Above: “La Messa al Campo” By Emilio Rizzi (1938).
“There is nothing so strong as gentleness and there is nothing so gentle as real strength.” – Saint Francis de Sales
In 1999 I was alive; I had somehow survived over 10 years in the gay male community of San Francisco; although countless men were dying around me, I lived through some of the worst years of the AIDS crisis. Like the prodigal son from the Bible, I crawled back home and was welcomed by my long-suffering parents. They provided me with a place to sleep and to heal; I felt safe. But my parents could not ease the psychological and spiritual torment I was experiencing. Even though I hadn’t even thought of the Catholic Church for many years – I knew I needed a priest.
I knew next-to-nothing. In a sense, I was still that hurt and lonely teenage boy who walked away from the Church when he was sixteen years old. Almost since middle-school, I’d been told by priests that God truly loved me – but He also made me gay. Then, in my mind, a parish priest proved it to me.
After graduating from high-school, when I traveled to San Francisco, I thought I was fulfilling my God-given destiny. I understood that I would be at risk of contracting an incurable disease, but I couldn’t be alone one more day. I was painfully shy and nearly friendless, yet most of all I longed to find a man I could look up to and admire.
I never found him. Sadly, I only come across other men who grew up similarly alienated from their fathers, brothers, and male peers. The collective pain within us was so great that we’d risk anything – even death.
Sadly, I could not immediately overcome that deep inner yearning for masculine affirmation. Therefore, I hoped that I could find a strong and compassionate priest willing to guide me back towards sanity and God. Instead, I met a series of weak men; recently, Jordan Peterson boldly stated: “…there is nothing more dangerous than a weak man.”
As masculinity and fatherhood declined, especially in the Western world, there has arisen a set of feeble replacements – including homosexuality. The Catholic priesthood has mirrored this precipitous deterioration in the family that has been largely caused by the abdication of men as head of the household; in response to this catastrophe, women have done their best – but they can not be both mother and father to children, especially to boys. As a result, some priests of a certain generation are like their biological fathers: disinterested, preoccupied, and willing to let women take complete control. I met a number of those – it was far easier for them to attribute my homosexuality to biology or God rather than making the effort to understand the actual person and their past. But the majority of priests, located at parishes in or near the gay-ghetto, that had been my home for the majority of my adult life, were quick in their attempt to superficially relieve my fears; according to them, I should try to settle down with one guy. To help this along, he invited me a weekly LGBT tea party at the parish hall.
What he suggested – I’d already tried that. Now, I had tried Catholicism and was ready to walk away once again. Yet, this time, I had nowhere else to go. Somehow, I got reacquainted with a kindly and conservative priest I met a few times many years before; I went to Confession and attended his semi-underground Masses in Latin. But he only offered this Mass once a week. He had been persecuted and ridiculed for his orthodoxy. In the meantime, I attended Mass at a local parish but eventually I could no longer tolerate the banal homilies, the liturgical dancers, and the female-controlled liturgy. I was reminded of my relatively short stint as an altar-boy before women-acolytes pushed me out of the sacristy.
Somehow, I found out about a Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) in the South Bay – near San Jose. I didn’t know anything about it. Somewhat different from the Novus Ordo Mass in Latin that I had been attending. When I arrived – everything was practically incomprehensible; the general form of the Mass was different; the timing of the postures left me sitting and kneeling at the wrong moment; and everyone held these bulky black missals. Beforehand, there was a curious lack of chatter. But the first thing I noticed about those seated in the pews – were the large number of young men; many of whom were with their wife and numerous well-behaved children. At the altar stood a lone priest and a single altar-server. I couldn’t understand what was taking place, but I knew it was something extraordinary. Here was order and discipline; the chaotic flurry of constant activity that pervaded the theater-in-the-round environment at my hometown parish seemed like a three-ring-circus in comparison to the concentrated and controlled movements of the priest. With the priest turned away from the faithful, for a couple of seconds, I wondered: Where is the smiling and winking priest? But this Mass was not about the gregarious personality of the “presider” – it was about Our Lord Jesus Christ.
