To him who still remains in this world no repentance is too late. The approach to God’s mercy is open, and the access is easy to those who seek and apprehend the truth. ~ St. Cyprian
The Lord Jesus promised, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (Jn. 8:32). Scripture bids us speak the truth in love (cf. Eph. 4:15). The God who is at once truth and love calls the Church to minister to every man, woman and child with the pastoral solicitude of our compassionate Lord. It is in this spirit that we have addressed this Letter to the Bishops of the Church, with the hope that it will be of some help as they care for those whose suffering can only be intensified by error and lightened by truth. ~ Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons
People cannot come to true and genuine repentance until they realize that sin is contrary to the ethical norm written in their in most being; until they admit that they have had a personal and responsible experience of this contrast; until they say not only that “sin exists” but also “I have sinned”; until they admit that sin has introduced a division into their consciences which then pervades their whole being and separates them from God… ~ St. John Paul
When I returned to the Catholic Church in 1999, I did so as a man who was looking for answers – primarily an answer to why my life had so completely and irreversibly spun out-of-control. I was desperate, and I made a desperate decision. For, many years before, when I was still a teenager, I had long given up on the Church of my youth. Now, I was returning to it – and I didn’t know why.
Since a child, I had a fascination with religion and God – my father, coming to America from Sicily, with very little except some ornate Byzantine icons. As a little boy I would stare at them and I knew that somewhere there existed a world beyond myself; a world that was both beautiful and mystical…and perfect.
Starting almost from the beginning of my twelve years in Catholic parochial school, in the 1970s, there was a concerted effort to portray Christ as approachable, but in doing so – they made Jesus look ordinary. He was less God and more “Godspell.” In almost an instant: Jesus went from iconic to catatonic.
In high-school, Christ was a historical figure who, like the Buddha, was a master-teacher, but not a God. He did not so much start a religion, but a political movement based on social justice; then, epitomized by liberation-theology. Apparently, Jesus had a lot to say about the economic situations in certain Central American countries, but nothing to offer on the issues which meant so much to me at the time: my ever growing feelings of isolation, the relentless confusion about my sexuality, and my unremitting need for love.
Christ or Catholicism presented no solution, yet the map-of-life was somehow miraculously enshrined within our individual consciences; we had to make the decision between right and wrong. And, what was right – would always feel good.
Without a guide, other than the confusing thoughts in my head, I gleaned what information I could from various disco albums, including The Village People, numerous television shows, and pornographic magazines. The supposed sexual liberties to be found at the YMCA, the fun and freedom from constantly shifting gender identities as portrayed in “Three’s Company,” and the risk-free hedonism of Hugh Hefner became my supreme models. All these supposedly divergent voices combined into one chorus that eventually called me to San Francisco. And, there I believed I would find salvation.
At the time, I thought I was doing the right thing…for me, so I followed what I supposed was my inner-voice. At first, I loved the instantaneous all-male comradery to be found in the gay male world. As an awkward and unpopular kid, this was something I had never experienced, but had always preoccupied my thoughts. When most young men were dreaming about being with a girl, I just wanted to be with the boys – not with one boy, with all of those who never acknowledged me. Many years later, after watching once beautiful men turn into monsters, nothing seemed to make sense anymore. Then, sometimes slowly, sometimes almost overnight, I began to wonder as salvation turned into slavery.
Later, when those fellow-exiles from the unaccepting realm of heterosexual masculinity began to suddenly die – I questioned whether or not it had all been worth it; had it all been an illusion. I talked to a priest, a friend of my parents, who rather patronizingly told me that I was “gay” and that I need to perhaps be a bit more careful. But, it was this supposition that I was beginning to doubt; only, he assured me, and told me: “When someone is born gay – the best they can do is settle down with one partner; and the Church understands and supports that.” Later, after we talked, he wanted to laugh and have drinks with me. So, we did.
