“Drowning men, it is said, cling to wisps of straw.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I don’t get it. Some people (especially abuse survivors) have been forced to leave the Catholic Church primarily due to the corruption and continued inability of the hierarchy to take responsibility for what they have done and for what they have allowed to take place; would anyone question a child who fled from a household where they were mistreated, abused, molested, raped, and then ignored when they asked for help – or simply begged for the abuse to stop or at least to be recognized? This is the definition of a sick and dysfunctional home. Those adults who willingly remain in such situations – have been regarded as co-dependent, suffering from a form of Stockholm-syndrome, or untreated trauma-induced mental illness. Sometimes you need to walk away; but, as a result, I believe that the greatest reformers of the Church will be (and are) those who are healed and then return to demand accountability.
What does it mean to “walk away?” Some 20 years after my return to the Catholic faith – a religion that was (at best) ineffectively communicated to me during 12 years of parochial school or, more precisely, intentionally perverted in order to create a faith based on a radical form of relativism, today I have much more in common with the ultra-conservative devotees of the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) than I do with James Martin and the Jesuits; in fact, I am more comfortable among those in the “heretical” Orthodox Church of America and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russian (ROCOR). This is a strange reversal of attitude an opinion considering that I was once a gay libertine.
“O shepherd, and idol, that forsaketh the flock…” (Zech. 11:17)
After a lamb wanders away from the flock – when the shepherd is napping or preoccupied with other interests – and gets caught in a thorn-bush or is eaten by a wolf, the shepherd is ultimately to blame. Of course, the lamb should not have strayed off into the thickets, but the shepherd’s lone job and function is to ensure the safety of his flock; and he has failed. As Our Lord taught us: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep.” And Christ asked the publicans and sinners, knowing that the Pharisees were within earshot: “What man of you that hath an hundred sheep, and if he shall lose one of them, doth he not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after that which was lost, until he find it?”
At a young age, I darted into the woods – the shepherd didn’t really care. But it was during an age when many of us left. Perhaps, they thought we’d be better off as a “free-range” flock – making our own way in the world. But I was ill-equipped nor was I ready for the dangers that awaited me. Like the cruelly abandoned Hansel and Gretel, I gorged on a gingerbread cottage – unaware of the price I’d pay for a few hollow meals that never satisfied my hunger. This is reminiscent of the famous painting “The Hireling Shepherd” (1851) by William Holman Hunt. While the amorous shepherd forces his affections unto a beautiful peasant girl – the sheep under his care are feeding on sour green apples, roaming into a nearby field, and languorously dying in the background.
Lost in a desert, under a blazing sun, I followed one mirage after another. All I found were a series of dry-wells. Until I happened upon a certain oasis. Unlike the “Samaritan woman,” I didn’t lackadaisically meet by chance a man seated near the spot where I would daily draw water; I was crawling through the dust – begging for help; I am reminded of a pivotal scene with Charlton Heston in “Ben-Hur” where he collapses midway on a death-march to slavery in the Roman galleons; with his last breath he whispers: “God…help me.” Suddenly, a man bends down to offer him a drink. A small act of kindness that will change his entire life forever. Our Lord did the same for me.
Today, I often encounter Christ at work within the Catholic communities at the margins of the Church. Jesuit priest James Martin repeatedly (and often) states that so-called “LGBT Catholics” are continually pushed to the “margins” of the Catholic Church. For example, he exclaimed: “The people on the margins most in our church today are LGBT people.” In reality, pro-LGBT Catholic ministries occupy highly visible and prominent positions within some of the most prestigious parishes in the United States; they include: St. Paul the Apostle (motherhouse of the Paulist Order) and St. Ignatius (home to James Martin), both in New York City; Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington D.C.; St. Cecilia’s in Boston; Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Chicago; the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta; St. Joseph Parish in Seattle; Most Holy Redeemer in San Francisco’s famous Castro District; and St. Monica’s in Santa Monica (where numerous Hollywood celebrities attend Mass.) There are many others. For the most part, parishes with an LGBT ministry are in or near rather wealthy urban gay-ghettoes or upper-middle class suburban enclaves. These ministries are broadly supported and well-funded within their particular dioceses. In contrast, Catholic ministries which remain faithful to Church teachings on homosexuality often meet under a clandestine shroud of secrecy. This situation is similar to the availability and location of parishes that offer the TLM – often located in the scariest parts of town.
On the true margins of the Church – I discovered an abundance of faith, hope, and charity.