At this parish, the opportunity to receive the Sacrament of Penance was frequent and plentiful. Unlike my experiences with the parishes and priests in the gay-ghettoes, these priests did not treat me like a special case – not like a gay person. I was just another sinner; just another man. And their direction was clear and concise and radically simple. Like themselves – I needed to embrace the reality of suffering. In this world I could certainly find joy, but never complete and utter contentment. In the gay world, I wasted years searching for just that; at first, I thought I could find it in a sex; then in a relationship; later, I supposed that political and societal discrimination were collectively depressing the gay male potential to exist in continual happiness. But I was sick, and I needed a physician willing to recommend a painful treatment for my terminal condition – not a new-age practitioner that handed me a bag of magic crystals. For all their benevolence and abundance of platitudes, like the Mass they “celebrated,” for the gay-friendly priests – it was all about self-aggrandizement and personal popularity. In a sense, they were like gay men: looking for love and recognition from everyone, even during the Mass. In contrast, at the TLM, the priest seemed to almost disappear – only Christ remained truly present.
At this parish, I also discovered that the priests were truly Christ-like in their approach to sinners like me. As I began to read Holy Scripture, I recognized the actions of Christ in the Bible and the similar approach of the priests in Confession; emulating the Savior, they treated with respect and welcomed the “public sinner” and the “woman at the well,” but they left no one as they found them. They encouraged the truly penitent to abandon their former ways and to “sin no more.” This dead-serious admonition was not a judgement; instead, it was an act of love. For the wages of sin often carry with it a certain amount of self-evidence. The father of the “prodigal son” needed no proof that his son’s recklessness had finally brought him down to the lowest level of filth. My mere presence, a former gay man, was sufficient evidence to these priests that I sincerely desired forgiveness and a chance to begin again. They knew I wanted to change; and they encouraged me.
I made the long drive to this parish every Sunday until I discovered a TLM in Sacramento offered by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP.) In terms of a round-trip, going to Sacramento would mean about an hour less in travel-time. Yet, at first, I was incredibly disappointed because the Mass took place in a rather shabby parish in a neighborhood that bordered on scary. On my first day, some friendly parishioners warned me about possible “smash and grab” incidents involving parked cars near the church. But I was willing to take the risk; it also paled in comparison, after all, I had risked AIDS for the promise of salvation.
By now, some parts of the TLM were familiar to me; though I tended to always sit in the very back of the church in order to follow the silent direction from other more knowledgeable men. From sympathetic bystanders who spotted my fumbling with a used missal I bought at a thrift-store, I slowly learned where to place a multitude of colored ribbons. After I knew passingly what I was doing, I started to straighten my almost life-long slouch; the feminine lilt in my voice (commonly referred to as “gay voice”) began to deepen – mysteriously this only became apparent when (albeit badly) chanting in Latin.
As I got to know better some of my fellow parishioners, I learned that the previous Mass I attended was at an SSPX parish; I had no idea what they were talking about. Over time, I became familiar with the various factions that comprised the Latin Mass movement in the Catholic Church: the FSSP, the SSPV, the Institute of Christ the King, the sedevacantists, the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). I could not understand overheard conversations regarding the intricacies of which religious order was in good-standing with the Vatican. In all honesty, I didn’t care. When I was lying near-dead on the side of the road, I didn’t care who picked me up; all I knew, is that they cared when so many others passed me by; when you are wounded on the battlefield, a dying soldier doesn’t ask to see an assisting doctor’s credentials; they have faith in the competent diligence of leadership to oversee and regulate such important matters.
