March 25, 2004, the Feast of the Annunciation, felt like the longest day of my life. That evening, I was being honored by the United Way for my parish’s ministries to the poor and marginalized in the community. Shortly before the ceremony, a young reporter from the local newspaper interviewed me. She noted that I had been outspoken on many social issues and particularly supportive of the L.G.B.T. community. I knew this was the moment to come out publicly as a gay, Roman Catholic priest.
The journey to that moment was a long and often painful one. I knew I wanted to be a priest since I was in junior high school. Because priests are called to celibacy, I must have repressed my full sexuality through high school, seminary and the first years of priesthood. Society and the Catholic Church taught me that premarital sex was sinful and homosexuality was abominable.
From the moment I was ordained, I felt fulfilled in my vocation and loved all the aspects of my ministry: presiding at liturgies, visiting the sick, teaching children and enjoying parish life. I was blessed to have a pastor who taught me that serving the people was the heart the priesthood.
The journey to that moment was a long and often painful one.
After a few years, however, I began to notice an ache within me. This ache deepened as I recognized the emergence of a sexual energy that I had tried to resist for so long. Soon, the ache became dread. As I began to admit to myself my same-sex attractions, that dread became horror.
While on a retreat, I shared the truth about my sexuality for the first time with the Jesuit priest assigned as my spiritual director. I prayed that he would help me get back on track. I wanted to learn how to repress these impure thoughts. Instead, Father Paul explained that my sexual orientation is part of who God created me to be. I was and am wholly loved by God.
Little by little, with the help of some counseling and spiritual direction, I began to accept myself and, eventually, love myself as a gay man. I finally understood the true sacrifice of celibacy. Although I never acted on any of my desires, I needed to consciously recommit myself to this way of life in order to live as a priest with integrity. Gradually, I told a few close friends and family that I was gay. But for the most part, I remained in the closet.
Father Paul explained that my sexual orientation is part of who God created me to be.
This inner journey to self-acceptance dramatically changed my relationship with God. I experienced the unconditional love of God in my soul, in my gut and in my head. This love for God poured into love for my parishioners. My capacity for friendship and empathy deepened profoundly.
But I also grew increasingly frustrated that being closeted prevented me from sharing my story in a way that could benefit others. I wanted to accompany and minister to the poor, the excluded and those marginalized in church and society, and this included ministry to the L.G.B.T. community.
Then, in 2002, the sexual abuse scandal broke in the United States, and a number of church leaders began scapegoating gay priests as the cause of the crisis. I knew this was not true. I concluded that if I were to live with integrity and preach the Gospel without compromise, I needed to publicly come out of the closet. It was not an impulsive decision. It was preceded by prayer and strengthened by consultation with my spiritual director and the auxiliary bishop. I trusted in the Holy Spirit to show me the right moment to come out. The interview on the Feast of the Annunciation turned out to be that moment.
I shared with the reporter that in my years accompanying members of the L.G.B.T. community, I recognized in their deep pain my own struggle of self-acceptance as a gay man.
A number of church leaders began scapegoating gay priests as the cause of the sexual abuse crisis.
I waited for the newspaper the next morning with a bit of fear and trembling. Would the writer report what I said accurately? Would I be suspended by the bishop? Would my parishioners reject me? Would I be hurting people who do not understand?
The headline on the front page read: “Father Daley Reveals That He is Gay.” Meanwhile, “Father Daley Receives the United Way’s ‘Real Hero’ Award for his Work with the Poor” was relegated to an inner section of the paper.
That weekend I shared my story at the parish liturgies. I was met with standing ovations. One of my concerns in discerning whether I should come out or not was a fear that I would be hurting or confusing parishioners who might not understand. An elderly, very traditional Irish parishioner—she hated “those damned guitars at Mass”—relieved my fears. Mary always counted the offertory collection after the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass. Holding my breath, I knocked on the parish office door. Mary got up from her chair, gave me a hug and said, “Don’t worry, Father, I like men, too!”
I received hundreds of letters from around the country offering support. A few folks sent negative letters expressing concern for my homosexual soul going to hell—but even they assured me of their prayers. My bishop at the time and his successor have respected me and supported my ministry.
“We tend to be compassionate to the extent that we have suffered the Passion in our own lives.”
Many folks ask me if I think other gay priests should “come out.” Taking this step is a very personal and sacred decision for each person. I would only ask my brother gay priests to pray for the grace to reflect deeply on the question. I can say that, for me, coming out was and continues to be a blessing. Folks who are facing personal struggles perceive me as more approachable because they know I have had personal struggles, too. Any illusion of being on a clerical pedestal has thankfully melted away.
Being a public person, I have many opportunities to counter the homophobic prejudices that still exist in our church and society. One of my favorite spiritual themes comes from the writings and teaching of the Rev. Henri Nouwen, who said, “We tend to be compassionate to the extent that we have suffered the Passion in our own lives.”
As I look back on those days when I was in the closet, I am so grateful that, through the gift of the Spirit, that closet door was broken open. Through that gift, I could become the person God intends me to be. Do I have any regrets? Not a one! For the past 14 years, I have looked forward to March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, as the day an angel whispered in my ear: “Fred, ‘Be not afraid.’” On that day, love conquered fear in my relationships with God, my neighbors and myself. Often, with gratitude I reflect on the words: “We are as sick as our secrets.”