Lulled back into the life, I resigned myself to the fact that I was “gay” and that this was where I belonged. Again, for a while, it worked. Then, my body began to break-down; the rapid-fire life of all-night dancing, drinking, and debauchery comprised a nonstop schedule that was more easily managed in my late-teens than as a semi-broken down wreck nearing thirty. As a result, for a short time, I took the priest’s advice and found a steady boyfriend. And, like Madonna, and everything else in “gay,” you outwardly reinvent yourself and my new life of same-sex monogamy brought with it the promise of a fresh start. Only, sooner rather than later, it too began to feel boring and stale. While I looked to the handful of “gay” men who appeared to be making a go of their stable partnerships – I also realized that many of them were in their late-40s and 50s, burned-out from the scene, tired of the constant carousing, and or infected with HIV. For many of them, “gay” monogamy seemed like not a fulfillment of their life, but as a necessary compromise; it was the last-stop on the “gay” train, that many understood inevitably led to disease and death.
Somewhat defeated, I went back to the “gay” scene found on Castro Street and I gave it all one last push. Except, I wasn’t nineteen anymore. Amidst the continued reckless pace – I tried to keep going, but I eventually crashed. Only, this time, I couldn’t move. Then, someone, who I didn’t know, picked me up and carried me out.
I felt desperate and near-dead. I spent the last ten years trying everything – there was nothing in “gay” I hadn’t done; and none of it lasted. I was hopelessly lost and didn’t know where to turn. What I did next, I couldn’t understand: I turned to the only one who was there – I turned to Christ. In my senseless life, this really didn’t make sense. Sixteen years later, I get it. Because when you are crawling on the floor though a dark smoke-filled room inside a burning building and someone reaches out for you, you don’t look at see who it is before you take their hand. If you want to live, you just take it. And, when everything was collapsing all around me into a fiery inferno – Our Lord Jesus Christ was the only one who rushed in.
Almost immediately, directly in my path, the Lord dropped the hulking and immensely intimidating “The Catechism of the Catholic.” I flipped through it, then turned to the relatively few and surprisingly short sections dealing with homosexuality. The words which I remembered the most were these: “This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial.” Simple, but I had never thought of it that way. My impression of homosexuality always ranged from indifference to it being a gift from God. Now, I only had to look at my collapsed body, and the trail of corpses that lay behind me, to realize that this was no gift, but an immense lie.
And, it was that new-found consciousness which I took with me when I arrived at a local Catholic parish to make my first Confession in many years. Approaching, what they labeled the “Reconciliation Room,” I was somewhat trepidatious as my earlier experiences with Catholic priests had been solidly affirmative on the side of “gay.” A few minutes later, while walking out of the church, I thought to myself: Maybe I made a mistake. Not in trying to leave “gay,” but in returning to the Catholic Church.
Then, out of nowhere, I remembered a priest that I hadn’t seen or heard from in over a decade. Actually, I never really knew him – I only saw him in church. This was when I was in my late-teens, freshly new to the gay scene in San Francisco, but when I would occasionally come home, my parents insisted that I go together with them to Sunday Mass. While I only half-listened to what the priest had to say, his demeanor and the way he said things inexplicably stuck with me.
From my childhood onwards, recollections of a Sunday sermon always revolved around the priest’s point-by-point retelling of his Saturday golf game, the need for donations in order to pay for some parish maintenance or building repairs, or a meditation on a reading from “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” Yet, this man did none of those things – he talked with confidence and force about the Gospel and what it should mean to our lives. Then, I was too immersed in “gay” culture, but I did notice him as a rather formidable masculine personality. And, I never forgot him.
Later, when I intermediately returned home, I heard my parents passingly talk about this tough priest. People at the parish didn’t like him, and his duties were slowly downgraded and diminished. I paid little mind to what they were saying, never realizing that this man would later play a pivotal role in my life. (In retrospect, the priest who helped save me, endured, at best, a difficult road as a priest; oftentimes, he was purposefully ridiculed and set-aside for, what I thought were, nefarious forms of reeducation. Ultimately, it’s a tragic story.)