Unfortunately, as I learned, in the realm of the Latin Mass, this did not always happen. Within the loose conglomeration of the laity who appreciated the TLM were a strange miasma of “independent priests,” unregularized religious orders, and even a renegade Pope. For a while, because it was only a short distance from my home, I went to Mass at a St. Pius V (SSPV) parish. Something wasn’t right. Within a few months, I left and returned to the FSSP.
I was getting tired, and I wanted to be closer (geographically) to the Mass; almost simultaneously, friends and acquaintances from my old life began to reappear; they emailed, they called – and I didn’t return their messages. I felt like a heel. As if I were abandoning former comrades. Rather than deal with my past, I decided to run away. Through the small but growing presence of Latin Mass devotees on the world-wide-web, I became familiar with a newly-founded group of traditional Catholic priests (The Society of St. John or SSJ) located in the Diocese of Scranton; then, Bishop James Timlin of Pennsylvania was one of a single handful of Catholic Bishops in the US who not only welcomed, but encouraged those who appreciated the TLM. Evidently, he had welcomed these former SSPX priests to his Diocese and that apparent imprimatur was enough for me.
Quickly, I arranged to visit their new headquarters – located in the isolated forests of the Pocono Mountains. I felt safe there. As for the priests, they were all close to my age, handsome, well-groomed, they constantly wore black cassocks, and they wholly welcomed me. I didn’t want to leave. Before I left to return to California, they invited me to return – for good.
I went home, collected a few belongings, and hurried back. I immediately settled into a regular routine: daily Mass, chores around the priest’s residence, cooking, cleaning, and walks in the woods with my rosary. Also, for the first time in my life, I received a consistent schedule of spiritual direction. I told the priest everything. In general, I found his advise to be unhelpful; he seemed constantly preoccupied. After a while, I stopped going and he didn’t inquire about my whereabouts.
The once beautiful liturgies became rote – even sloppy during the week. However, on Sundays, there was almost a florid drag-queen style to the proceedings that was accentuated by the heavy baroque vestments. These Masses left me confused and empty. Then, suddenly, my solitude was repeatedly invaded by the presence of recent graduates from the nearby boy’s school – where the priests once served as chaplains; placed there by the Bishop. I was immediately disturbed and suspicious; I returned to my spiritual director with my concerns. He believed that my past life experiences had tainted my perceptions; and my judgements. I believed him. I spent months self-flagellating my mind that I believed was filled with dirty thoughts. As a consequence, my health deteriorated; I couldn’t eat or sleep. A nearby physician thought I had AIDS. I got tested. It was negative. I didn’t get any better. I thought I was going to die. As I had done before, I crawled home – this time, on a transcontinental flight.
I had been broken – again. I wondered how I had caused this: My pride; my desire to be rescued; my need for friendship and affirmation?
I contacted the Diocese back in Scranton and was treated with disbelief. I abandoned the Sacraments. I stopped going to Mass. I even doubted my belief in Christ.
Slowly, the truth began to emerge: about the abuse perpetrated by these priests upon young men; their grooming of prospective victims; and the background of the abusers. The superior general of the SSJ had been dismissed from the SSPX seminary in Argentina; while there, he had been accused of making homosexual advances towards other seminarians. Yet, inexplicably, he was given another chance at the SSPX seminary in Winona, Minnesota. He was eventually ordained; but, according to a report, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the SSPX, directed that his superiors should “watch him like a hawk.”
However, the story continued. In 1997, when the future superior of the SSJ began to exert a peculiar influence over other SSPX priests and seminaries, he was expelled from the seminary where he had remained as a teacher. He took other priests with him – and they eventually headed for the Diocese of Scranton.
In February of 1999, a couple of months before I made their acquaintance, Bishop Bernard Fellay, then-superior general of the SSPX, contacted Bishop Timlin and informed him about the priest’s homosexual inclinations and manipulative predatory behavior. An investigation was launched into these matters by the Diocese and the accusations made the seminarian were deemed credible; but the accused priest was never suspended; in fact, he continued to freely function as a priest in the Diocese. While all of this was going on, unbeknownst to me, I was visiting and then moving to Pennsylvania.
