‘Who Am I to Judge?’
I’m not sure if any official guidelines exist about going to a priest for spiritual direction; but if they do, I’m fairly certain that “Remember to insult your spiritual director at the first meeting” is not among them.
In my defense, it wasn’t intentional. I’d known the priest since my freshman year of high school, so I felt pretty comfortable when I first sat down with him for direction in my early 20s. The place where we met housed a lot of new seminarians, some of whom I got the chance to meet while waiting for my appointment. “Nice guys,” I commented to my director when we finally settled in. Then I cracked, “Some of them might be a little light in the loafers though, don’t you think?”
He paused for a moment. “You know, McGarvey,” he said calmly, “you’ve been ministered to by gay men your whole life; you just didn’t know it.”
To say that I was stunned would not be entirely accurate. It was more like an uncomfortable epiphany. His words weren’t hostile. This wise older priest, whose vocation had been formed as a young officer in combat, seemed to be stating a simple fact that I had been either too immature or naïve to recognize.
As I sat there, countless episodes from my life and the lives of family and friends all flooded back—from periods of darkness and personal crises, through life-threatening illnesses and deaths in my family, not to mention baptisms, confirmations, weddings and more. Was it possible that over all those years, God’s mercy and forgiveness had often been mediated to me and my loved ones through priests who also happened to be gay?
It became clear to me that the answer to that question was undoubtedly yes. When I was growing up, I’d been fortunate to come into contact with numerous priests and brothers, who had a tremendous positive impact on my life. Upon reflection, Christ’s love looked the same regardless of whether it was filtered through a gay priest/brother or a straight one.
I felt embarrassed and slightly dense for having been so blind and thoughtless. The fact that this realization came at the prompting of a straight man also helped me to recognize that there might be an alternative model for manhood, one that moved beyond simplistic stereotypes and phobic assumptions. It was an unintended gift for which I remain grateful 20 years later.
At that time, many of my fellow Catholics would have regarded this information as “giving scandal” (to use an older generation’s term). This was a time before the Web revolutionized our ability to share information and, consequently, demand unprecedented levels of institutional transparency. It was a time before the sexual abuse crisis transformed the fear of “giving scandal” into the need to “speak honestly.”
It was also a time before Pope Francis’ now famous comments regarding gay priests. “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will,” Francis told reporters, “well, who am I to judge them?” With a few simple words, the pope gave the entire church an unintentional gift of his own by ratcheting down the rhetoric and allowing us to speak honestly about what is real.
Whatever statistical analysis you choose to cite (23 percent? 58 percent?), according to the Rev. Donald Cozzens, a former seminary rector who has written on the topic, “it is clear that the percentage of homosexual priests and seminarians is significantly higher than it is in society at large.”
Rather than being scandalized, I would argue that Catholics are actually better situated than any group on earth to embrace our gay brothers and sisters. This is true simply because God has embraced us first through their ministry in our lives.
In his first six months, this pope has proven himself to be a master of tone—a communicator who understands that messages are conveyed in countless ways, language being just one among them. It’s as if he actually took to heart a lesson all of us learned as children: “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”
No one has any illusions that Francis has changed any church teachings. For many of my friends and colleagues who are gay the pope’s comments were met with an enormous sigh of relief. For many others, like me, it was simply a welcome recognition of reality.