Now, I was desperate again: I returned to the parish where I last saw that priest, to only learn he had long since been transferred. They gave me the name of his new parish and I called him; after nearly a decade, he remembered my parents and remembered me from a brief meeting in the vestibule after Mass. I told him that I wanted to return to the Church. He said I needed to go to Confession; then, he gave me clear direction: when and where to show up; and that I should attend the Mass he would offer later that same day. I did as he said.
For the next few months, I followed that same routine of weekly Confession followed by Mass. Occasionally, if I needed to discuss something, I would make an appointment beforehand. Back then, I was struggling, not with what the Church taught, but with what I needed to do in my own life. In the beginning, I thought that since I had given up “gay” sex, why I should also have to give up “gay.” Meaning, I had no trouble with the concept of the sinfulness of homosexual acts, yet I wanted to maintain what I thought was an integral part of my identity. But I was a grown-man, and Father wasn’t going to sit silently by as I continued to believe in Santa Claus. Now, he could have “accompanied” me on this journey, but I was returning to the pro-gay theological works of John McNeill and John Boswell in an attempt to justify my continued chaste Catholic gayness. He also understood that believing in a fantasy was different from a childhood fairytale – for my identity hinged on that falsehood; to not directly oppose that illusion, would have been neither charitable nor merciful, it would have been cowardly. For, Father truly took the words of “The Catechism” to heart, namely:
“By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”
Father knew that I could be so much more than a “gay” Catholic man, that I could be refined and reduced to a Catholic man; because he understood that my ultimate salvation and happiness required that I decrease so that Christ may increase. That meant, not a layering on of more identities, but a complete stripping away.*
When we talked Father wasn’t trying to be my friend, but a Father. He told me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear. He gave me advice that benefited my soul, and didn’t pander to my self-doubt. He smashed my pop-culture hallucinations, and gave me true examples of masculinity and femininity as perfectly realized in the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. He didn’t coddle my insecurities; he challenged me to confront them. He didn’t see me as a “gay” man, but as another broken and betrayed wastrel from God. He never treated me like a special case; he just treated me like a just another sinner. He wanted to guide me along this path to perfection when I was more-than-happy to settle for “gay” and chaste.
At times, he was tough and I didn’t like him. There were occasions when I even hated him. I thought I would punish him and stay away. Then, while I sat at home brooding, he went about his day. When I cooled down and called him, we picked up right where we left off. Sometimes, I would return and quarrel with him. He didn’t waste a single minute on my weak arguments as they were always based on emotion. Where I wanted to make things complicated, he always brought me back to the seemingly trite reality of simplicity. Occasionally, I would regurgitate the old axioms that still clinged to me from my former life; for instance, something about being born gay, or that God made me this way, or God wouldn’t want me to suffer – so let me be. In the midst of my repertoire, Father would interrupt me with a shocking statement like: “Where is this coming from Joe – from the devil?” He was right. Sometimes, when I was especially bull-headed, he told me to go home. Father didn’t do “discourse” or “dialogue.” He immediately called out a lie as a lie, and then shut the conversation down. Today, I am reminded of Christ’s admonition to Peter: “Go behind me, Satan, thou art a scandal unto me: because thou savourest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men.”
During my whole life: from what I heard in the pro-gay media to the placating words of gay-affirmative Catholic priests, everything and everyone confirmed what I thought about myself – that I was gay. Only, one person didn’t do that. He refused to see me as the summation of my broken childhood. He wouldn’t allow me to surrender my soul over to my fears. And, he recognized the good man underneath all the “gay” pretense. In order to do that, he had to break down the image that I had of myself – and you do not do that by telling someone: “You are gay – and okay.”
