John Allen, Jr., Vatican Correspondent
National Catholic Reporter, 09/02/2005
Just before 8 a.m. on Jan. 13, 1998, a 39-year-old Sicilian named Alfredo Ormando slipped into St. Peter’s Square in Rome. Ormando removed a can of gasoline, doused himself, and lit himself on fire. He began walking in the direction of St. Peter’s Basilica "like a giant torch," as one witness put it. Two police officers intercepted Ormando as he reached the steps. They wrestled him to the ground and extinguished the flames, which by then had covered nine-tenths of his body with burns. He was taken to a nearby hospital where he lingered for 10 days before dying.
Ormando, it emerged, was gay. He had been born into a poor village in central Sicily. Depressed by his family’s refusal to accept him, Ormando moved to Palermo where he aspired to be a writer — "an intellectual in a family of laborers," as his landlord recalled. He had little success, with only one book issued by a small local publisher.
Gay rights activists argued that Ormando’s choice of St. Peter’s Square was not an accident — he was, they asserted, bringing his problems back to their source. For some gay Christians, Ormando has become a martyr.
On Sept. 2, roughly a dozen American pro-gay Christians, part of a group called "Soulforce," laid flowers and prayer cards near the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square in memory of Ormando, on the spot where they say he "burned himself to death to protest the anti-homosexual policies of the Roman Catholic church."
The group chanted, "We will not forget Armando!" Philip and Randi Reitan of Eden Prairie, Minn., said they had symbolically "adopted" Ormando as their own son, since his natural family had rejected him. "We know so many young gay men like him, so hurt by the teachings of the church," Randi Reitan said. "When the church teaches people not to accept and to love their own children, it destroys a mother’s heart."
"If Alfredo had his family, society and church standing by him, this would not have happened," Philip Reitan said. The Reitans, who are Lutherans, said they were motivated to become involved in pro-gay activism because their own son, Jacob, 23, is gay.
Mel White, an MCC minister who heads Soulforce, said the group had arrived in Rome on board a gay cruise ship. They had tried to recruit participants in the cruise to attend the protest, he said, but few turned out. The event took less than 10 minutes, and was not interrupted by Vatican security officials. It was not Soulforce’s first stab at Vatican protest.
In January 2001, a small Soulforce group had threatened to force police to arrest them in St. Peter’s Square if a Vatican official did not meet with them to initiate a dialogue about church teaching on homosexuality. After two-and-a-half hours, however, they left voluntarily.
Since it was the Christmas season, they had wanted to process to the giant nativity set in the middle of the square in order to leave photos of themselves, as gifts, at the feet of the Christ child, but police politely turned them away. Before disbanding, the group applauded the police for their courtesy, and then extended their arms towards the papal apartments to bless Pope John Paul II.