Mistakes were made; there was a complete breakdown in oversight and prudential judgement. Albeit, everything described above took place primarily before the initial reporting on the Boston sex abuse scandal; those in official capacities, mainly the Bishops, should have acted decisively: in retrospect, the future superior of the SSJ should never have been ordained in the first place; secondly, with suspicions whirling about him, why was he allowed access to seminarians? Lastly, Bishop Timlin should have heeded the warnings issued by Bishop Fellay as well as the findings of his own investigators. I believe there was massive negligence in this case. But this is symptomatic of a larger problem in the Church: a lack of leadership from the very highest echelons. As I have often described, the Catholic Church is not a democracy; it is a top-down organization. The SSPX should never have been allowed to persist in a perpetual state of near-schism; but these are the rotten fruits of the deconstruction of the Liturgy which took place during the reign of Pope Paul VI. The long-standing and organic developments in the Mass were abandoned as the Liturgy was assembled by iconoclasts; this travesty reminds me of the undeniable ugliness and slip-shod quality of much “modern art.” The advancements and innovations of the past were disregarded for a new order of seeing. Like the post-modernists, the past was quickly skimmed through and marked with red ink for anything deemed redundant, superlative, or beautiful. This new vision was to be seen as more accessible and welcoming; a less clerical and priest-centered celebration with more involvement from the laity; in actuality, the opposite was true – with the rise of celebrity priests and a small number of lay-ministers who jealously guard their enshrined positions of authority.
As in the family, most men were left behind. Hierarchical structures and a so-called grand-narrative no longer had any meaning or social import. As argued by some – the priesthood should be opened up to everyone – including women.
What the Church desperately needs is bold men who are willing to make courageous decisions. Their first and foremost priority should be the welfare of their flock; tragically, many Bishops have become absentee or distant and disinterested fathers – making sure that everyone has a roof over their shoulders, but not really involved in the day-to-day care of those under his protection. Logistically this is obviously not possible, but for this reason – Bishops should be highly involved and constantly overseeing the selection and formation of new priests. Instead, especially in certain dioceses, this vital responsibility has been bequeathed to those with an obvious agenda; while attempting to advance some sort of outreach towards the LGBT community that actually remained faithful to Church teaching, I was once questioned by an aged and angry nun (who also served as a diocesan priestly vocations co-director) concerning my acceptance for the inevitable reality of the female priesthood following the death of Pope John Paul II.
The Church doesn’t need any more legalistic bureaucrats, administrators, or episcopal fundraisers; the Church, the family, and society needs fathers. Sadly, many good and faithful priests are fatherless and they are doing the best they can manage; this realization was made abundantly clear when the Bishops of the US unceremoniously locked the churches and priests were left scrambling – trying to minister to their flock; many were incredibly imaginative: offering live-streamed Masses and drive-thru Confession. Except for a few notable exceptions, the Bishops have been conspicuously feckless and legalistic in their approach.
Nowadays, the SSPX is a bit like hydroxychloroquine; not all the experts and scientists agree, but in such times of life and death, there are many who are desperate and they are unwilling to wait although there is much that is still unknown. And, in the age of AIDS, I similarly had few choices.
As for my own involvement with the SSPX – these are good men. Like many of us, they have been abandoned by the sleeping shepherds in the Church. I would rather receive absolution from an SSPX priest, humbly hearing Confession at a little hidden-away parish, than be told by a priest, with perfect canonical status in San Francisco, that the best I can do (and all God expects of me) is to have homosexual relations with a long-term partner. Therefore, in this time of uncertainty, I am not surprised that some have turned to the SSPX; for they represent a certain amount of surety in the midst of chaos.
In the meantime, mistakes have been made and are being made – the innocent and vulnerable are suffering. I place much of the blame on the Bishops – they are head of this household.