He didn’t see “gay” as an identity, but as a symptom of a deeper inner struggle. Rather gruffly, he pushed aside the false “gay” persona that I presented to the world and went straight to the hurt and whimpering kid in the corner. He understood that my continued reliance on gay was petulant and demanding. No one had stood up to that fact. Yet, Father exemplified a sort of “muscular Christianity,” not based on bulk, because he wasn’t a physically impressive man, but on a sheer confidence in the Truth. Because, he didn’t see gay as something inevitable; his approach was antithetical to most “pastoral” approaches which attempt to “accompany” and even “celebrate” a person’s supposed gayness and the “blessings” inherent in the homosexual orientation; for example, the Archdiocese of San Jose has officially put forward in its “LGBT Ministry,” namely that: “[homosexuals] cannot change their sexual orientation but must understand it and integrate it into their life of faith and conscience.” Father wanted me to fight against it – because he knew that homosexuality was simply covering over the unhealed wounds of my life. This was a spiritual battle for my soul – to “integrate” gay, would have allowed the enemy a permanent outpost inside of me; from there, it would have taken over forever. With the help of this good and faithful priest, in my case, God won.
Only, this process was not a pleasant one, often it felt like a vicious beating and a painful stripping away of who I thought I was. It reminded me of this meditation from The Stations of the Cross: “Consider the violence with which the executioners stripped Jesus. His inner garments adhered to His torn flesh, and they dragged them off so roughly that the skin came with them.” In “The Institutes,” early 5th Century Church Father St. John Cassian wrote, regarding the spirit of fornication: “…first of all, the hidden places of our heart must be carefully purified.” As every boy or girl who grew up feeling “gay” knows all too well, there is no more “hidden place” in our heart than the deeply recessed section which contained our deepest longings for those of the same-sex. A thousand years later. St. John of the Cross wrote: “A bird caught in birdlime has a twofold task: It must free itself and cleanse itself. And by satisfying their appetites, people suffer in a twofold way: They must detach themselves and, after being detached, clean themselves of what has clung to them.” For those Catholics still attached to being “gay,” they are caught in the ultimate birdlime – with “gay” as the incessantly sticky substance that they just can’t entirely clean off. St. Josemaria Escriva made a somewhat similar statement: “To heal a wound, the first thing to do is to clean it well, including a wide area around it. The surgeon knows that the cleaning hurts, but he also knows that there will be worse pain later if it is not done.…then when the health of the soul is at stake — the very nerve center of a man’s life — how much more necessary it is to wash, to cut away, to scrape, to disinfect, to suffer!”
“They that are well have no need of a physician, but they that are sick. For I came not to call the just, but sinners.”
In many ways, Father was that surgeon St. Josemaria Escriva was talking about. Not someone who put a pink and blue Band-Aid on a bullet wound, but a man of grit and determination that had the strength to endure our screams as he cleaned the festering wound we kept concealed for so long.
The problem with current “gay” and LGBT ministries within the Catholic Church starts right-away with their names: when you refer to someone as “gay,” as LGBT; when you group them into an identity caste-system; when you treat them differently, you often indelibly confirm that identity within the person. Moreover, through the inclusion of “gay” symbolism, most notably the “rainbow” flag, in the logos and outreach material for these “ministries,” this sends an overt signal that somehow a “gay’ identity, even certain homosexual activity, is compatible with the struggle towards “Christian perfection.” True mercy and compassion is not about raising the “gay’ flag, for that is a sure sign of surrender. It’s about defying every “gay” and LGBT false idol; it’s about defying everything the “gay” person holds most dear – including their very identity. The priest who helped save me once put it this way: “Joe – You need to choose God or gay? –Which one is it going to be?”
*One of the worst “Catholic” examples I have seen with regards to a never-ending multiplication of identities is from “The Rainbow Resource Center” at Santa Clara University:
“The Rainbow Resource Center seeks to educate the greater SCU community and empower Santa Clara students, faculty, staff, and alumni who self-identify within the wide spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities.
These identities include, but are not limited to: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Pansexual, Asexual, and Ally (LGBTQQIPAA).”