Gay and Catholic: A Reconciliation of Faith and Self-Identity

Sunday November 1, 2020

Benjamin James Brenkert
Benjamin James Brenkert  

By Benjamin James Brenkert

Pope Francis has made recent headlines by confusing his 1.2 billion Catholics about the place of LGBTQ people in the secular world, advocating for civil rights outside the Church and putting LGBTQ rights to the States. What about the LGBTQ community pursuing salvation inside the Church?

The Pope told the director of an upcoming documentary that the LGBTQ community deserves protections for same-sex civil unions but not salvation inside the Church. This is the Pope's most substantial flop and is nowhere near to the game-changing opportunity that most mainstream media has accelerated itself to believe. But I am not surprised; the Pope is a great mass mis-director. Something I learned early on in my pursuit of a vocation as a gay man with the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

It was sometime between the years 2004 and 2005 when I found myself sitting mesmerized during a rehearsal of Stephen Adly Guirgis' play, "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot." Across from me sat the actors Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Rockwell, Guirgis, and the other cast members. I was the guest of honor of Fr. James Martin, the Jesuit priest, and the rapidly ascending voice of popular Roman Catholicism in America. Almost immediately, as an aspirant, or someone who expressed interest in the Society of Jesus, I met the powerful, the privileged, those with money, those with access to the best education money could buy.

As a 20-something, young gay Catholic from middle-class roots the Jesuit way of life offered me the only chance at becoming a priest. When I first wrote the Jesuit Fr. Peter Arabia, then a retreat director at St. Ignatius of Loyola Retreat House, Manhasset, New York, I did not shy away from who I was. I wrote to him:

"I am a young gay man who has prayed about and discerned a calling to enter the priesthood. I have read about the life of Matteo Ricci and Walter Ciszek and read up on the Jesuits online. If you will meet with me, knowing that I am a gay man who believes that he has heard a genuine calling from God, please write back."

And Fr. Arabia did, he said, "Let's meet." Fr. Arabia was the first Jesuit I met and the first Jesuit who told me that I could be an openly gay Jesuit priest. That my religious community would welcome me and that my parishioners would love my honesty and integrity.

I was hooked. Quickly the Jesuits took me in, pre-training my mind for a wonderful nearly 10-years of becoming and being a Jesuit. I learned to think like Saint Ignatius of Loyola, speak like Saint Francis Xavier, pray the Examination of Conscience, find God in all things, and ask for the grace I desired not wanted, most.

Perhaps I was naïve, as the child mode took over my life. Like gravity itself, the hope for acceptance, the yearning to become an openly gay priest, hit the ground with a thud. By then, I was preparing to profess first vows in August 2007. The next seven years went by with many ups and downs until I discerned my departure from the Jesuits because they would not let me come out as a gay Jesuit and because they would not publicly condemn the firing of LGBTQ employees and volunteers from Churches and other Roman Catholic institutions.

Of course, by this time, Fr. Martin, along with other Jesuits, had vacationed together many times. We swam in pools together, ate dinner together in communities across America, phoned each other occasionally to offer words of support. I often told Fr. Martin, who had also encouraged me to be(come) an openly gay Jesuit about my lamentations: that his encouragements were falling further and farther away from reality. I told him about the internalized homophobia that I felt from closeted gay Jesuits or the discrimination I experienced at the hands of my homophobic classmates and peers.

When I think about the press and coverage Fr. Martin receives, I remain in awe, mostly, I remember the play he took me to after he told me that I could be an out gay Jesuit priest. In Guirgis' play, "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," Judas is put on trial, to be condemned to an eternity in hell. The play is satirical. Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Fr. Martin betrayed me with silence; he never supported my coming out publicly to support the LGBTQ community.

Pope Francis never responded to my Open Letter. Perhaps they both knew all too well that the Church would never mature for me, or that they and others could never rewrite the Catechism of the Catholic Church to affirm the positive contributions of LGBTQ people in our lifetime. Galileo was once condemned by the Church only to be fully restored to its communion later; perhaps that is the faith one must have for the fate of LGBTQ Christians in the Church.

Benjamin James Brenkert is a New York-based writer who left formation to become a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest after learning that the Church was firing more and more lesbian and gay employees and volunteers. He is the author of "A Catechism of the Heart: A Jesuit Missioned to the Laity."

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