Faith, Hope, and Charity:
On my initial return to the Catholic Church, because I had lived the majority of my life in or near centers of the gay male community, I inadvertently wandered into a Catholic parish that was located conveniently nearby. I thought, here, I would be more comfortable – during the “pride” month of June, every year they hung the rainbow flag outside the Church’s main entrance. At this time, I was profoundly conflicted – I still believed myself to be gay, but I wanted a different life; I wanted to believe that there was something more for me. According to the priest I spoke with, there was something else I could do – I should find a man to settle down with; I told him, I already tried that; he suggested that I attend a gay get-together at the parish hall. I thought to myself: If this is what the Catholic Church wants for me, I don’t want the Church.
Believing I had few other choices, I had momentarily decided to practice (alone) my own form of Christianity at home. Then, I somehow became acquainted with Eastern Orthodoxy – specifically Russian Orthodoxy. For my entire life, my father, who was raised in an Eastern-Rite (Catholic) parish back in Sicily, maintained a lifelong devotion to Our Lady as depicted in Byzantine icons. Strangely enough, I too shared his appreciation for this unique art-form; but for seemingly different reasons. Even as my life spun further out of control and became increasingly perverse, during my studies at UC Berkeley, I was repeatedly drawn towards lecture-courses and symposiums in art-history that focused on Medieval art and icons. From somewhere back in my childhood, I recalled those images cherished by my father: of a stern-looking Mother and Child – staring at me with consternation and sadness. I feared and adored them. Distant from my father, I guess I longed for that paternal oversight that I had rejected.
I attended services at a variety of Orthodox parishes. Almost everything that took place appeared completely strange and unfamiliar. Yet, there was an unmistakable reverence and solemnity to the entire proceedings. Within these mysteries was a revelation of a fundamental truth. Throughout my upbringing in the 1970s and 80s, much of it spent in parochial schools, the Mass was a “celebration” filled with hand-holding, bad folk songs from the St. Louis Jesuits, and a giddy priest who asked the children of the congregation to join him in the sanctuary. Even as a boy, I thought it was laughable. The only point of fascination in my boyhood parish was a massive mural depicting Christ Enthroned – stern and iconic in appearance, He transfixed me.
Within Orthodoxy, my interest in the beauty of ritual and the power of art was combined. Ironically, in the gay male world, I was sucked into any number of sadistically disgusting and self-destructive replacements for such religious ceremonies which had been largely abandoned in Catholicism after the promulgation of the Novus Ordo. Sexual deviance took on a quasi-religious tone; symbolized by Madonna’s acquisition of Catholic imagery in her music videos; this phenomena has endured to the present day through Lady Gaga and the 2018 MET Gala “Heavenly Bodies;” which, not surprisingly, was applauded by the likes of Timothy Cardinal Dolan and James Martin.
While gazing into the eyes of an icon, I started to believe – in God.
Even though I was going back and forth from an Orthodox parish and the TLM offered by the Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) and the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), I was inextricably attracted back towards Catholicism – even though I nearly swore to never step inside a Catholic Church again. What made me rethink my possible future was a simple act of kindness by a small group of priests – in this case, the traditional Catholic priests who offered the TLM.
“I can nourish myself on nothing but truth.” – St. Therese of Lisieux
What made them remarkable in my eyes – was the simple fact that they didn’t treat me as I if I were a member of a special group; namely, they didn’t treat me like a “gay” person. One priest, in particular, never focused on what I had done; he didn’t define me by my sins; I was just another man. Almost immediately, I no longer felt as if I were some strange alien-being. For myself, this shift in self-identification was near miraculous. Since I was a boy, I had always thought that I neither belonged in the company of “real” men nor among women; in the gay male community, I thought I found the perfect fit; except, nothing ever fit – both psychologically and physiologically. He helped me to understand why my previous existence had been an exercise in futility. Much of his instruction was based on “natural law” and the Catechism. But he was also a great example; and men (especially during a crisis) need strong leadership – they need clear and decisive direction. He provided that. For the first time in my life, I experienced a true cognizance of faith – I was certainly (at least) beginning to understand the Church’s teachings on homosexuality. As a consequence, some of my life was making sense – in particular: Why I never found happiness as a gay man.
I was also hopeful; that there existed something beyond the material which transcended my desires.
My apparently aimless wandering in the desert of desperation and despair – led me here. At the margins of the Catholic Church I found an oasis that did not disappear once I reached it. As Our Lord said: “…he that shall drink of the water that I will give him shall not thirst for ever.” I thought I had found heaven on earth. But I thought almost the same exact thing when I first arrived in San Francisco as an eighteen-year old young man.
