As I mentioned in my previous post, I had an intense spiritual experience in the fall of 2013 that changed my entire life’s trajectory. During a retreat hosted by my university’s Catholic Student Association (CSA), I felt a call to follow Jesus more deeply. Specifically, I interpreted this experience, this call to mean that God wanted me to become a priest. I believed I had been called to serve the Church.
During the closing Mass of the retreat, we had the opportunity to share what we had experienced over the weekend and any resolutions we had made. While most of the retreatants who spoke wanted to attend Mass more regularly, give up unhealthy habits, or just be a better person, I decided to reveal in a very public way the call I believed I had received to become a priest. Little did I know that in accepting the call to discern a vocation to the priesthood that I would also be discerning my sexuality and my very existence within the Roman Catholic Church.
Discerning a call to the priesthood is serious business.
Before a man can enter seminary to begin his studies for the priesthood, he must first go through an intense period of discernment. In many denominations, those seeking ordination can enter seminary with very few strings attached. In the Roman Catholic Church in the US, however, this is not the case. Since the diocese generally foots tuition and living expenses, the bishop can be very picky about who gets to study.
In my diocese, potential seminarians were encouraged to attend monthly discernment gatherings with others considering the priesthood. One of the first things I needed to do was seek out spiritual direction from my parish priest (a very wise missionary priest from India). I went to Mass almost daily, confessed every time I sinned, and prayed the liturgy of the hours. I became the best Catholic I could- literally every waking moment I had included something Catholic. Other than my preoccupation with God’s wrath and my fear of going to Hell for having impure thoughts, it was a really powerful period of life for me spiritually.
If we don’t talk about it, maybe it will go away.
It was definitely an interesting time to be in denial about my homosexuality. Courts were ruling on whether two people of the same gender had the right to marry, the Evangelical ‘Right’ was equating gay sex with bestiality, and the newly elected Pope was saying that it was not his place to cast judgement on gay folks. In the midst of all this turmoil, I fully drank of the official Church teaching on homosexuality, namely that its expression is always intrinsically disordered (“Catechism of the Catholic Church” 2357). Deep within me, I believed that not only were my thoughts and longings intrinsically disordered, but also my very being. I was a fraud, a dirty fraud who God could never accept long term unless I completely rejected and banished this core aspect of myself.
Homosexuality was often discussed as a spiritual weakness that could be overcome with prayer and counseling. It was even suggested by some that ‘Same Sex Attraction’ (shortened to ‘SSA’ in my university-aged Catholic circles) was a tool that demons used to draw people away from their true, divine calling to the priesthood or religious life. In this very strict understanding of Church teaching, there is no room for the actual lived experience of Queer people; for people inclined to conservative religious interpretations, there is often little room for dialogue because, in these rigid belief systems, there can be no grey areas. Grey areas lead to questions, questions create doubts, and doubts erode a believer’s faith. Grey areas must be avoided at all costs.
I actively avoided discussing my ‘homosexual tendencies,’ even during spiritual direction. The only times I was ever truly honest were during confession, but that was only out of fear of burning in Hell. My non-religious friends suspected, but I could not accept that my ‘SSA’ was anything more than a sign that God wanted me to be celibate. The summer of 2014, however, changed all of that. That summer, on my first solo trip to Europe, I finally heard someone say that God would always love me no matter what gender I was attracted to.
And that was a game changer.
(All photos used in this post are in the public domain.)