There is a Jesuit maxim which says,”Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” It was written over the door of my elementary school.
The Jesuits are a teaching order. They were bragging on their success rate of churning out Catholics. But as a kid, it sounded to me like a secret message that St. Agatha’s was actually part of a world-wide psy-ops program – a concept straight out of my favorite TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
I spent many classroom hours daydreaming about our shadowy parish pastor the evil Father Reid, and his ring of sadistic enforcer nuns, out to brainwash the students of America. Sometimes, if the day’s lesson was completely boring, I’d challenge myself to get to the coatroom to leave a “HELP, we’re being brainwashed” message in the pocket of somebody’s coat, or to surreptitiously eat something out of my lunch bag which would make me impervious to brainwashing. My feminist adult self is ashamed to admit it, but these fantasies all ended the same way: with Ilya Kuryakin (wingman to the show’s hero Napoleon Solo) rescuing St. Agatha’s from the Michigan Catholic branch of C.H.A.O.S. and falling in love with me at first sight.
I hadn’t thought of those daydreams or of the apothegm that spawned them for many years; but I did this week, when hundreds of Catholic high school students proved the Jesuits wrong.
We often hear it reported that opposition to all things gay will fade away as the older generations die off and the young people take the reins of society. To today’s youth, we are assured, being gay is like being left-handed. Before now, that prediction always described a distant future to me, one I would probably never live to see. But this week, in Sammamish, Washington, I caught a glimpse of it.
Mark Zmuda, the vice-principal of Eastside Catholic High School, is by everyone’s account a respected, and effective vice-principal, admired by students and teachers alike. A lawyer for the school called him a “great administrator.” But Mark Zmuda is also gay. And for Catholic officialdom, especially Archbishop Peter Sartain, who heads the archdiocese where Eastside Catholic is located, no amount of competence of likeability can ever make up for that fact.
Mark Zmuda is one of thousands of gay men and women who lead a double life. In his private hours, Mark was out, in fact, this summer, he and his partner Dana Jergen (right) took advantage of Washington’s new marriage equality law and tied the knot. At school, only a few trusted people knew. But someone found out. And that someone snitched.
Sister Mary E. Tracy, the school’s president, asked the archdiocese what she should do. Perhaps she had some hope that as long as Mark’s sexual orientation was not widely known, the popular VP could remain on staff. But once she decided to out him, the archbishop’s decision was a foregone conclusion.
Archbishop Peter Sartain was handpicked by Pope Benedict XVI. He was given two tasks by the Vatican. To shut down the uppity “nuns on a bus” and defeat the ballot measure that would legalize same-sex marriages in the state of Washington. Had he been successful, Sartain probably would have been one of the cardinals voting for (or against) Pope Francis. But he failed. He failed miserably. And now he’s one of the culture warriors not at all happy with a Pope trying to stop the war that is his raison d’etre.
So the verdict was swift. On Tuesday, Sister Mary Tracy called Mark Zmuda in and asked him if the rumor was true. Mark told her it was. He was gay, and he was married. Sister Tracy reported on the school’s website that she and Zmuda then:
“reached an understanding that the correct action was for him to submit his resignation.”
On Thursday. She released the following letter:
The student body did not take the news well.
The students gathered in the gym and cafeteria in a spontaneous sit in.
Bradley Strode, the president of the senior class, told ABC News that out of the 600 students who attend Eastside Catholic, more than 450 walked out of class. Bradley:
“The Catholic teaching is to unconditionally love and support all members of a global community, people from all backgrounds, as Christ did in the gospels. If Jesus were here, he would have been sitting in with us at Eastside Catholic because we are sticking up for what we believe in and not just abiding by institutional laws.”
Sister Mary Tracy met with the students explaining:
“It was clear that this is the teaching of the church. I know what we need to do.”
The students were unimpressed.
They sent in Mark Zmuda himself, who choked back tears as he thanked the students for what they were trying to do. He told them he would miss them, to grow up and find true love, and be happy. But even their beloved Mr. Zmuda could not diffuse their determination to right a terrible wrong.
The Eastside students took to social media to get the word out, and by Thursday afternoon, the protest had spread to other Catholic schools in the Seattle area. After school, they gathered outside, chanting “Change the church! Change the church!”
They made banners and tributes to Mr. Zmuda.
They started a Change.org petition to ask the Catholics to change their policy:
We, the student body at Eastside Catholic School, have experienced an egregious injustice which was inflicted by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle. Our beloved vice principal, Mr. Zmuda, was terminated by the Archdiocese as a result of his marriage to another man. The student body is outraged that an incredible administrator, coach, and human being was fired solely because of his love and marriage for another human being. We are uniting in order to change the Catholic Church’s opposition of gay marriage. It is time to revisit the policy and act as Jesus would have, loving and supporting every person regardless of their marital status. United, we want this policy changed so that the Catholic Church can achieve its mission of acting with unconditional love in every situation.
This morning the petition had over 25,000 signatures.
Using the excuse of a snowstorm that had been forecast, Eastside Catholic decided to close the school on Friday, hoping an early start to Christmas vacation would change the subject. That too didn’t work. On Friday, the protests grew:
Hashtag #SaveMrZ2013 sprang up on Twitter.
Though it was closed, students still gathered outside Eastside High School.
Students from other area high schools still in session refused to go to classes and held sit ins.
Alumna sent Eastside High and the archdiocese threats to stop contributing. Parents and former students were joined by LGBT groups in a major protest in front of the Archdioceses offices, where Seattle’s gay mayor-elect, Ed Murray, (right) made an appearance, speaking of his own Catholic roots.
The students say they have only begun the fight.
It is very unlikely even a note from Jesus in heaven would manage to return Mark Zmuda to his job. Archbishop Sartain is not a man who would ever allow that to happen. But what is going on in Washington is more than the reaction to an injustice being done to a beloved educator even his detractors laud as a man of “high integrity.” The protests in Sammamish are like a visit from Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future.
It turns out, for the Catholic Church, the future starts now.
In light of the reaction to the firing of Mark Zmuda, the Jesuits may have to reevaluate their educational paradigm. The young Catholics from Eastside High have demonstrably refused to defer to the Church when it comes to their acceptance of people who are gay. Instead, it appears they have chosen to rely on Jesus, and his charge to: “Love your neighbor as yourself”. There was a time when the Catholic Church used to teach that message too.
Today, the students of Eastside Catholic High School, vanguards of a new Catholic reality, are On Our Radar.
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.
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