In January 1998 Alfredo Ormando, an Italian writer, set himself on fire in St Peter’s Square in the heart of the Vatican. Ormando was Catholic, and gay.
In Catholic hagiography, the most famous image of a martyr burned at the stake is that of St Joan of Arc, condemned by the approved theologians of the Church as a heretic and martyred by the church, essentially for her transgression in dressing as a man. In the centuries that followed, thousands more were burnt as sodomites. These were viewed by the church as irredeemable sinners – but later history may come to view them differently. The church now views Joan as a canonized saint. Pope Benedict has explicitly acknowledged the clear lesson
– official theologians may be wrong. In years to come, those burnt for sodomy may also come to be more widely recognized as collective martyrs – martyred by the church, for the nature of their love. In his horrifying echo of the centuries – long great persecution of sexual minorities, Alfredo Ormando’s suicide after years of attempting to stifle his sexuality in accordance with Vatican rules, may be seen as a unique act of self-martyrdom.
Ormando was one of eight children from an impoverished family, who had been struggling to make a success of a writing career, after spending two years in a seminary. He had been suffering from serious depression, which clearly had multiple causes. After his death, the Vatican denied that this had anything to do with the Church or homosexuality. Through its spokesperson, Father Ciro Benedettini, the Church downplayed the significance of the act:
“In the letter found on Alfredo Ormando, he doesn’t affirm in any way that his actions were prompted by his presumed homosexuality or as a protest against the Church…He tried to kill himself for no better explanation than family motives.”
This was flatly contradicted by two letters he wrote beforehand, in clear explanation of his action, which were later published. These extracts are from the Italian website, “13 Gennaio” (i.e 13th January, the date Ormando set himself on fire).
In December 1997 he wrote this letter to a friend of his in Reggio Emilia:
Palermo, Christmas 1997
Dear Adriano, this year I can’t feel it’s Christmas anymore, it is indifferent to me like everything; nothing can bring me back to life.
I keep on getting ready for my suicide day by day; I feel this is my fate, I’ve always been aware but never accepted, but this tragic fate is there, it’s waiting for me with a patience of Job which looks incredible.
I haven’t been able to escape this idea of death, I feel I can’t avoid it, nor can I pretend to live and plan I future I do not have; my future will just be a prosecution of this present.
I live with the awareness of who’s leaving this life and this doesn’t look dreadful to me! No! I can’t wait for the day I will bring this life of mine to an end; they will think I am mad because I have chosen Saint Peter Square to be the place where I’ll set myself on fire, while I could do it here in Palermo as well.
I hope they’ll understand the message I want to convey; it is a form of protest against the Church which demonises homosexuality, demonising nature at the same time, because homosexuality is its daughter.
Excerpts from his correspondence:
“I want to die, I don’t want to be marginalized forever.”
“I am sorry if I was born, for having polluted the air you breathe with my poisonous breath, for having dared thinking and behaving like a man, for not having accepted a diversity I did not feel, for having considered homosexuality a natural sexuality, for having felt just like heterosexuals and second to none, for having the ambition of becoming a writer, for having dreamt, for having laughed.”
“The monster leaves the place in order not to offend you, not to make you feel ashamed any longer of his disgraceful presence, not to make you feel disgusted and turn your back when you meet him while walking on a street.”
“I couldn’t deceive my biological love for life anymore, I couldn’t find a reason for my marginalization, for my endless loneliness.”
“Do not try to build me a tearful tombstone, shall I be an infected after my death as well. If fuel won’t produce its effect, turn me into ashes, cremate me and disperse my ashes in the Roman countryside: at least I would like to be useful as manure.”
“Imagine, with one simple act I will get rid of all of you… during these 39 years I have never meant anything to you, instead you are ashamed of myself… I am not scared of dieing … I am going back home.”
A documentary film, “Alfredo’s Fire”, tells the story, and urges us to remember him and his death as a martyrdom not only for gays, but for all of humanity, and for its multitude of outsiders.
In 2000, the year of the Jubilee, Pope John-Paul II exhorted his followers in the same spot where Alfredo Ormando had set himself on fire two years prior, telling them that homosexuality was “unnatural,” and that the Church had a “duty to distinguish between good and evil.”
In 2005, the new Pope Benedict committed himself to even harsher anti-gay teachings, initiating what some see as a gay witchhunt within the Catholic clergy, fighting same-sex partnership legislation worldover, and sending the message that homosexuals have no place in God’s kingdom.
A one-hour documentary, ALFREDO’S FIRE brings to life the man behind the flames and the issues his fire illuminates. The film exposes tensions between faith and homosexualityò conformity and individualityòand shows the deadly consequences of religious intolerance.