Jessica

  5. Kate,
    Fantastic in every way. Brilliant, thoughtful, incisive. Keep writing!
    the Dad

  6. This is a great everyday example of what it means to be Catholic today. I love the realization that, unlike at the anonymous Sunday Mass, taking communion with a bunch of people who know you brings a whole new context to the sacrament. Kate – thank you for your honesty and exploring this topic for us to read. I look forward to reading your essay in the anthology! – Felicia

  7. Your article reminds me of an experience within my own extended family almost two years ago, except the setting was a funeral rather than a wedding. At my Grandma’s funeral, for the first time in years, all of her 14 children were together in the tiny, local Catholic church. When it came time for communion the priest encouraged everyone to come forward to at least receive a blessing if they were not in good standing with the Catholic church. I don’t know if that was targeted at the non-church goers, the few protestants in the crowd, or my aunts and uncles who are gay, but in any case it seemed inappropriate. There was a community gathered to celebrate a life lived, and still the priest made a point of alienating some people. I had a dilemma similar to yours at that moment. If I took communion then I felt like I was condoning the church’s rediculous rejection of some family and friends gathered there, but if I didn’t then I would be rejecting a certain other portion of the family who would be offended at my choice not to participate. It was exactly as you pointed out, where a choice either way made a strong statement. It ended up that I did take communion but the situation bothers me to this day. I think you did the right thing and applaud you for your courage. What is church for anyway if not a place to be challenged and grow?

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