“If you look for perfection, you will never be content.” – Leo Tolstoy, “Anna Karenina”
Even at the margins, there were prowling wolves and shepherds asleep under the shade of a palm tree. I am reminded of the greatest scene from the 1956 version of “The Ten Commandments,” when the shepherdess daughters of Jethro find an exhausted and slumbering Moses near their own well in Midian. Having just crossed the desert from Egypt, Moses has collapsed into unconsciousness after eating his fill of dates. Soon after Jethro’s daughters happened upon Moses, they are attacked by a rowdy group of Amalekites who want to water their goats – in the process scattering the girl’s flock of sheep. Unexpectedly, a newly awoken Moses appears out of nowhere and single-handedly defeats and humiliates the Amalekites. The sheep of Jethro are saved. On the outskirts of the known-world, Moses found comfort and truth in a belief in one God – but also purpose.
Everyone deserves a respite, but even in sleep, like Saint Joseph, the shepherds of the Church must be continually alert and ready to act with certainty and fortitude. This sort of selflessness is what divides genuine heroic leadership from effete bureaucracy.
When I needed a shepherd to act – he wouldn’t. Actually, he walked away. For many abuse survivors, they didn’t “walk away” from the Church – the Church left them. Yet I do not know why so many prelates of the Catholic Church have simply refused to protect the most vulnerable members of their flock, but they have. Most tragically, some have even handed-over the lambs to be slaughtered. But these sacrifices have been burnt on pagan altars – usually to the gods of sexual perversity.
I think a number of Bishops and Cardinals believe that someday the lost sheep will come back – for many, that is impossible because they are dead. I knew several young men who were molested as children by priests and religious, only to later become convinced (by some of the same clerics) they were gay; AIDS took some of them before they reached 40. As for the others – Why should they return? To what? Only to be led into a field of dried foxglove and ragwort? Others, while on the margins of the Church, have been pushed further away into Orthodoxy, sedevacantism, or even evangelical Christianity. In a few cases, the identity politics played out on the Catholic Left (often utilizing the LGBT community to take swipes at Church teaching) has resulted in a counter-movement that can unfortunately, at times, transform into Phariseeism. 20 years ago, I never encountered such hypercritical, exclusionary, or cultish dispositions among those who sought the TLM; it was rather sacrifice to be there, so many were just happy to finally find a refuge of sanity. But as the TLM movement has gained popularity and more adherents, an uncharitable dialectic can appear amongst the laity. In my area of interest and outreach, I have seen it in a general mockery of the LGBT community. While no one should affirm or facilitate homosexual practices, a more nuanced approach that still emphasizes truth, but does not disregard or demean, would be far more effective.
Over the past 20 years, I have teetered on the edge of leaving Catholicism – sometimes I don’t know why I stay. However, every time I get ready to leave for good – I meet (or learn of) a particularly brave priest or bishop. Since the world of the TLM and conservative/orthodox Catholicism is often the last stop for some on our way out the door – I have encountered these men at the margins of the Church – such as Raymond Cardinal Burke – who was literally moved to the margins on the island nation of Malta; the few men in the Church I actually admire are similarly marginalized – both geographically and politically: Bishop Athanasius Schneider, Bishop Joseph Strickland, and Bishop Thomas Paprocki; all are from relative backwaters of the Church, yet pro-gay prelates sit upon their thrones in Chicago, Newark, and Washington D.C.; yet, one of the bravest men in the Church, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò – who is in hiding, he isn’t even permitted a place on the margins. For the most part, these men have sacrificed and suffered much for the truth; many priests on the margins, including those who exclusively offer only the Novus Ordo Mass, have been persecuted by fellow clerics and their local ordinaries because they insist upon liturgical authenticity and the efficaciousness of Penance. Like St. John Vianney, they are often found in the confessional and not the golf-course or at a gay “pride” parade. Such priests truly exude “the smell of the sheep” and the odor of incense.
In 20 years, what have I learned? I tend to rely less on priests and place much of my trust in Our Lord Jesus Christ; I do not look for a priest to save me, because Christ already did that; I avoid priests who are prone to make grand gestures; while the Novus Ordo is particularly susceptible to this problem, because the priest is always on display – it can also appear as an overly florid presentation in the TLM; I have come to appreciate a rather workmanlike but beautiful Liturgy with humble priests – priests who are on the margins; as for the bishops, the majority of them – I just avoid. I remain personally wary and watchful over myself and those I love; and it is for the confused, desperate, and deceived members of the LGBT community that I (and many others) have endured so much in the Church – that remain in order to sound a warning call about an approaching wolf to the shepherd-less flock.
For much of His life, Jesus lived on the margins of the Jewish world – in Nazareth; with His Mother and step-father St. Joseph. I am happy to go there as well.
“From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.” – Pope Benedict XVI