The existence of gay men in the Catholic priesthood is one that is surrounded by so many clouds of mystery. The reason for the mystery is that so few gay priests publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation. One priest who has “come out” reflected on the experience, and his insights shed some light on other priests’ reluctance to do so.
Father André Samson of Ottawa, Canada, went public about his orientation on a popular Canadian talk show last year. The Ottawa Citizen recently interviewed him about his declaration, and his observations are important and poignant.
Samson sees it as an important responsibility for him to speak out: “If not me, who will?”
Most importantly, Samson said that the experience of being open has led to a strong sense of affirmation in his life. “It’s good to be me,” he stated.
Such affirmation was not present in his early life, where he said that growing up in a conservative Catholic family kept him from acknowledging his feelings. Adolescence found him bullied and beaten in school. He turned to the priesthood, he said, as a way to explain why he didn’t marry and to “regain a sense of dignity.”
After being ordained over 30 years ago, he came to realize that he was not the only gay man in the priesthood. His reflections since coming out explain why many priests are reluctant to be public:
“He added that many priests and bishops continue to hide their sexual orientation because of their dependence and their fear of being rejected by the church, but he wants others to revel in who they really are.
“ ‘I know it’s not healthy to live with that kind of fear,’ said Samson, who has lived a life of service, teaching counselling as a University of Ottawa professor and serving as a chaplain during the Persian Gulf War.
“I would like to see the Catholic church recognize that many of its priests are gay and many of its bishops are gay — and that’s OK,” he added.
Samson is no stranger to truth-telling. In 2013, he was relieved of duties at a Montreal church, which he believes was because he tried to raise the issue of clergy sex abuse there.
Fear is such a powerful and harmful force in our lives. So much harm in our Church is caused by fear, particularly fear of authority. We need to remember that Jesus’ constant message to his disciples was: “Be not afraid.”
There is great reward in facing up to fear, and Samson expressed that powerfully. Describing what it was like immediately after his television declaration, he said: “I really felt for the first time in my life, I felt free.”
What surprised Samson the most was that he received hundreds of supportive emails and messages. Not one email came from a fellow priest. I think that shows how deeply entrenched the fear of homosexuality is in clerical culture.
Catholics, as polls continually show, support LGBT people very strongly. The people in the pews, I think, are ready for learning that their priests and bishops may be gay. What lay people respect more than anything from their priests is honesty.
What can you do to let your priests know that you would support them if they “came out” as gay? How can Catholics support their gay priests? Leave your ideas in the “Comments” section of this post.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry